Danger Ahead in The Middle East 16.8.2006

Danger Ahead in the Middle East

Today, Singapore, 16/08/2006

 We can say with much certainty that while both sides in the second Lebanon war were surprised by the developments at different stages of the fighting, Hezbollah was definitely better prepared throughout this campaign than Israel. A combination of complacency, underestimation of the enemy and a conscious emphasis of certain priorities in defense procurement (particularly airpower) proved to weigh heavily on Israel’s conduct of the war and gave rise to the considerable criticism of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as it has become public in the recent days. The de-facto demotion of the commander of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam in the middle of fighting and the pervasive criticism of the Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz which is now engaging the Israeli media, further highlight the military failings which became obvious to all when Hezbollah’s missiles continued to rain down on Israel until the very last day of fighting. And herein lies the greatest danger when reviewing this conflict critically, which Israel undoubtedly will do in the weeks and months to come and has already starting to do: It would be the worst of possible outcomes if conclusions drawn from this failure were to be limited to the military and defense realm only. The real failure was political and one should hope that no amount of discussion about the different aspects of the IDF’s demonstrated abilities and lack thereof will drown out this basic truth. Israel’s political leadership, once again, has ignored one of the basic tenets of statesmanship: A vacuum of any kind will quickly be filled.

 Israel, relying on what it perceived to be overwhelming military superiority and enjoying a recent economic recovery, made no special effort to keep the diplomatic flame burning (or rekindle it), neither vis-à-vis the Palestinians, nor Syria or Lebanon. The latter nation’s resistance to adhere to UN resolution 1559 of the year 2000 caused no noteworthy Israeli diplomatic activity for six long years despite the dangerous implications of this noncompliance with stability inducing measures that included the removal of Hezbollah forces from South Lebanon.

 In 1973, six years of diplomatic lethargy in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War caused the Yom-Kippur War with Egypt and Syria, a major upheaval which rocked the Middle-East (and via the oil crisis, the whole world) and forced Israel into a diplomatic process culminating in the peace with Egypt. Six years of diplomatic idleness have now caused another turmoil, not quite of the same magnitude but possibly with potentially similar implications.

 Syria’s President Bashar Assad has already picked up on the change in atmosphere and last Tuesday, while lauding Hezbollah’s military achievements, declared that peace is  Syria’s strategic choice but not the only choice. He implied in a hardly veiled threat that not only Hezbollah can resort to other means of action to pursue political aims, in Syria’s case the recovery of the Golan heights occupied by Israel since 1967. While his words were jarring enough for Germany’s Foreign Minister to cancel his visit to Damascus, they are certainly to the point and the main reason they were denounced in the West is because they came from a member of the axis of evil.  It does not bode well that Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert, as so often (too) quick on the draw, has already rejected negotiations with Syria because of that very reason. Two senior members of his cabinet, FM Livni and Minister of Defense Peretz have not joined Olmert in his unequivocal rejection and clearly gave notice that they see opportunity for diplomatic progress in the aftermath of this war.

 Unfortunately, Israel is in a legislative bind – having (long ago) formally annexed the (Syrian) Golan heights which include the Shaba farms territory claimed now by Lebanon (and Hezbollah), Olmert’s government first has to muster a parliamentary majority to change the law and make it possible to negotiate over these territories. This is probably not what Ehud Olmert has in mind and appears to be way beyond his faltering political clout even if it were.

For this reason there is considerable potential that Israel, mainly because of Olmert’s weakness, will not be politically agile enough to embark on a serious diplomatic effort to prevent the troubles lying ahead.

 The international community, in particular the US but also Europe must vigorously press for a diplomatic process in the Middle East, put it on track and ensure it won’t stall. We all know too well what happens when it does.

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