Israel is now engaged in a race, familiar from its past wars, to complete as much as possible of its military operations before the pressure for a ceasefire becomes irresistible. As the aggrieved party, Israel feels it can adopt an uncompromising strategy; but this has contributed to political pressures without, as yet, meeting the campaign objectives. Hizbollah will undoubtedly be militarily weaker when the current fighting ends but politically stronger.

At the same time, Israel’s security predicament may have been enhanced rather than eased. Prior to the current conflict, a new and moderate Israeli approach was evolving, reflecting its inability to occupy hostile territory. Yet though the Israelis left southern Lebanon in 2000, Gaza last year and are constructing a West Bank security fence that implicitly concedes the territory on the other side to the Palestinians, their old enemies will not leave them alone. In this context, at most the current operation simply buys time. Israel must face the awkward fact that its borders may not be defensible unilaterally through its traditional, tough military means. It is neither willing nor able to reoccupy southern Lebanon and has accepted in principle that any durable solution to its border problems must have an international dimension.

Meanwhile US claims about the civilising and stabilising influence of democratic politics look forlorn in the face of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq, Palestine and now Lebanon. Instead of Iraq becoming a staging point for a benign transformation of the region,
it has drained credibility and respect from US policy and left it in a weak position to shape intelligent multilateral responses to challenges in the Middle East, even when it is at last prepared to do so. The conservative Arab states that might once have looked to the US for leadership and support are now hedging their bets. They fear the rise of Iranian power and of radical Islamic parties, both Shia and Sunni, but they dare not confront them directly when this appears to mean lining up behind Israel – and they are reluctant to experiment too much with political reform. Europeans are full of wise words about Israel’s lack of proportion but have offered little more than exhortations to regional actors to be rational. They have an even greater stake in the stability and prosperity of the Middle East than the Americans.

If the Middle East is not to drift further into disillusion and mayhem, then all current policies need to be reappraised. The starting point is that this region has become the focal point for an ideological struggle of global significance. To accept this is not to ignore the evident differences among the ideological camps, the dubious aspects of some states notionally on “our” side, or the areas where the lines are very blurred. Nor does it preclude diplomatic contact with Iran and Syria, just as it was not precluded with the Soviet Union during the cold war, so long as it is undertaken without illusions. What it does require is paying attention to what the radical leaders are saying, and recognising how the violence could spread further. Governments could fall to be replaced by regimes with a burning and disruptive ambition. Iran might soon be a nuclear power.

The militarisation of this struggle largely benefits the radical Islamic movements. There is a widespread assumption that it is Washington that has been turning up the regional heat but, in practice, recently it has been Tehran. While some in Tehran are undoubtedly concerned that any effective neutralisation of the Hizbollah threat affects their own freedom to manoeuvre, the crisis atmosphere allows Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, to strengthen his position at home. Military moves must be played out in the context of this struggle but also a media environment that is bound to highlight the fate of civilians as much as the underlying politics. This has been thrown into sharp relief as the Americans and British struggle to keep the political realities of a ceasefire to the fore in the face of regular Israeli attacks on the wrong targets.

To call for turning down the heat is to state the obvious: less so to accept that this will require even more international involvement in regional conflicts. A multilateral force in southern Lebanon, if one can be arranged, will reflect the fact that Israel does have a security problem that it cannot solve by itself and only makes worse when it tries. Such a force must be substantial enough to command local respect. If this can be done for one of Israel’s borders why not for the others? The continued misery of Palestine has been forgotten with the focus on Lebanon, and without a new international initiative, it is going to be even harder to find a political solution.

As a self-governing entity, Palestine is a failure. It must not be governed by Israel, so perhaps a more drastic policy shift is needed. It might at least be worth considering setting it up as a United Nations trust territory, with the UN responsible not only for internal security and economic reconstruction but (with a strong local input) for final negotiations with Israel.

Amid all the current anger and ferment, it is vital to keep a sharp focus on the objective of any regional security policy: to establish sufficient stability for real political and economic progress. The moves that must now be undertaken in the wake of this nasty little war must move the ideological struggle away from the military to the political and economic spheres where the radicals have little to offer and much to fear.

The writer is professor of war studies and vice-principal (research) of King’s College London

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