Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Israel and Lebanon Part Two

The on-going conflict between Israel and Hezbollah raises several questions, not the least of which is: what should Canada do? I can't claim to be an expert on the most recent conflict in the Middle East but several points need to be born in mind when considering this issue. I'll write another blog about what Canada could or should do. In this one, I want to make a few points by way of clarifying what is actually going on in Lebanon and some points we should bear in mind as the "internatioal community" looks for solutions to the current conflict.

First, we need to disregard conspiracy theories with regard to the origins of this conflict. The current one -- which I heard on both CBC radio and CTV Newsnet -- is that Iran has actually triggered this conflict, ordering what the talking heads at Think Tanks view as its Hezbollah puppet to attack Israel in order to "get the heat off" Iran itself. The cause of the conflict, then, this argument runs lies not in the conflict in Israel, nor in determinations made by Hezbollah but in Iran which is manipulating international events in order to avoid having to answer for its supposed nuclear weapons development programmes. In my view, the only people who will embrace this theory are those people who already believe there is an international conspiracy of "bad guys" out there. Let me be clear on my view: the people making these statements really do believe there is an international conspiracy against Israel and the United States. They really do believe that the leadership of Iran engineered this crisis so it could carry out its own more nefarious plans and build weapons of mass destruction. The fact that they believe this, in my view, tells us more about their perception of the world than it does about the reality of what is going on in Israel and Lebanon.

Second, in the first day, I believe, of this conflict, the government of Israel said that it would hold the government of Lebanon to account for Hezbollah using Lebanese territory as a base. This is, of course, the same type of logic in which the Palestinian Authority was held to account for the actions of Palestinian terrorists. Its a bogus logic. The objective is to find some government -- some authority -- that can hold the actions of non-state based militias to account and curb their actions. It won't work. Anyone who knows anything about the capacity of either the current Lebanese state or the Palestinian Authority when it was run by Yassr Arafat, knows that neither had the ability to control these militias. What the government of Israel is trying to do is to make a state-based solution work in a situation where key actors are not state based, the existing states (or, political authorities) lack the capacity to impose their will on these groups, and have no moral influence over them. The problem here is not that the demands of the Israeli govenrment are unreasonable. The problem is that their solution won't work because it can't work. The mechanisms required to make it work just are not in place. The same thing applies to the governments of Syria and Iran. Neither of these governments really has the ability to control Hezbollah or other Islamicist groups. The fact that they might be sympathetic to them says nothing about their ability to control the actions of non-Syrians and non-Iranians.

We have an historical example that helps us understand the sheer folly of this position. For a variety of reasons, the Israeli and American governments lost confidence in Yassr Arafat and the Al Fatah faction of the PLO, which had been running the Palestinian Authority. They refused to discuss issues with them, refused to hold the types of serious talks that were needed to end the conflicts in the region, refused to compromise on land issues. Palestian Authority infrastructure was destroyed; civilian lives disrupted. What happened? Did the rejection of Al Fatah and its displaced from its leadership position help the cause of peace? Did the Palestinian Authority embrace the political position of Israel? Or, was the result the election of a government that Israel and the US liked even less?

Third, the government of Israel believes that military action will ensure either peace and the return of kidnapped soldiers, or both. In reality, it will do neither. Let's say Israel gets its soldiers back. What happens next? Has the root cause of the conflict gone away? Has the social inequality and prejudice that drives violence in the region been somehow replaced by the good will and trust needed to build a meaningful peace? Can Hezbollah be cowed by civilian deaths in Lebanon? Will civilian deaths in Lebanon help build Arab confidence in and support for Israel? Let me ask you this: if you were an ordinary Lebanese citizen, and your son or daughter were killed by an Israeli bomb -- "collatoral damage" in an attack on a Hezbollah base -- would you like or dislike the people who ordered that bomb to be dropped? The long range prognosis for the use of force as a diplomatic tool is not good. In my view, the only thing it can succeed in doing is continuing the armed camp that is that region of the world?

We have an historical example here, too, to which we can turn for some help in thinking about these issues. In 1982, the government of Israel -- upset at PLO attacks from Lebanon on northern Israel -- invaded Lebanon and occupied about half the country, ultimately withdrawing to a "security zone" in the south. What was the result? Did it bring peace? Obviously not; the same conflict is going on. A generation later, most people seem to have forgotten the long, hard, and painful occupation of Lebanon; the violence it brought with it and the continual attacks on Israeli soldier patrolling in that region. The Intefada began. Israel soldiers now found themselves facing not the PLO but youths throwing bottles. One might find it necessary to fight and kill a member of a group you consider to be a terrorist organization, but shooting kids heaving rocks in the street is another matter. Israel's international reputation suffered horribly in these years. And, not because of anti-semitism but because ordinary people don't like to see soldiers shoot kids heaving rocks in the street. If history is any guide, then, this incursion will produce the same results. Israel's security will not be enhanced -- particularly that of its civilian population which is the most susceptible to terror attacks -- good will we get in even shorter supply; still more radical leaders (on all sides) will gain a hearing; and ordinary people will die with no prospect of peace on the horizon. History does not provide an optimistic picture of this course of action or the probable results of this conflict.

Finally, it seems to me that finger pointing is a counter-productive exercise. Watching the news tonight on CTV, I listened to US President George W. Bush say that Hezbollah was entirely to blame because its kidnapping of Israeli soldiers provoked this situation. Let me say clearly that I don't think a long, simmering conflict that dates back now at least two generations can be reduced to a one sentence sound bite in terms of causality. There is, in my view, more than enough blame to go around. And, blaming one particular "side" does not solve the problem. In fact, I hazzard a guess that the only thing Mr. Bush's comments did was to ensure in the minds of Palestinians that the US is not supportive of their autonomy. The only thing Mr. Bush's comments likely did was to convince Palestinians and Lebanese that the US government does not care about their civilian deaths, about the arrests of elected governments, about incursions into the territory of sovereign states, about arab poverty, displacement and homelessness. I'm not, btw, blaming the US or Israel for this situation. I'm just saying that blaming others alone while ignoring history is not a sure fire path to a solution.

What we have here, then, is a situation in which the wrong people are being blamed or one side is being singled out, history is being ignored, and the proposed solutions will not work because the basic premises on which they are founded are false. Overall, then, a new approach is needed. The issue for we Canadians is can we help provide that new approach.
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