As feverish international efforts are underway to halt the spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon has upped the ante by abducting two and killing eight Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the raid as an “act of war” – raising the ominous specter of a 2006 Middle East War. This clash has the potential to reach as far as Tehran – the financial and logistical backers of Hezbollah – and most certainly Syria, who promptly announced that Israel “deserved the attack.”
Calls for restraint from the United Nations and the European Union, urging Israel to recognize that military escalation will ultimately undermine its national interests, will predictably fall on deaf ears. And the intensification of the conflict will be all the more inexorable because of the conspicuous absence of an indispensable player in the region, the traditional guarantor of stability and essential intermediary for peace: the United States.
That fact that America has opted to watch this clash from the sidelines, rather than launching an effort to quell or avert it, represents a pronounced and deliberate change in policy, and an extraordinary transformation – and miniaturization – of America’s role in the Middle East. Through three decades of Republican and Democratic administrations, Washington has played a vital role in tempering the military response that Israel so often employs when besieged. The United States and Israel have always operated within the “good cop – bad cop” paradigm, with America’s role as “good cop” allowing it to maintain its status as an ‘honest broker’ for peace in the region. By tacitly approving Tel Aviv’s disproportionate response, Washington is unveiling a new paradigm -- “bad cop – worse cop”—and in doing so, compromising its role as fair interlocutor.
From the very first meeting of his National Security Council six years ago, President George W. Bush made it clear that he wanted the U.S. to reverse 35 years of consistent engagement, dating back to President Richard Nixon, by trying to manage the Israeli/Arab conflict. “I don't see much we can do over there at this point,” he announced. When Colin Powell expressed grave concerns over the implications of the disengagement Mr. Bush envisioned, the President replied: ''Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things."
Are things clear now?
While the U.S. steps back to let a new wave of violence “clarify things,” Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey have taken the lead as “honest brokers” in trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the current confrontation. But America is at risk from Presidential indifference. Even before Sept. 11, 2001, and particularly after, the fates of the United States and the Middle East are irrevocably intertwined. In an uncanny twist, the very act of sitting out this round and letting the conflict happen has ended up fueling the view in the Arab and Jewish worlds that some blame for the violence should be laid at Washington’s door. According to the Forward, a Jewish weekly paper, the White House “appears to have dropped any objections to Israeli efforts to topple the Palestinian Authority’s democratically elected Hamas government.”
The Israeli press is abuzz with theories that this cataclysm was all part of some larger plan, and that Mr. Olmert is using the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted on the Gazan border almost three weeks ago, as a pretext for toppling the Hamas government. In fact, in the days and months leading up to Cpl. Shalit’s capture, Israel began arresting and targeting Hamas ministers in Gaza. In rhetoric similar to that invoked to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Mr. Olmert announced his intention to, “fight Hamas here and abroad.” “Abroad” refers of course to Syria, where two Israeli fighter jets buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, apparently to send a warning that the Syrians are next.
Let us not mistake American disengagement for neutrality: all of the signs point to a U.S. administration that appears to be in full support of the Israeli agenda to topple Hamas. American support for Israel is natural and necessary. But what Washington has failed to consider is the possibility that Hamas could grow stronger and gain more popular support.
In fact the latest polling data from the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center show that if Palestinians were voting today, Hamas would fare even better than it did in January. The poll also indicates that the vast majority of Palestinians supported the operation to abduct Cpl. Shalit. Israeli’s conclude from these numbers that, as the government tells them,”there is no partner for peace.”
In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, took aim at the Bush administration’s “sabotage” of democracy promotion in the Middle East – at least for Palestinians. “The current Gaza invasion is only the latest effort to destroy the results of fair and free elections held early this year … the stated intention of that strategy was to force the average Palestinian to ‘reconsider’ her vote when faced with deepening hardship; its failure was predictable, and the new overt military aggression and collective punishment are its logical fulfillment.” Palestinians, he noted, “thought our pride in conducting the fairest elections in the Arab world might resonate with the United States and its citizens” – but thought wrong. The Arab world cannot avoid seeing the irony for Mr. Bush’s policy for democracy promotion in the Middle East.
Before the United States embraces a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank, or worse yet tolerate a full scale war between Israel and its neighbors in hopes that force can "clarify things," Americans should consider whether this might strengthen the extremists and their links to Iran and even Al Qaeda. The New York Times reports that one of the groups that claim responsibility for the abduction of Cpl. Shalit is The Army of Islam, which researchers in Jordan have distinguished as the “first time a Palestinian group has adopted the agenda of Al Qaeda."
The major missing piece to this conundrum is leadership from President Bush. Mr. Bush insists that he’d rather be right than popular. But it isn’t about who’s right, it’s about what’s right. What’s right, and what is in the national security interest of America, is to re-engage in halting this conflict. It is not democracy promotion that will bring stability and peace to the region– Hamas was democratically elected and Hezbollah holds democratically elected seats in the Lebanese parliament – it is sustained U.S. engagement as a catalyst for peace.
It is no coincidence that not one act of violence among the parties concerned has occurred since President Jimmy Carter brokered the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and President Bill Clinton brokered the peace agreement with Jordan.
Instead of making excuses for not negotiating, it is now time for U.S.-led negotiations to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. With the U.S. AWOL the situation will continue to deteriorate and the hopes for a negotiated peace will once again be left for future generations to attempt.
Michael Shtender-Auerbach writes on foreign policy for The Century Foundation and is Press Director for the Security and Peace Initiative, a joint venture with the Center for American Progress. Michael has just returned from a three week trip to Israel and Jordan. He writes extensively on foreign policy – for recent articles and bio please click here.