There was something very familiar in Israel’s recent conflict with Hezbollah. We’d seen the rocket launches, the civilian deaths, and the exchange of threats and demands before, when Israel occupied parts of Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. But there was also a feeling that something new was at stake—that the conflict signaled that a new and more dangerous era in the region had begun.
In the Middle East, the mere threat of turmoil can spook global energy markets. Concern that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program will escalate—a cut in Iranian oil supply, Iranian threats to block tanker traffic through the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, a U.S. or Israeli military strike—have already helped push global markets down, gold up, and oil prices toward $80 per barrel. None of these threats has yet materialized, though all three are growing.
Some argue that the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel was just one more example of the seemingly endless back and forth between Israel and its most hostile neighbors. Lebanon and Israel are not oil exporters, and Arab states were relatively restrained in their reaction. But fury over the bloodshed in Lebanon is now intimately linked with the broader struggle for dominance in the region. In particular, it exacerbated the already growing tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Several factors delayed outside efforts to end the violence—and will limit the international community’s ability to ensure it doesn’t begin anew. First, Washington’s role in Israel’s relations with its neighbors isn’t what it used to be. The Bush administration has devoted what’s left of its international political capital to helping build a stable Iraq, thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, responding to threats from North Korea, and managing increasingly complex relations with China and Russia. Little time and energy were left for the sort of shuttle diplomacy these bursts of Middle Eastern hostility have historically demanded. Without strong U.S. leadership, the other members of the so-called Quartet on the Middle East (the European Union, United Nations, and Russia) can do little to arbitrate future regional disputes.
Second, there is an alternative quartet. Its members fueled the conflict in hopes of undermining Israeli stability and U.S. influence in the region. Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Iraq share an interest in shifting the balance of power in the Middle East, winning new friends in the Muslim world, and building their domestic bases of support.
Hezbollah’s decision to enter Israeli territory, kill eight soldiers, and kidnap two more is explained in part by the organization’s rivalry with the Palestinian group Hamas. The sometime-allies compete for leadership in the long-term conflict with Israel. Sunni Hamas is increasingly divided. Those members elected to the Palestinian parliament are struggling to govern, while Hamas militants based in Damascus insist that only armed resistance can compel Israel to accept Palestinian demands. With a green light from Tehran, Shiite Hezbollah may well have sensed an opportunity to seize the initiative, provoke Israeli reaction, and win itself new supporters within Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.
Iran, meanwhile, intends to become the dominant player in the region, and its nuclear program is one important element of this strategy. By provoking military action from Israel, Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics created new opportunities to advance the argument that Israel’s regional monopoly on nuclear weapons allows it to attack Muslims with impunity. Tehran’s well-established ties with Hezbollah offer a useful proxy with which to destabilize Israel and promote its own role as defender of Muslim values against U.S. and Israeli power.
Syria, another Hezbollah sponsor, needs to maintain what’s left of its foothold in Lebanon and to leverage its friendship with Iran to escape international isolation. Iran has the resources to supply Hezbollah with weapons. Syria has the means to deliver them. All three recognize that fierce resistance to Israel rallies support from millions of Muslims.
The fourth member of this alternative quartet is radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia in Iraq. Sadr, who led two armed rebellions against U.S. forces in Iraq in 2004, wasted no time after the onset of the Israeli offensive in warning that Iraqis would not sit idly by as Israel attacked Lebanon. He also angrily condemned Washington for its support of Israel’s actions.
Other Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, joined the chorus of condemnation, but it was Sadr who got there first. And it is Sadr who has a history of leading attacks on U.S. troops. Initially excluded from the country’s political scene, he is now a rebel with a cause—self-promotion. Israel’s war with Lebanon provided him an opportunity to build support for his militia and to position himself as a champion of resistance to U.S. influence in Iraq.
That’s why the Saudis were quick to blame the current violence on Hezbollah, not Israel—and why Egypt, Jordan, and other Sunni Arab-dominated states followed suit. It’s not that they suddenly developed deep concerns for Israeli security; it’s that Hezbollah has stolen the anti-Israeli spotlight from the Palestinian Sunni Arabs of Hamas. The Arab states later sought to minimize the damage their criticism of Hezbollah had done to their domestic positions by joining the chorus of anti-Israeli rhetoric, but they are profoundly worried by the growing influence of Shiite radicalism in the region.
Across the Muslim world, Sunnis outnumber Shiites nearly 9-to-1. But Iran’s challenge to Israel’s military dominance and the birth of Iraq’s Shiite-led government are shifting the regional balance of power. That’s why Israel’s war with Hezbollah and the risks that the recent cease-fire may not hold threaten the stability of the entire Middle East—and why the region that fuels the global economy could soon become more volatile than ever.