Israel's disproportionate military response to the abduction of one of its soldiers by Palestinian militants three weeks ago and to a similar action by the Lebanese Hezbollah last week has now generated a serious regional crisis. The Bush administration's public backing of such a response can only increase resentment of both Israel and the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds, further undermining Washington's efforts in the war on terrorism.
Israel's military operations are designed to go well beyond punishing the Palestinian militants and Hezbollah. What started as two minor skirmishes on Israel's borders with Gaza (which, despite Israel's formal withdrawal from the Strip a year ago, has remained under Israel's control for all practical purposes) and Lebanon has blown out of all proportion. The Palestinian and Hezbollah actions have not been something new in the region. Israel has been kidnapping, jailing and killing Palestinians and Lebanese by the scores over the years. It has done so in the name of self-defence and combatting terrorism, as defined by Israel and its main ally and protector, the United States.
Israel has done nothing either to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians, who, like Israelis, have the right to live in independence, peace and security, or to release hundreds of Lebanese, many of them Hezbollah supporters, from Israeli jails. It has equally failed to do much to build bridges of understanding and co-operation with its neighbours, especially Lebanon, whose processes of post-civil war reconstruction and democratization have deserved all the international support it can get.
The Israeli leadership is using the abduction incidents to achieve a wider goal. In the case of the Palestinians, it has been deeply troubled by the rise of the radical Islamist group Hamas through a democratic election this year. Although Israel initially backed the formation of Hamas in the late 1980s as a counter to the secularist Palestine Liberation Organization, which it then rejected as a terrorist organization, it has increasingly found it expedient to do everything possible to prevent Hamas from governing and strengthening the forces of political Islam in the region.
Israel's ultimate objective seems to be the demise of the Hamas government and a civil war between the PLO and Hamas as a way out of negotiating a possible end to its occupation. In this, it has had the full support of George Bush, who has been unhappy with the outcome of the Palestinians' process of democratization and has needed a diversion from his failures in Iraq and the war on terror. Similarly, Israel has increasingly been uncomfortable with the growing strength of Hezbollah and the speed of Lebanon's post-civil war recovery and democratization, especially since Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon after 20 years of costly occupation. Israel's policy since its founding in 1948 has been to do whatever it takes to see that its Arab neighbours remain weak and divided.
On this basis, while it has neutralized Egypt and Jordan through peace treaties and American influence, and the U.S. has paralyzed Iraq as a threat to the Jewish state, the Israeli leadership has been keen to see favourable regime change in Syria and its regional ally, Iran, and the destruction of the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Israel is now seeking to destroy not only Hezbollah, but also Lebanon. Its aim is to set back Lebanon's reconstruction by years, so that it could never rival Israel politically and economically, and to humiliate Damascus and Tehran, as well as to undermine the chances of any American-Iranian agreement over Iran's nuclear program.
Israel has embarked on a dangerous game. Syria and Iran may not leave Hezbollah in the lurch. The situation that Israel has generated leaves both Israel and the U.S. vulnerable to a wider accusation of a Jewish-Christian conspiracy against Islam, and an upsurge of secular and religious radicalism among Arabs and Muslims. This can only help al-Qaeda and its supporters, and may well illustrate once again the Israeli leadership's egotistical immaturity and U.S. naiveté in handling Middle East problems.
Amin Saikal, a professor of political science, is director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.
Israel has embarked on a dangerous game