The Opportunity We’ll Regret Missing – Europe and the Middle East

The international community is now in a position to do great good. Wars don’t only pose great dangers, they also offer new opportunities, and this one is no different. It is not only an opportunity to stabilize Lebanon, but a chance to take a great step toward ending the Israeli Palestinian conflict too. Israel withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza. It was also ready to pull out of most of the West Bank and end the occupation. This is new, and very encouraging. The international context is new too, and in this respect it is a precious moment: beyond healing this constantly bleeding wound, it is a time when untangling the Israeli-Palestinian knot can also serve larger causes: it could help consolidate the front against future violence in the so-called “clash of civilizations.” So long as the Israeli occupation continues, moderate Arab regimes, endangered from within by Islamic fundamentalism, cannot fully join hands with the West. So long as the Israeli Palestinian conflict keeps bleeding, fundamentalism can rally Arab support against “the big Satan” (the US) and the “little Satan” (Israel). The front lines of a brewing storm lie within the Middle East, and it is the vital interest of all those who seek peace to strengthen moderate Arabs against the rising tide of fanaticism. It is in this theater that violence will either be checked, or allowed to spill over. The international community now has an opportunity, and an interest, to change the whole climate of the region by bringing the Israeli Palestinian conflict to an end.

The war in Lebanon is a laboratory case of the larger problem in the region. The question is whether the Hezbollah would succeed in portraying itself as Lebanon’s protector against Israel the US, as it is trying to do, or will Lebanon remember that the opposite is true: ever since Israel retreated to its international border, Hezbollah has undermined Lebanon’s government and finally imposed a war on it. The same holds for Hamas in Gaza. The image it is building for itself as the protector of Palestinians against Israel stands in sharp contrast to the fact that its rocket fire on Israel’s south has actually managed to bring Israel back into Gaza. Hamas has also managed, or so it now seems, to stall the plan on the basis of which Israel’s new Prime Minister was elected: unilaterally moving out of most of the West Bank and ending the occupation. Now that unilateral withdrawal on two fronts has been rewarded with continuous rocket fire, it would be harder to persuade Israelis that another withdrawal, to a border a mere few miles away from Tel Aviv, would be safe. So here too the would-be champions of Palestinian interest, Hamas, are actually preventing the end of occupation.
But Lebanon is not just a laboratory case of the problem, it may also turn out to be a laboratory case of the solution. The course of this war made clear that only an international force can help stabilize the international border. Israel can fight the Hezbollah, and maybe eventually protect itself sufficiently from its rockets, but to do so alone it would have to stay inside Lebanon, which would destabilize Lebanon’s already fragile government. Israel can retreat, but then Lebanon would again be subverted by Hezbollah and Israel again attacked. Only an international force can protect both sides at once, Lebanon as well as Israel, from remaining hostages to an agenda dictated by the Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran.

If an international force is the solution in Lebanon, it may also point the way to a possible breakthrough in Gaza and the West Bank. Because here too a group of fundamentalist extremists has been doing what Hezbollah does: waging a war to prevent partition and the stabilization of borders. Hezbollah knows, as does Hamas, that stabilizing international borders, putting an end to the occupation, means giving up the dream of “wiping Israel of the map” (as Iran’s Mahmud Ahmadinjad so simply put it). This is why both saw the peace process as a disaster from the very start. This is why Hezbollah’s current leader, Hassan Nasrallah, responded to the Oslo Accord, back in the 1990s, with a call to assassinate Yassir Arafat for betraying the cause of fully liberating Palestine from Jewish presence. This is why Hamas has been continuously denouncing that “agreement of treason” for legitimizing Israel’s existence. And both are agents of the Iranian regime who denies the Holocaust even as it is explicitly calling for another holocaust: a total destruction of the Jewish community in Israel.
The extremist in Gaza and the West Bank have succeeded in imposing the same catch Hezbollah imposed in Lebanon: If Israel retreats to the international border again, the forces of peace among Palestinians are helpless to stop the radicals from shooting rockets at Israel’s towns, from sending suicide bombers, and from kidnapping soldiers and civilians. If Israel stays in Gaza to stop them, Palestine would not be able to achieve stable statehood. So here too Israel can protect itself, but it can’t protect it’s neighbor’s sovereignty, on which it is dependent for any future peaceful coexistence.
The conclusion seems to be the same then. An international peace keeping force can save both Israelis and Palestinians from remaining hostages to fanatics. This is the best interest of Israel, of Palestine, and of the party of peace worldwide. If only the international community mustered the will, a breakthrough in the peace process is now within reach, and a chance to break the grip of fundamentalism on the most sensitive levers of the Middle East close at hand.

If only the international community mustered the will. This is not a small if. Forgive me if I remain pessimistic regarding the part Europe – the indispensable party in any such solution – would be willing to play. So far, Europe is mostly content with being self-righteous rather than right. It is content to be selectively outraged, rather than soberly constructive. This is the long Cold War hangover, the result of many years when Europe could make resounding declaration with no consequences. It had become accustomed to having America take care of the real problems, and so it has learned to detach moral preaching from moral responsibility. This makes for a poor moral track record: Europeans have been selling nuclear technology to the highest bidders, protecting the darkest regimes for pure economic self-interest, refusing to step in and stop genocide, even in their own back yard (as in Kosovo), not to mention elsewhere (as in Africa). Instead they have too easily denounced America for “Imperialism” whenever America did step in to stop mass murder.
The same has been happening with regard to this recent round of Middle East violence. The free world knows a great deal depends on Israel subduing the Hezbollah. But the European press was often content to sit and call the work dirty, while Europe’s governments were encouraging Israel to do this dirty work for us all. Israel found itself in a strange position. On the one hand it was accused of using “disproportional” force, and on the other it was prodded to hurry up and deliver a final, decisive blow to Hezbollah. But it is difficult to deliver such a blow to a guerilla army deliberately shielding its weapons with innocent civilians, even when it is also deliberately targeting innocent civilians in Israel. There is no way to do the job without a terrible price. But no one doubted the job still had to be done. There were not many volunteers to do it Israel’s stead.

The absurdity reached new heights in the Rome Conference. The conference rightly rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire, because it knew what was at stake: if Hezbollah won this war, we would be on our way to Iranian domination of the Middle East, to a considerable boost to fundamentalist Islam in Europe itself, to a possible tide of fundamentalism in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Everyone agreed that an international force should step in, and that it should be competent enough to subdue Hezbollah. Yet most European countries involved insisted other countries should do the job. Germany’s stance was singularly comic: it would contribute soldiers to restrain Hezbollah, but only with Hezbollah’s consent. Had America not used its full weight within the UN Security Council and outside it, we would have been left with the French who tell us that Iran is a “stabilizing force” in the region, with Russia’s maneuvers to let Iran off the hook, with meek protest in other countries, and with all those ready to preach, but unwilling to shoulder any burden their views may entail.
If the Middle East is a barrel of dynamite, the Israeli Palestinian conflict is the fuse. The conditions for defusing it are ripe. It would be tragic, though not surprising, if Europe lets the opportunity slip away. But this time around it would not only be tragic, it would also be foolish in terms of European self-interest. This is not only about Middle Easterners caught in a cycle of destruction and death. This is the front line of a larger struggle. It is the first rainfall in a gathering global storm. Has Europe become so short-sighted, so lacking in volition, as not to be able to protect even its own future peace and prosperity?

Gadi Taub