We have a very simple choice before us in the Middle East: we can get serious about working together to give the people of this region a chance to live normal lives in peace and security; or we can all act silly in the ways of provincial chieftains, as many public figures in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Israel and the US have done in recent days.
The chances of achieving a region-wide peace in the Middle East are slim to non existent right now, because the key non-Arab players are focusing on the wrong issues. They are trying to manage or eliminate the symptoms of our region's tensions instead of addressing the root causes. Hizbullah and Iran are among the best examples of this.
Israel and the US are obsessed with disarming Hizbullah and confronting Iran. But a quarter of a century ago neither of these issues existed. How Hizbullah and Iran became so problematic is worth recalling. Until 1979 Iran under the Shah was a close ally and friend of the US and Israel, and Hizbullah was not even born. What happened in the three decades from the mid-70s to today? Many things. The most consistent one was that we all allowed the Arab-Israeli conflict to fester unresolved. Its bitterness kept seeping out from its Palestine-Israel core to corrode many other dimensions of the region.
The constant clashes between Israel and Lebanon since the late 1960s derived heavily from the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict that started with the 1948 war. Since Iran's 1979 revolution Islamist revolutionary zeal has found effective expression in its close association with Hizbullah, which Iranian revolutionary guards were instrumental in establishing and training. Tehran's assistance to Hamas today follows a similar pattern. A non-Arab power such as Iran exploits the resentment against Israel and the US throughout the Arab world to make political inroads into Arab regions. If the Arab-Israeli conflict had been resolved decades ago, Iran would not have this opportunity.
Hizbullah has many people working backwards. While the American-Israeli effort to disarm Hizbullah aims mainly to protect Israel, the fact is that Hizbullah has developed its military capability primarily in response to a need to protect Lebanon from repeated Israeli attacks in the past four decades. (Lebanese calls to disarm Hizbullah are motivated more by a desire to prevent the party from bringing more ruin from Israeli attacks, or to prevent it from taking over the country's political system and aligning it with Syria and Iran.)
The way to end Hizbullah's status as the only non-state-armed group in Lebanon is to rewind the reel, and go to the heart of the problem that caused Hizbullah to develop its formidable military capabilities in the first place. If we solve the Arab-Israeli conflict in a fair manner, according to UN resolutions, we would eliminate two critical political forces that now nourish Hizbullah's armed defiance: the Israeli threat to Lebanon, and the ability of Syria and Iran to exploit the ongoing conflict with Israel by working through Lebanon.
Iran has its own reasons, including some valid ones, for developing a full nuclear fuel cycle, though the potential atomic weapons capability that derives from this is more problematic. Iran's political meddling in Lebanon and other Arab lands is another issue. Yet it is linked umbilically to the assertion of Islamist identity, Shia empowerment, anti-western defiance and domestic challenges to autocratic Arab regimes - four dynamics that have often been associated with, and exacerbated by, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel's persistent attempts to secure its place in this region by military force have always generated a greater Arab will to fight it, now also supported by Iran. Local attempts to secure its borders - occupations, surrogate armies, cross-border attacks, separation walls, massive punishment and humiliation of civilian populations - have not worked for Israel, and only generate more determined and capable resistance, as with Hizbullah. Israel will also fail in its desire to subcontract its security to foreign or regional states, as it is attempting to do through the international force in south Lebanon, or by having Turkey prevent arms shipments to Hizbullah from Iran.
Every tough issue in this region - Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Iran, terrorism, radicalism, armed resistance groups - is somehow linked to the consequences of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The politicians and government leaders who dominate this region, or engage it from western capitals, all look like rank amateurs or intemperate brutes as they flail at symptoms instead of grappling with the core issue that has seen this region spin off into ever greater circles of violence since the 1970s.
A comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement is achievable from the Arab side, to judge by the repeated offering of the 2002 Arab summit peace proposal. Israel and the US must quickly decide if they too can become sensible and work for a comprehensive peace as the most effective way to reduce and then reverse the cycles of resentment, radicalism and resistance that now define much of the Arab-Islamic Middle East.
Rami G Khouri is the editor of the Beirut-based Daily Star
© Copyright 2006 Rami G Khouri/Agence Global