Out of the rubble

After the fighting, Israel's Palestinian strategy should be to work with moderates to create a breakthrough.

Lebanon soldiers 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Lebanon soldiers 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
As the violence in the Middle East escalates, it is hard not to conclude that every player involved has badly miscalculated. This conflict will not end by a restoration of the status quo. Israel will refuse to allow a replay of the past two weeks. This means that there must be a dramatic change in both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories that satisfies Israel's security concerns and sends Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table in a permanently calm atmosphere. By openly supporting the abduction and killing of an IDF soldier and thereby siding with Hamas's military wing, perhaps against his own wishes, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has betrayed not only his own instincts but the Palestinian people who supported him. Recent events have revealed how weak he is and how little he is able to defuse the conflict. While squandering many opportunities to show some moderation, it is impossible to believe he imagined he could challenge Israel and emerge unscathed. This miscalculation has been one of too many that sooner or later, hopefully without too much bloodshed, will lead to a dramatic change in Palestinian internal politics. Hizbullah has fared even worse than the Palestinians by badly miscalculating the Israeli reaction and counting on the support of Iran and Syria as well as the support of the Arab masses and governments to save the day. Knowing Israel's sensitivity to international pressure, Hizbullah's leader Hassan Nasrallah must have assumed that the Israeli retaliation would be proportionate, as the European community shamefully has in fact demanded. But why would Israel allow a terrorist organization to regroup and rearm in a month or two so it could rain down more destruction on Israeli towns? Seduced by his own rhetoric about how powerful and mighty Hizbullah is and eager to show solidarity with Hamas, Nasrallah overplayed his hand and now he is likely to pay a crippling price for his grandiosity. Hizbullah certainly would not have attacked Israel without the acquiescence, if not the outright support, of Iran and Syria. Each of these countries had its own agenda. Syria wants to demonstrate that it is a regional player and it cannot be marginalized, while for Iran it was just another way to thwart US and EU pressure to stop its nuclear program while forcing Israel to fight on two fronts. Supported, equipped and financed by Iran and provided logistical help and political backing by Syria, Hizbullah was up for the job. But Syria and Iran underestimated the Israeli response. Somehow they were blinded to the fact that Hizbullah had crossed the line by attacking urban areas inside Israel. To the Israelis this was categorically unacceptable. The situation thus quickly morphed into a war that Israel will not lose and cannot afford to leave unfinished. Hizbullah, from the Israeli perspective, must now be dismantled. For Syria and Iran, there is another loss looming: when the dust is settled, their influence in Lebanon will be dramatically diminished. ISRAEL TOO has its share of miscalculations. It ignored how important it was to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Palestinians and enable them to emotionally and intellectually separate themselves from radical Islamists. Rather than adopting a strategy that while inflicting crippling punishment on the radicals rewarded ordinary Palestinians, Israel generally resorted to tit-for-tat and collective punishment that tightened the alliance between ordinary Palestinians and the radicals. Moreover, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert initially showed tremendous restraint in dealing with the continuing barrages of Kassam attacks and that sent the wrong signal to militant Palestinians. And while Israel knew all along that Hizbullah was arming itself to the teeth with an assortment of Iranian-made rockets it did very little to bring pressure to bear on Lebanon via US intervention, especially since there is a UN resolution calling for Hizbullah's disarmament. And what of Lebanon's miscalculations? Being weak and unable to confront Hizbullah is no excuse for the government's failure to assert control over its own territory. By trying to co-opt Hizbullah politically, but allowing it free rein in the South and thus establishing a de-facto state within a state, the Lebanese have painted themselves into a corner. Unable to disarm Hizbullah, Lebanon chose to hide behind its so-called democracy as if that would provide it automatic immunity from the transgressions of its government coalition partners. Lebanon's condemnation of Israel without at the same time even criticizing Hizbullah for its unprovoked attack makes it complicit to an act of war, for which it has directly reaped the consequences. AS FOR the Bush administration, obsessed with the promotion of democracy in the region, albeit in name only, and bogged down in a bloody war in Iraq, it essentially left the Israelis and Palestinians to their own devices. With no permanent presidential envoy having the authority to nudge the parties closer, there was nothing in place to stop the conflict from escalating. Moreover, satisfied with a weak and fragmented government in Lebanon, Washington acquiesced to Hizbullah becoming a legitimate partner in the Lebanese government. What has made matters worse is that while Syria and Iran enjoy the only direct influence on Hizbullah and freely meddle in Lebanese internal affairs, Washington has no relations with Iran and limited - mostly acrimonious - contact with Syria. In this sea of miscalculations, it would be easy to ignore the Saudi Arabian response and its significance. But Riyadh's strongly worded, unambiguous condemnation of Hizbullah's brazen attack suggests the outrage felt by many Arab states. They realize how ominous it can be for their own economic security and political stability to allow renegade groups to usurp the Arab agenda and drag them into a potentially devastating conflict. Most of these states will shed few tears on seeing Hizbullah and Hamas clobbered and permanently marginalized in Arab politics. What is to be done? Strategically, Israel must focus on Lebanon, knowing that how the confrontation with Hizbullah ends will have serious repercussions on the Palestinian front. Israelis have no choice but to finish off Hizbullah by destroying its infrastructure and arsenals. Fearing Israel's long and punishing military arm, neither Syria nor Iran will dare to come to the group's aid. Israel is not likely to stop short of putting an end to Hizbullah as it is constituted, thereby enabling a Lebanese government to be in control of its southern borders to establish permanent calm. This outcome will send an unmistakable message to Hamas that it must immediately decide between continuing to exist and vanishing from the political scene. Israel, too, must rethink its long-term Palestinian strategy and, with the support of the United States, work with Palestinian moderates to create a breakthrough out of the rubble of this dreadful breakdown. The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute in New York.www.alonben-meir.com