The Root-Cause War

Palestinians may be the big winners of the Lebanon conflict.

Palestinian boys in Gaza City

It’s an amazing figure: Almost 15,000 shells were fired by the Israeli armed forces in the last six weeks. Not on Lebanon, but in the Gaza strip. The number of Palestinians killed in that period is close to 300. No wonder Palestinian leaders are screaming for a halt to the “aggression” and feeling forgotten by the world as the war in Lebanon keeps moving from one “worst attack thus far” to yet another even worse assault.

But the Palestinians will have one thing to celebrate as the Lebanon war nears its final act of violence. On the diplomatic front, they might be the winners of this war, or, at least, the main beneficiary. And this achievement, more than many others, reflects Israel’s failure to win the propaganda battle with its enemies.

This was very clear last week when Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Speaking mainly about the war in Iraq, he was also asked about Lebanon, the unavoidable question of the day. What he had to say should serve as a wake-up call for all those trying to persuade the world that the eruption of violence in the Middle East reflects the final, most reliable proof that the conventional strategic pyramid of the past—the notion that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to solving other problems of the greater Middle East—is no longer relevant.

“We must find a comprehensive solution to the corrosive Arab-Israeli conflict,” Abizaid said. That is, until we solve that problem, no real progress can be achieved in the region.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is generally supportive of the Israeli effort in the north, expressed similar sentiments in his speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles last week.

Blair began with an apology: “I know it can be very irritating for Israel to be told that this issue is of cardinal importance,” he declared. But then he made his key point:

I want, what we all now acknowledge we need: a two-state solution. … Its significance for the broader issue of the Middle East … is this. The real impact of a settlement is more than correcting the plight of the Palestinians. It is that such a settlement would be the living, tangible, visible proof that the region and therefore the world can accommodate different faiths and cultures. … It is, in other words, the total and complete rejection of the case of Reactionary Islam. It destroys not just their most effective rallying call, it fatally undermines their basic ideology.

This is exactly the opposite of the conclusion Israel wanted. A couple of days ago, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute wrote that Israel discovered in recent years that “[e]nding occupation … has not brought Israel greater security from either of these rejectionist groups.” Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his speech to the Knesset explaining the rationale for war, said, “The campaign we are engaged in these days is against the terror organizations operating from Lebanon and Gaza. These organizations are nothing but ‘sub-contractors’… of the terror-sponsoring and peace-rejecting regimes.”

In other words, Israel believed that the war in the north would show the world that occupation is not what’s destabilizing the region; rather, it is the regimes in Damascus and Tehran and the terrorists operating on their behalf. These regimes are fighting Israel to eliminate it—not to reach a two-state solution. And if that is the case, it is these regimes the international community should be tackling first, not the Palestinian problem.

“The assumption prevailed [among U.S. administrations] that resolving this dispute would solve other problems faced by the U.S. in the area,” wrote professor Steven Spiegel in his authoritative book about America’s Middle East policy. This was true starting with Eisenhower and through the final act of the Clinton administration at Camp David, but it ended in the first years of the Bush administration. On the eve of the war in Iraq, the current administration seemed to think that solving the problems of the greater Middle East would lead to the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But now, yet again, many believe it’s time to go back to the old formula—and, it must be said, the failed formula—of “the Arab-Israeli conflict first.” The war accelerated the tendency to revert to this old habit—maybe out of conviction, but mainly out of frustration. Lacking a satisfying solution to the more difficult problems of the region, the world turned—at least in rhetoric—to the approach it has tried many times in the past: Solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an improved Middle-East will emerge.