This week's question | 2006-10-24

Will it be War or Peace in the Middle East?

As any old Middle Eastern hand will stress, predicting the turn of events in the Middle East ?especially the probabilities of peace and war- is fraught with the risk of embarrassment. Hardly any political or strategic pundit can escape the syndrome of having one?s ?expertise? found wanting when it comes to anticipating developments in that most volatile of global hotspots. So I will have to tread carefully in responding to the current discussion topic and approach the issue from a slightly different angle, by somewhat altering the question. It is more sensible-and safer- to query whether we are today closer to war or to peace in the light of the events of the last three or four months. I would venture to conclude that we are-sadly and tragically-nearer to war. The reasons are all too evident:

1) Weak governments are most prone to reach out to ?export? their difficulties by resorting to war. In Israel the Kadima-led government has been grievously weakened by the failure of its war against Lebanon. The ensuing debate within Israel and the saber-rattling signals directed especially against Syria and Iran are generating a ?war psychosis?. Ehud Olmert seems to be leaning heavily towards the ?war party? (despite dissenting voices within his own cabinet) and his insistence on bringing Avidor Lieberman the far-right ultra-nationalist into his government is further indication of the rise of hawks eager to avenge the humiliation of Lebanon. The same trigger-happy attitude is being amply manifested in the Palestinian territories where a mini-war is being waged and escalated on a daily basis. The resultant pressure on Palestinian militants to hit back is becoming insurmountable and the mood of frustration and anger is reaching boiling point. Taking into consideration the bubbling confrontation within the ranks of the Palestinian leadership and the factional tensions pitting Hamas against Fatah, added to the impact of an international economic stranglehood being imposed on the Palestinian population, and the makings are there of an eruption that could shelve for years the prospect of settling the core issue at the heart of the conflict in the Middle East.

2) Another much-weakened government is that of the United States, the power upon whom, traditionally, rests the responsibility for brokering a Middle Eastern settlement. As it struggles with its collapsing strategy in Iraq, Washington seems to have neither the will nor the energy to apply itself seriously to the task of reviving the moribund peace process apart from paying lip service to the Road Map and to the ?objective? of a two-state solution. Exercising any real clout especially in the direction of halting Israel?s lurch into further military adventures is beyond the capability of what appears to have become a lame duck administration. Even more perversely, the Bush Administration is actively discouraging Israel from responding to statements from Syria that Damascus is prepared to re-engage in peace negotiations with Israel ?making a mockery of the avowed international responsibility of America as foremost Superpower and ?custodian? of global peace and security.

3) On the Arab side it also has to be said that positions have hardened since the July-August war in Lebanon. The fact that Hizbullah, with the limited forces at its disposal, was able to inflict such heavy losses on the Israeli army, and to emerge victorious from a campaign that Israel-backed by America- intended to result in the obliteration of the armed group, has resulted in the prestige of the Lebanese Resistance soaring sky-high across all the Arab World. Lessons are being digested and the long-abandoned belief in the viability of confronting Israel militarily is being resurrected after many years of submission to the ?inevitability? of Israel?s military supremacy. The long-term strategic implications of this psychological sea change, which will affect both the governments and the governed of the region, are sure to be profound. War may not necessarily be looming. But the odds in its favour must be considered as having shortened . Ghayth N Armanazi