Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Stephen Handelman, "Past approach to peace lost in rubble," Globe and Mail, July 21, 2006.

NEW YORK — When Hezbollah hurled its militants and rockets across the southern Lebanese border with Israel last week, Arab governments responded as if they were the real targets. And to a large extent, they were right.

The unfolding crisis in the Middle East risks dragging the region "into adventurism that does not serve Arab interests," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan said last weekend. "These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago," added Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister.

This was no sudden outbreak of sympathy for Israel. Rather, it reflected the sinking realization among the region's leading players that they had been outflanked by Iran, Hezbollah's de facto financier and weapons supplier.

"The Middle East peace process is dead," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa gravely announced after the League's emergency closed-door session in Cairo on Saturday.

A better way of putting it would be to declare the Arab League dead -- or at least barely breathing.

After a run of nearly five decades as the standard bearer of Arab state nationalism, the 22-member League has been effectively sidelined by the region's strengthening Islamic fundamentalists and their backers in Tehran. Israel's undeclared war on Hezbollah (and on Hamas in Gaza, Iran's Palestinian client) has only driven the point home.

"Every day the crisis continues makes Iran a bigger power in the region," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Iran at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a senior adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Tehran, exploiting the universal disquiet with the plight of the Palestinians among Arab populations, has used its support of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to underscore its argument that any attempt to deal with Israel is not only useless, but a betrayal of Islam.

"Tehran's support of these groups has put most of the Arab governments in the hot seat by doing what they're not willing to do," Prof. Nasr noted, "which is stand up for the Palestinians and make the Israelis bleed a bit."

But the shift in the region's dynamics goes beyond the increasingly hostile attitude toward negotiations with Israel. By challenging the conservative Arab regimes that have monopolized Middle East politics for nearly three decades, Iran is bidding to become the leader of the emerging forces of populism and religious revival that have been unleashed since the war in Iraq -- and thereby strengthen its clout in the confrontation with Washington and Western democracies over its own geopolitical ambitions.

"Militarily and ideologically Iran is on the march," said Lawrence Haas, a visiting senior fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute in Washington who has studied Iran's relations with its neighbours. Tehran's nuclear ambitions, according to Prof. Haas, are only part of a broader anti-Western strategy that includes striking an alliance with other "rogue states" such as North Korea, and providing strategic support to groups battling Western-backed regimes from Iraq to Afghanistan and Central Asia. [This op-ed is clearly an incitement. -jlt]

In the Arab world, it has developed close partnerships with Syria, Sudan and Yemen -- all with serious grudges against the West.

Most observers say the timing of the Hezbollah attack -- just as the G8 summit of industrial democracies was meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss strategies for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program -- was no coincidence.

On the eve of the July 15 Group of Eight summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned of a "huge explosion" in the Middle East and beyond.

"The waves of fury of Muslim nations will not be confined within the boundaries of the region," he said. "The people who close their ears to the cries of the Palestinians and blindly support [the Zionist] regime will be responsible for the consequences."

It was a further measure of Arab governments' weaknesses in the face of this rhetorical onslaught that even in their criticism of Hezbollah's attacks, they could not bring themselves to name the hand pulling the puppet strings.

"Some elements and groups have got loose and slipped into taking decisions on their own, that Israel has exploited to wage a ferocious war against Lebanon," the Saudi cabinet declared this week. The groups and "those behind them," the statement went on to say, should now be held responsible for the worsening condition of Palestinians.

But such opaque declarations aren't likely to deflect Muslim anger from the embattled governments themselves. The Arab League has "shunned its responsibility" for solving the Lebanese crisis, Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, fumed in an interview with Reuters. Instead, he said, it has chosen to "protect its own image as a unified and cogent body."

What lies buried in the rubble of southern Lebanon is an entire approach to Middle East peacemaking, in which Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt played the primary roles as peacemakers and partners with Israel and the West.

That should matter to Israel as well. Even if it successfully crushes Hezbollah's power base in Lebanon, its ability to negotiate a diplomatic endgame with weakened Arab partners will be in doubt.

"Once upon a time Egypt was the key to controlling the region," Prof. Nasr said. "Now it's only Iran that matters."

Officially, Western policy makers disagree with the pessimists. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to leave shortly on a visit to key Middle East countries in the traditional "cooling-off" shuttle that has followed previous crises in the region.

But even U.S. President George W. Bush, caught by an unexpected live microphone at the G8 summit, appeared to accept that an end to violence in Lebanon is beyond the abilities of Washington's traditional Arab partners. He was overheard confiding to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Syria could get Hezbollah "to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

Syria's logistical support to Hezbollah is no secret; nor is its deepening alliance with Iran. Last week, Iran's Foreign Minister paid a pointed call on Damascus to declare that Tehran would come to Syria's aid if it was attacked.

That leaves Western governments with a tough choice. With their traditional Arab allies sidelined, policy makers may be forced to deal with Tehran and Damascus in a way that gives both regimes the kind of legitimacy they sorely want and that Washington, at least, has so far been loath to give.

Stephen Handelman is a New York-based Canadian writer on international affairs.
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