Tuesday, July 18

One of the broader tragedies in the Middle East is “the boomerang syndrome.”

Feeding the Enemy

Impatient Arabs backed violence and thus put Ariel Sharon and now Ehud Olmert into power, while utterly discrediting Israeli doves. Some Arabs seethed at their daily discomforts, and so they backed provocations that are now vastly multiplying the suffering in Gaza and Lebanon alike.

I’m afraid that impatient Israelis may now be falling into the same trap. Israelis, outraged by attacks and kidnappings, have escalated the conflict by launching an assault on Lebanon that may make life in Israel far more dangerous for many years to come.

It’s easy to sympathize with Israeli outrage, particularly since the attacks on it follow its withdrawals first from Lebanon and then from Gaza. But the winners in this conflict, in the medium to long term, are likely to be hard-liners throughout the Islamic world.

The Iranian and Syrian regimes are illegitimate, incompetent and unpopular, but they may be able to exploit anger at the television images from Lebanon into a longer lease on life for themselves. Pakistani extremists will be strengthened in their calls for jihad. In Sudan, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir will rally popular anger to resist U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur. In Iraq, sympathy for Lebanese Shiites may strengthen Iraq’s own extremist Shiite militias.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what Israel can achieve militarily in Lebanon. The 12,000 missiles controlled by Hezbollah are not kept in arsenals, but in unmarked homes and garages, so it’s uncertain that Israel will be able to destroy very many. If Israel continues with a limited air war for a couple of weeks, it will produce enough television footage of bleeding Lebanese to anger the world, but not enough to achieve any substantial shift in power on the ground.

Until this month, Hezbollah had been on the defensive in Lebanon. It was under pressure to disarm and was resented as a pawn of Syria and Iran. Al Qaeda had even tried to assassinate its leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

But now Sheik Nasrallah, one of the canniest politicians in the region, has kidnapped not only Israeli soldiers but the Middle East conflict. He may well emerge with more credibility than ever among Sunnis as well as Shiites.

A rule of thumb in the Middle East is that anyone who makes confident predictions is too dogmatic to be worth listening to. Maybe I’m wrong and Israel will achieve its short-term security goals, for it’s conceivable that the warfare will galvanize the U.N. Security Council — and Lebanon itself — to disarm Hezbollah. But there’s also the longer term to worry about, and the fury at Israel will be much harder to dismantle than Katyusha rockets.

I hitchhiked through Lebanon and the region while a student in 1982, shortly after the Israeli invasion. Though Syria had recently massacred some 10,000 to 20,000 of its people in Hama — the center of town was rubble — most Arabs weren’t exercised about Syrians killing Syrians, they were enraged by Israelis killing Arabs. That may not be fair, but that’s reality: Sheik Nasrallah’s power today arises in part from Israeli bombing back in 1982.

Likewise, the sheik’s radical successor in 2030 will be empowered in part because of Israeli bombings in 2006.

“It is simple to join emotionally in George Bush’s culture war against the axis of evil,” editorialized Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, “but it must be remembered that, at the end of the day, it is the citizens of Israel and not the Americans who have to continue living in the Middle East. Therefore, we have to think of ways that will make it possible for us to coexist, even with those we do not enjoy being with.”

Plenty of experience shows that Israel can’t deter private terror networks, but that it can deter states. Syria, for example, despises Israel but doesn’t launch rockets or kidnap soldiers. So Israel might benefit from firmer states in Lebanon and Gaza that actually control their territories. Instead, the latest Israeli offensives foster anarchy to both the north and the south, potentially nurturing militant groups that are not subject to classical deterrence.

If Israel is ever to achieve real security, we have a pretty good idea how it will be achieved: the kind of two-state solution reached in the private Geneva accord of 2003 between Arab and Israeli peaceniks. The fighting in Lebanon pushes that possibility even farther away — and in that sense, each bombing mission harms Israel’s future as well as Lebanon’s.