Opinion / Commentary

Bumpy road ahead for Middle East peace
By Tao Wenzhao (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-08-02 06:21

More than half a month has passed since Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, prompting the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. More than 600 Lebanese civilians have been killed and 800,000 have become refugees. Dozens of Israelis have also died.

The international community is making appeals for a ceasefire, only for them to be stonewalled by the United States.

In the meantime, the United States has rushed smart bombs and other military supplies to Israel, which, consequently, is free to act in the knowledge that its aircraft, missiles, fuel and technology supplies are limitless, despite the large levels of consumption the war demands.

Both US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have said that the Israel-Lebanon situation should not simply return to the status quo, branding this a "false peace."

They have insisted that the matter be resolved in a way that is enduring. This actually means giving Israel a free hand to get at Hezbollah.

Rice's Middle East tour, in such scenario, was but a show put up under pressure from the international community. At the Rome conference, convened in an effort to resolve the conflict, the United States tried to block moves to an immediate ceasefire. The meeting, therefore, ended without any substantial agreement having been reached.

Minor provocative acts are commonplace between Israel and Hezbollah and between Israel and Palestinian guerrillas. Today, one party abducts one or two persons from the other. Tomorrow, the latter bombs to death one or two people of the former.

But things are different this time. Israel launched major operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip because the latter took one of its soldiers hostage. Then came Israel's massive campaign in Lebanon after two Israeli soldiers were abducted by Hezbollah. The United States' backing is indispensable to both these Israeli manoeuvres.

Why is the United States reluctant to see an immediate ceasefire? A number of factors explain its motivation.

To begin with, Hezbollah, like Hamas, is listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States so Israel is seen to be helping the War on Terror. This is why both the US Senate and House of Representatives passed a resolution to support Israel, and why the Bush administration throws its backing behind Israel.

In addition, pro-Western and anti-Western political forces exist side by side in Lebanon. The current Lebanese Government leans towards the West, supporting international investigations into the Hariri assassination last year and accommodating efforts to end Syria's presence in Lebanon. Hezbollah, however, is considered an anti-Western sect, born out of the battles against Israel that have been fought since the early 1980s. A fragile balance has been struck between these two forces. So, weakening Hezbollah is an equivalent to strengthening pro-Western elements in Lebanon, in the eyes of Washington, and, in turn, will tip Lebanon's political balance in favour of the West.

Finally, Hezbollah was allegedly founded with the help of Syria and Iran and has long counted on support from the two countries. The United States accuses Syria and Iran of supporting terrorism largely because they lend their backing to Hezbollah. So, striking Hezbollah means weakening those two nation states, to a certain extent. Though it is Israel and Hezbollah locked in the fighting, the United States can be seen wrestling with Iran and Syria beneath the surface.

On her visit to Jerusalem on July 25, Rice made it clear that the United States was not eager to see an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. Instead, Rice suggested that conditions for a ceasefire be first created and that the status quo in the area be altered before a cease-fire can be put in place. This would mark the beginning of a new Middle East, according to her.

Judging from all this, the United States indeed has a long-term formula for the Middle East. But could Israel's strikes against Hezbollah bring about a new Middle East? There are profound doubts about that.

Even before the Iraq War, the United States had already made its plan for a "new Middle East." Washington held that terrorist acts were launched by religious fanatics. Washington hence prescribed: The lack of democracy and freedom in the Islamic world provides a fertile breeding ground for religious extremism. It follows that rooting out terrorism requires the spread of Western-fashioned democracy and freedom in the Islamic world.

If Iraq became a successful and inspiring model of democracy in the region, Washington hoped, a brand new Middle East would be near at hand.

Iraq today, however, is riddled with sectarian strife and terror attacks. Moreover, radical or even extremist Islamic sections have emerged winners from a string of elections ranging from Egypt to Iran and Palestine, contrary to the expectations of US decision-makers.

To where will the current conflict in Lebanon lead?

Hezbollah, though having only 5,000 members, counts on fairly strong support in Lebanon as a political-military group and it seems impossible to wipe it out. The best Israel can do is to weaken it. Furthermore, Syria and Iran will not watch Israel liquidate Hezbollah and sit idle.

Hezbollah will certainly rebound even after sustaining devastating blows from Israel. The United State's idea of deploying multi-national forces along the Israel-Lebanon border would, at best, merely separate Israel and Hezbollah. Is this the beginning of a brand new Middle East?

The Middle East's history over the last six decades is marked by war, suffering and humanitarian disaster. The peace process has gone through many turns and twists. People only see a bumpy road but no light at the end of the tunnel, excepting the reconciliation between Egypt and Israel in 1978. This painful journey, however, offers some food for thought.

First, "live and let live" should be a vitally important principle in addressing Middle East issues, especially the Israel-Palestine question.

The peace process made great headway in the 1990s because this principle was brought to play. "Land for peace," therefore, still remains the crux of settling the issue today.

Second, the reality of the Middle East must be taken into account in working out a solution and no unilateral requests should be forced on others.

After the end of the Iraq War in 2003, the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia worked out a roadmap for the Middle East. But not long before, the United States, refused to have dealings with Yasser Arafat, claiming he was a terrorist, and tried to elbow him out from the game.

When Mahmoud Abbas became the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Washington became willing to co-operate with him, only to see Hamas come to power by winning elections. Again, the United States refused to have any contact with Hamas.

Rice, on her latest Middle East visit, met only with Israeli and Lebanese Government leaders, ignoring the Palestinians and completely shunning Hezbollah. This practice of choosing dialogue partners and taking no heed of the Middle East's reality does not facilitate resolution of the problems.

Third, it should be remembered that the region is divided between the major Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim sects. The current sectarian conflicts in Iraq are a representation of the tensions between the two sects in the Middle East at large. This stark reality must be taken into account in any attempt to resolve the issues. The delicate balance between the Sunnis and Shi'ites should never be broken. Otherwise, this already difficult situation will become all the harder to resolve.

The author is a research fellow from the Institute for America Studies affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 08/02/2006 page4)