Who needs war in the Middle East?

July 15, 2007 - 0:0

Now that a year has passed since the start of the Lebanese-Israeli war, or strictly speaking, Israel's war against the Hezbollah, many in the Middle East are worried about the likelihood of new hostilities, mainly between Syria and Israel.

A resumption of bilateral peace talks, however, is on the agenda. Will there be war or peace? Let's get one thing straight from the very start - neither Israel nor Syria needs war. Moreover, such a confrontation would be pointless. Damascus could only fight for the return of occupied territories, but the Syrians have long given up on the idea of recovering them by force. A war could help them unite the nation and strengthen President Bashar al-Assad's regime; but right now the domestic situation is more or less stable, and such drastic measures are not necessary. Israel has no grounds for attacking Syria. Unlike the Arabs, the Israelis will not expect their government to take military reprisals. On the contrary, the majority would prefer it to display pragmatism and caution, all the more so since there are no objective reasons for attacking Syria. For the past few decades, Israel's most trouble-free border has been the one with Syria. It is not likely to strike at Hamas (whose headquarters are in Damascus) and try to neutralize Iran's influence in the region, especially considering the public sentiments after the Lebanese military campaign. The events of the past summer left Israelis perplexed and disappointed in their leaders. Israel sustained a moral rather than military defeat in the past war. Though they have achieved calm on the border with Lebanon, it came at a high price. It is hard to predict how long it will last - much will depend on the developments in Lebanon. The final report of the Israeli national commission of enquiry into the war in Lebanon, called the Vinograd commission, is expected in the late summer or fall; but it is already clear what it will conclude. In its provisional report, the Vinograd commission held Prime Minister Ehud Olmert personally responsible for the fiasco. The decision to launch an immediate military response to the abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006 by Hezbollah commandos was not based on any detailed plan that took into consideration the intricate situation in Lebanon. Along with the prime minister, the commission also blamed the outbreak and conduct of the war on the minister of defense, Amir Peretz, and the former chief of staff, General Dan Halutz. Both have already lost their jobs. Ehud Barak has replaced Peretz both as the leader of the Israeli Labor Party and in the cabinet. No doubt, Barak is a better choice for defense minister than Peretz, who has no military background, but there is some irony in the fact that the reshuffling caused by the Lebanese war has given this position to a man who was heavily criticized at home only a year ago. As prime minister, it was Barak who unilaterally pulled troops out of Lebanon in 2000, leaving Israel's northern frontier in Hezbollah's crosshairs. Five years later, Ariel Sharon acted much in the same vein when he unilaterally withdrew Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. The Lebanese war, and even more so, the events in the Gaza Strip, finally convinced the Israelis that unilateral withdrawals diminish rather than enhance their security. Olmert's plan for continued unilateral withdrawals from some of the occupied territories in the West Bank - his declared main goal as prime minister - has fallen through. This was more than just the failure of a single plan. The peace process is an indispensable aspect of the policy of any Israeli cabinet. After the Lebanese war, the Israeli leaders were completely disoriented and driven into a deadlock. Israel could not continue withdrawing from the occupied territories, nor resume talks with a Palestinian government that included Hamas. Now that the new cabinet is Hamas-free, the Israelis can announce the continuation of the peace process and discuss the Arab League's proposal for a settlement. But this will be an uphill battle. Head of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas will need substantial concessions from the Israelis in order to consolidate his foothold in Palestine, concessions that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cannot make. Israel is not ready to withdraw from a considerable part of Palestinian territory or address the Palestinian refugee problem. For Olmert, a peaceful settlement with Syria is the best bet. The situation there is less complex in both its geographic and religious aspects. Olmert has been markedly more active in suggesting the start of peace talks to his Syrian counterpart. Damascus is offering peace as well. The discussion now is about the terms on which the talks should start. Many experts believe that Israel and Syria are already negotiating behind the scenes. But will Olmert have enough authority after the Vinograd commission releases its final report? Even a failure to begin talks will not immediately lead to a war between Israel and Syria. The status quo in the Golan Heights can be maintained for a long time. Needless to say, these facts do not prevent the Syrian and Israeli top brass from getting ready for war and suspecting each other of planning a first strike. But again, preparations for war do not make it inevitable. Nonetheless, in the summer of 2006 nobody expected war, either. That conflict was provoked by Hezbollah, although its leaders claim they did not expect that the abduction of two soldiers would have such consequences. Though governments may not want war, extremists may leave them no other option. Their aim is to ignite a major conflict the Middle East and the rest of the world. It remains to be seen whether the lessons of the past year's war will prevent Israel and others from falling into the trap. (Source: Ria Novosti