Middle East crisis: what’s that all about?
A militarised mess has moved beyond the control of the Israelis, the Islamists and the international community.
How has the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers suddenly escalated into the most dramatic crisis in the Middle East for some years, where there is talk of the region descending into a mini-First World War?
Much of what we hear about the Middle East in the international media is now so inflamed with one-eyed passions that it becomes almost impossible to make sense of these extraordinary events. On one side we are told that the conflict is a result of Israel’s conspiratorial ambitions to dominate the region and re-occupy the Gaza Strip, and that America is behind Israeli aggression. On the other, we are assured that it is all about the Hezbollah/Hamas genocidal war to destroy the Israeli state, and that Europe is giving comfort to the terrorists.
These assertive explanations imply too much of a deliberate strategy behind the actions of each of the players. They also display a surprising ignorance of history, and the ways in which the present Middle East crisis contrasts with those of the past.
What is most striking today is what all sides have in common – political impotence, and an inability to control events. In different ways the Islamic movements, the Israeli state and the international community are all reacting from a position of weakness rather than strength, with the result that all are being swept along by events. That is why the Middle East can so quickly appear to be descending into a militarised mess – and why it is so difficult to know where it all might end.
The Hezbollah forces based in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories might threaten bloody war to bring down Israel. But in reality their capabilities and ambitions reach little further than kidnapping the odd Israeli soldier, firing some rockets blindly into Israeli towns, or perhaps sending the odd suicide bomber to try to blow up a bus full of Jews. Neither has the political or military resources to wage anything approximating war.
Much has been said about these groups acting as proxy armies for states such as Syria and Iran. But it should be recalled that, until relatively recently, Israel was faced with the threat – and the reality – of war from powerful states such as Egypt, not little proxies. There is no comparison with today. Behind their fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric, Hezbollah and Hamas now devote much of their energies to doing social work in their respective communities, acting more like municipal councils than liberation movements. Their odd military excursions, such as the recent kidnappings of Israeli soldiers, are just PR stunts aimed at yanking Israel’s chain and provoking an Israeli reaction that can grab the international headlines.
In turn, the fact that Israel’s chain can now be so easily yanked is a symptom of its own weakness. Israel finds itself more isolated than ever before, with whatever it does apparently inviting condemnation from around the world.
It can only rely on backing from America, where George W Bush needs allies for his ‘war on terror’. However, even American support for Israel is certainly not what it once was. There is a growing intellectual backlash against the alleged influence of the Israeli/Jewish lobby in shaping American foreign policy. After Bush reiterated his support for Israel’s right to self-defence last week, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice made clear that this was no old-fashioned blank cheque and demanded the Israelis show restraint. Meanwhile, Bush’s sympathy towards Israel gives the green light for everybody else to heap even more condemnation on its head.
Isolated and insecure, Israel lashes out in an attempt to demonstrate its resolve – to its enemies, its few friends, and perhaps most of all, to itself. It has been observed that the air strikes against Lebanon to date seem to be of symbolic rather than purely military intent: why blow up a lighthouse or the airport to stop terrorist attacks, for example? The symbolic object is not merely, as some have suggested, to show that the inexperienced Israeli government of prime minister Ehud Olmert is no soft touch. More broadly, it is to demonstrate the continuing authority of the Israeli state.
In that sense, these attacks are just as much militarised PR stunts as the kidnappings that supposedly provoked them. The trouble is that in the real world, and especially in the Middle East, such stunts can have dire and unpredictable consequences. It is one thing for a government in disarray, like say Tony Blair’s New Labour, to try to prove it has a sense of purpose by loudly launching one after another paper ‘initiative’, which can be quietly dropped soon afterwards without causing a ripple. It is something else entirely for an under-pressure Israeli government to try a similar trick by launching air strikes against a neighbouring state, with potentially far-reaching repercussions.
The Israeli authorities have promised to do ‘whatever is necessary to achieve our goals’. Putting those strong words into decisive action is another matter. It is not just that Israel faces strong international pressure to exercise restraint. Even more importantly, Israeli society itself appears to have lost its iron will. Israel is now a far less homogenous, less Zionist society than when the state was founded almost 60 years ago, and is far more disoriented about itself and its place in the world. It is noticeable how the Israelis now justify their actions by depicting themselves as another victim of international terrorism, and appealing to UN resolutions just as loudly as their critics, rather than through the traditionally bold Zionist assertion of Israel’s special right to sovereignty.
It was surely a sign of the disorientation of the Israeli military that Hezbollah were able to kidnap those soldiers with relative ease. Such a setback on Israeli soil would have seemed all but impossible in the not-too-distant past. The Israeli response, too, has looked more like a defensive display of panic than a considered show of strength. To date there have been at least 140 Lebanese casualties of Israeli air strikes, mostly civilians. That is bad, but it is nowhere near the full-scale land invasion of Lebanon that Israel launched in 1982, and which ended in the slaughter of more than 2,000 Palestinian refugees by Israel’s allies in the Christian militia. Sensing that there is little stomach in Israel for a repeat of that bloody adventure, the authorities have had to make it clear that they are not planning any land invasion. But that leaves them caught in a cycle of bombing raids and missile attacks, seemingly unclear about what exactly ‘our goals’ might be, far less how to achieve them.
The response of the international community to these events is to try to keep the lid on and hope it might somehow go away. Thus, after the G8 summit issued a woolly statement urging both sides to be nice, Tony Blair and UN secretary general Kofi Annan stepped forward with the inevitable call for a UN peacekeeping force to be sent in. As ever, Western governments are happy to use the Middle East as a platform on which to posture; see French president Jacques Chirac busily feeling the pain of the Lebanese, in order to demonstrate his independence from America and Israel. The history of the Middle East teaches that the West’s ‘peace missions’ achieve little other than to ensure the continuation of the underlying instability, as all sides compete for the attention and favours of the international community.
As all of these out-of-control forces collide in the vacuum of Lebanon, there is a parallel with events in Iraq. Things are unravelling across the Middle East, raising the danger of an increased Balkanisation of the region as states fall apart. It is not that the conflict is worse than in the past; the military exchanges have been pale shadows of the wars and invasions of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 or even 1982. But from America downwards, none of the political players involved today is capable of getting a grip on events.
It should be clear now that, while the Middle East peace process may well continue forever, there is not going to be any straightforward end to the old conflict, as there has been say in South Africa. This is partly because, as Brendan O’Neill analysed recently on spiked, the internationalisation of the Middle East conflict keeps it alive (see A ‘shadow war’ performed for Western voyeurs). It is also because the besieged and isolated Israeli authorities have drawn the lesson that it never benefits them to take a less-than-hard line.
There is of course no simple solution to these problems. All we can be sure of is that questions of war and peace will have to be resolved by the peoples of the region themselves, not through any UN resolution or a G8 press communiqué. We can at least contribute, however, by pressing our governments in the West to keep out of meddling in the Middle East. Our media might also try to counter the one-eyed passions and prejudices that distort the debate by offering a sober commitment to tell it like it is.
Most British coverage of the Middle East over the past few days has seemed a far cry from that. It has been dominated by emotive human interest stories about victims on all sides, that do nothing to put terrible events in any comprehensible context and simply invite us to throw up our hands at the horror of it all. When it’s not a family being reunited ‘live’ on television news, it is overblown stories about sending in the Royal Navy to evacuate Brits from Lebanon in a ‘Dunkirk-style rescue’. Surely we are not so vain as to think that somebody else’s war is about us.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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