Column for July 23, 2006

Arab Holy War meets Israeli Apocalypse

On the evening of June 3, 1967, shortly before the beginning of that Arab-Israeli war, United States Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent an “eyes-only” cable to his Arab-based ambassadors describing a situation “as complex and as dangerous as any we have faced,” and asking them “to put your minds to possible solutions which can prevent war.”

They obviously didn’t come up with a solution that worked, then or now, but Rusk, in his message, identified what seems to me to be the daunting reality that — more than secure borders, two-state solutions, suicide bombers, collective punishment, the Jerusalem question, etc. — remains the single most significant impediment to lasting peace in the region.

“The ‘Holy War’ psychology of the Arab world,” Rusk wrote,”is matched by an apocalyptic psychology within Israel.”

It’s still true today.

The radical military wings of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas do see themselves as jihadists, whose righteous mission is to destroy Israel and who therefore refuse to be deterred by either superior Israeli force or the force of world opinion even if, as Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah puts it, “the whole universe comes (against us).”

On the other side of this unbridgeable divide are the Israelis, who see themselves as equally beleaguered by a hostile, unsympathetic world, and with no choice — remember the holocaust — but to counter any and all challenges with over-powering, overwhelming force.

The problem, of course, is that such unilateral, out-of-all-proportion responses inevitably increase Israel’s isolation from all but its staunchest and most self-interested allies (like the United States, which would like nothing better than for Israel to do its dirty work in Syria and Iran). But, worse, such apocalyptic reflex reaction inevitably drives moderate Arabs who — like their Israeli counterparts — want only to be left alone to live in peace, into accepting the militants as the only legitimate deterrent to Israeli aggression.

That only incubates more violence, burying even deeper any hopes for peace.

Which brings us to the current conflict in which, as Samir Franjieh, a Christian member of Lebanon’s parliament, put it: “Hezbollah took two Israeli prisoners, and the result now is that 3.5 million Lebanese are being held hostage.”

The captured soldiers — two taken by Hezbollah in Lebanon and one by Hamas on the Gaza strip — have become beside the point, the excuse, if you like, for Israel to, once and for all, finally and forever decimate Hezbollah and Hamas. That very well may inevitably lead Israel into a direct confrontation with Iran and Syria, who arm and bankroll the militants.

The truth is that the Israelis do not really want peace — not yet, and not on any but terms they dictate. How else to explain Israel’s refusal to negotiate with “terrorists” even though the so-called terrorists are the identified enemy they are fighting, and even though one of those groups is now the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people? How else to explain, too, Israel’s insistence on holding the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority responsible for the actions of its militants and demanding they rein them in, while, at the same time, Israel is doing everything in its power to ensure that those governments don’t ever have the military might to control those militants or, more importantly, defend themselves against Israel?

Even if Israel “wins” a bomb-the-bejesus war with its Arab neighbours — and it would — that will not guarantee peace, or even security. Such a “victory,” in fact, will only encourage more Arab resistance, spawn new insurgents and spark more — and ever more uncontrollable — violence.

The situation in the Middle East today is no less complex or dangerous than it was when Dean Rusk wrote his memo 40 years ago, and we are certainly no closer to a solution “which can prevent war.”

My guess is that we won’t find that solution until we find a way to convince both the Arabs and Israelis to step back from their different but shared apocalyptic view of this conflict. And that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

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