Walker's World: Flawed Lebanon consensus

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus

PERIGUEUX, France, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- There is growing consensus in Europe and the Middle East that the indecisive carnage in Lebanon has resulted in a strategic weakening of Israel and also by extension of its American ally, and a dramatic strengthening of the position of Hezbollah and its patrons in Syria and Iran.

"Iran, the big winner of this conflict, has been enabled to emerge as the great challenger of the (American) plan to remodel the Middle East," says Pierre Lellouche, a senior member of the French National Assembly and a devout Atlanticist as the current president of NATO's parliamentary assembly.


"The fact that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cannot even appear in Beirut speaks volumes of the level of hatred that anti-Americanism has reached in the Arab world," he adds.

Writing in the Jordan Times, Hasan Abu Nimah, one of the most thoughtful commentators in the region, suggests that the most important outcome is that "Israel's security cannot be guaranteed by military superiority alone, even with unlimited support from a superpower."


"Even the growing trend, over recent decades, of Arab recognition of the Jewish state and the formal agreements with a few Arab states may now have to be gradually downgraded," he adds. "Israel cannot expect the so-called peace process to move any further with so much more innocent Arab blood spilled by its new massacres in Palestine and Lebanon. The Israeli apartheid system has totally and finally disqualified itself from ever becoming part of this region."

The liberal voices of Haaretz and Maariv in Israel agree that their proud army has suffered some serious setbacks. Its intelligence did not foresee, or sufficiently assess, the defensive capabilities of Hezbollah's guerillas in their new underground bunkers and the readiness of the Lebanese and wider Arab public to rally to their support.

The secular Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s, symbolized by Egypt's President Gamel Abdul Nasser, is being replaced by a new religious-based Arab nationalism in which Sunni public opinion hails Hezbollah's Shiite leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah as the new Arab hero, a new Saladin (even though historically the 12th century Emir Saladin was ruthless in his suppression of the Shiites). And through Hezbollah's defiance, the regimes of Tehran and Damascus find a new legitimacy in Arab eyes, even as the pro-Western leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia struggle to maintain the loyalties of their own peoples.


Perhaps the historic divide between Sunnis and Shiites, the Islamic war of religion that has seemed at times as bitter as the Christian civil wars between Catholics and Protestants, is finally being submerged in a greater common hatred of Israel and the United States and Britain, the Anglo-Saxon powers dubbed "the Crusaders" by Osama bin Laden.

And perhaps, as Lellouche suggests, a new Middle Eastern balance of terror is starting to emerge between Israel and Iran as the region's two main military, and probably nuclear powers.

"Thanks to Hezbollah, Iran is now a front-line state against Israel," Lellouche suggests. "And what Nasser could accomplish in the 1960s in the name of Arab nationalism, Iran does today under the banner of radical Shiite Islam."

This growing consensus is reinforced by the palpable frustration of American policy in Iraq and by the growing rejection by British and American public opinion of the Bush-Blair conviction that the Middle East can and should be remade and modernized and democratized on Western lines. The defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in Massachusetts, like the call by over a hundred members of parliament from Blair's own party for a recall of Britain's parliament to debate Blair's policy of backing Bush and Israel, demonstrate the domestic political challenge to Anglo-American policy.


Still, this consensus may be premature, for four main reasons. First, the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have divided the Islamic world for 1,300 years. They are not going to disappear overnight.

Second, no foreseeable U.S. administration is going to abandon Israel, and no foreseeable array of European governments is going to accept any outcome that questions or undermines Israel's right to exist.

Third, Israel's military may have been bruised in Lebanon, and an Israeli death toll of over 100 is both dismaying and a serious political problem for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. But Israel's military remains the most formidable force in the Middle East, and it has massive resources in hand -- witness the latest reports from Jerusalem that the Israeli cabinet has approved an army plan to push further into Lebanon, to try to take control of Hezbollah's rocket-launching sites, with an extra 30,000 troops heading for the Litani River 20 miles north of the Israeli border. The Tsahal, as the Israeli army is called, is an adaptable, well-armed and fast-learning institution; it will swiftly learn the tactics required to tackle the hidden bunkers of Hezbollah.

Fourth, politics and diplomacy have yet to kick in, as they inevitably will. Syrian President Bassar Ashad will ask himself whether he really wants to become a junior partner of Tehran. The Europeans will soon remember that the one thing they can wholly agree on for the region is that Iran's nuclear ambitions must be curbed. Thinking Israelis will ask themselves how long they can or should maintain the disagreeable role of the Sparta of the Middle East.


Once he stops fighting for his life, Hezbollah's Nasrallah will ask himself if he wants to continue forever as a client of Tehran and Damascus, or whether the best interests of his community lie in a sovereign Lebanon. Indeed, Nasrallah might recall that interview he gave shortly before Israel pulled out of South Lebanon in May 2000 when he looked ahead to a deal that ensured a full Israeli withdrawal from all Lebanese territory.

"Hezbollah would relocate in the South, but not have any form of security force, since it is a resistance movement whose goal is the liberation of land and not an alternative to the government," the new hero of the Arab world then said.

This interesting historical footnote comes from Nicholas Noe, who is preparing an edition of Nasrallah's collected speeches, and it suggests that the latest round of the unending Middle East blood opera is far from over. The plot has many unexpected twists yet to take, whatever the latest fashionable consensus.

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