Israeli moves toward all out war in Gaza and Lebanon seem linked to wider dangers of a regional war with severe global consequences. By interpreting these wider dangers it is not meant to minimize the human suffering and regressive political effects of current carnage in these two long tormented war zones. Looking at this bigger picture is crucial for its own sake, but also helps us understand the immediate crises more fully than if as officially presented by Israel, and unfortunately echoed by many governments around the world.
Whatever else, this outbreak of major two-front violence is not about Israel’s right to defend it against an enemy that is seriously threatening its territorial integrity or political independence, the only grounds for justifiable war. To treat border incidents, involving a few casualties from rockets and the abduction of a single Israeli soldier by a Gazan militia and two by Hezbollah in south Lebanon, as if it were an occasion of war is a gross distortion of well-accepted international law and state practice. To justify legally a claim of self-defense requires a full-scale armed attack across Israeli borders. If every violent border incident or terrorist provocation were to be so regarded as an act of war, the world would be aflame. If India had responded to the recent Mumbai train explosions that killed some 200 Indian civilians as a Pakistani act of war, the result would have been a devastating regional war, quite possibly fought with nuclear weapons. There are many other flashpoints around the world that might justify police methods in reaction to provocations, and in extreme instances, specific military responses across borders. If such occasions were viewed as acts of war the consistent result would be catastrophe. Recent Hamas/Hezbollah provocations, even if interpreted through a self-serving Israeli lens, were not of a scale or threat that warranted large-scale military actions that are directed at a wide array of targets unrelated to the specific incidents and causing severe damage to civilians and the entire civilian infrastructure of society (water, electricity, roads, bridges).
The exaggerated Israeli response, together with circumstantial evidence, suggests that Israel used the Hamas/Hezbollah incidents as pretexts to pursue a much wider and long-planned security agenda directed at Palestine and Lebanon and, beyond this, as an opportunity for a political restructuring of the entire region in partnership with the United States. In this regard, as George W. Bush’s comments at the St. Petersburg G-8 summit emphasized, the real responsibility for the anti-Israeli incidents should be associated with Syria and Iran given their support of Hamas and Hezbollah. It does require a deep reading of international relations to recall that both right wing Israeli opinion and the neoconservative worldview that has dominated American foreign policy during the Bush presidency advances a vision of world order based upon a comprehensive political restructuring of the Middle East, starting with “regime change” in Iraq.
What Israel is undertaking is a change of tactics with respect to the pursuit of this regional vision. The initial plan seems to have been based on a decisive military and political victory in Iraq followed by an essentially diplomatic campaign to exert major pressure on other problematic governments in the region, relying on The Greater Middle East Project of “democratization” to do the heavy lifting without further military action. Instead, what has occurred has been failure and frustration in Iraq, which has turned into an American quagmire, but more seriously, a consistent set of electoral outcomes throughout the region that have discredited a political approach to the regional vision embraced by Washington and Tel Aviv with the goal of achieving compliant Arab governments that are passive with respect to Palestinian aspirations and accepting of American hegemony. These geopolitical disappointments began to be revealed in the Iraqi sequence of elections, which even under conditions of the American occupation and a hostile resistance, produced clear victories for Islamic political forces and stinging repudiations of the sort of compliant secularists that Washington backed. Similar outcomes, with less dramatic results, were evident in elections held in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which together with the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as President of Iran, apparently sent a clear message that the more democratic the political process, the more likely it was to produce an anti-American, anti-Israeli leadership. The Hamas victory in the January elections in the Palestinian Territories culminated this disillusionment with the democratic path to security, as envisioned by Israel and the United States, for the region.
But rather than abandon geopolitical ambitions, it appears from recent developments that Israel is testing the waters for all out regional war, either with covert encouragement from the US Government, or at the very least, a green light from Washington to ignite a bonfire. Of course, there are other factors at work. The Israeli leadership, especially its military commanders, never accepted being pushed out of southern Lebanon by Hezbollah, and the politicians appear to hold the Palestinian people responsible for the election of a “terrorist” leadership and, thus, deserving of punishment. Furthermore, the anti-Syrian Lebanese response to the assassination of Hariri on February 14, 2005 was hoped to result in a more robust Lebanese political leadership that would effectively disarm Hezbollah and, thereby, enhance Israeli security. When this did not happen, but rather Hezbollah acquired more potent weaponry, as well as a place in the Lebanese cabinet, it was obvious that the soft Israeli option had failed. Even such a prominent mainstream supporter of Israel as Shlomo Aveneri observes that the real objective of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon is to install a Quisling government in Beirut, which was after all the main objective of the 1982 Sharon-led invasion of the country.
In relation to the Palestinian conflict, Israel has set for itself a unilateralist course ever since the collapse of the Camp David process in 2000. The Sharon approach, based on Gaza disengagement, the illegal security wall, and the annexation of substantial Palestinian territories to incorporate the main Israeli settlements was always based on moving toward a “solution” without the agreement of the Palestinian leadership. But to move in such a direction in a politically palatable manner required the absence of a Palestinian negotiating partner. First, Arafat was humiliated by direct military attacks on his headquarters and confined as to virtual house arrest; then Abbas was marginalized as too weak to carry weight; and now Hamas has been repudiated as unfit to govern the Palestinians or represent their interests. Against this background, Sharon/Olmert unilateralism appears to be the only option, a worrisome conclusion as it is sure to keep the conflict at boiling point for the indefinite future.
A further factor is the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program. Here again Israel and the United States are at the forefront of an insistence that Iran not pursue its legal right to possess a complete nuclear fuel cycle under its sovereign control, although subject to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that enriched uranium and plutonium are not diverted for military purposes. Whether this unfolding crisis, abetted by the inflammatory language of Ahmedinejad, is part of a deliberate strategy of regional tension devised by Washington and Tel Aviv cannot be determined at this point. What is clear is the selective enforcement of the nonproliferation regime. Several parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Germany, Japan) have complete nuclear fuel cycles under national control; India is being assisted in developing its nuclear technology despite its nuclear weapons program and refusal to become a party to the treaty; Israel itself disallows a nuclear weapons option to other states in the region while maintaining and developing its own arsenal of these weapons; and, of course, the United States throws its nuclear weight around, including developing new categories of nuclear weapons (“bunker-busters” and “mini-nukes”) that are apparently being integrated into battle plans for possible future use.
This adds up to a confusing picture, but with clear threats of a regional war spiraling out of the present situation, given the Israeli/American vision of security, and the degree to which the control of this region is vital for the energy future of the world as well as decisive in the struggle to withstand the challenge of political Islam.
There are some factors that are working against such a dismal future: the political/military failure in Iraq, the devastating economic effects of engaging Iran in a war, the rising oil prices, and the opposition of European and Arab countries. But can we be reassured at this point? I think not. Israel tends to view its security ambitions in unconditional terms that are oblivious to wider detrimental consequences. The United States leadership remains wedded to its grand strategy of regional restructuring, and is not encountering political opposition at home or even media criticism as a result of either its support of the Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon or of its efforts to widen the arc of conflict by pulling Syria and Iran into the fray. I fear that what we are witnessing is an extremely risky set of moves to shift the joint Israeli/American regional game plan in an overtly military direction. It always had a military centerpiece associated with the Iraq War, but the basic strategy was based on an easy show of force against a weakened Iraq followed by falling political dominoes elsewhere in the Middle East. Neither the UN, world public opinion, nor regional opposition seem likely to halt this slide toward regional war. We can only hope that prudence somehow remains a restraining force, at least in Washington.
In concluding, it is obvious that there are wider implications for other countries in the region, especially those faced with ethnic conflict and transnational armed struggle. As tempting as it might be to follow Israel’s lead, the prudent course, especially in light of these dangers of regional war, is to be extremely cautious about undertaking cross-border military operations. The Israeli policies have already backfired to a significant extent, strengthening the political stature of Hezbollah with Lebanon and causing Lebanese public opinion to unite around criticism of Israel’s behavior.
Richard Falk is the Board Chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and professor emeritus of Princeton University.