Is Israel really planning to invade Lebanon—not just a minor raid on a discrete target but a full-blown invasion and an occupation to follow? Are the Hezbollah militants really trying to blow up the chemical plant in Haifa? Are Syria and Iran really going to let this happen? Could Israel restrain itself from retaliating against not just the attackers but their sponsors?
All over the world, people are asking themselves: Could this really be happening? It seems like the inveterate foes of Israel's existence are gearing up for a shot at dream-fulfillment. And it seems like Israel is gearing up to take out the dreamers first.
This sensation of palpable prelude—is this how people felt in the summer of 1914, as the major powers played out the logic of mobilization and escalation? Will future historians draw parallels between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the nabbing of the two Israeli soldiers across the Lebanese border?
There are at least two differences between the preparations for war in Europe 92 years ago and those taking place in the Middle East now. First, today's big powers are not locked in to escalation through alliances; one country going to war does not necessarily force another to follow. The world isn't even divided into hostile blocs, at least not to the same extent. Second, global institutions have been formed in the intervening century precisely to keep such scenarios from cascading.
But there are two other facts that mitigate those differences and that draw attention to the similarities between 2006 and 1914. The major powers and the global institutions are just standing by. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan talks about putting a "stabilization force" on the Israeli-Lebanese border, but he has little leverage to impose anything meaningful. The G8 nations unanimously harrumph a resolution of concern and condemnation, but they take no action. President George W. Bush tells British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he thinks his secretary of state will make a trip to the Middle East pretty soon.
The Iranian exile Amir Taheri writes in the Pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat that both sides in this conflict view their very existence as being at risk and so are loath to back down. This is why diplomacy was invented. Who can say whether it would have any effect now, but no one is giving it a go.
Israeli leaders seem to think that if they fight on for another week, they can strengthen their strategic position—and weaken Hezbollah's—so that when the international community does step in to impose a cease-fire, they'll come out significantly ahead.
However, another argument can be made that the longer Israel keeps bombing and shelling Lebanon, and unavoidably killing Lebanese civilians, the more its standing will diminish, regionally and globally. An editorial in today's Daily Star, Beirut's relatively moderate newspaper, is headlined, "Israeli onslaught will strengthen, not weaken, Hizbullah's popular appeal."
When Israeli soldiers invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, they were literally welcomed with flowers and candy. The purpose of the invasion was to kick PLO occupiers out of the country. The operation went awry—and stayed that way for 18 years—when the Israelis became the occupiers.
If they invade again in 2006, things will go awry from the outset. Hezbollah is thoroughly integrated into Lebanese society and politics. One reason it is so hard to disarm Hezbollah's militia is that its members are everywhere, its arms—including the missiles sent from Iran—stored in ordinary people's houses. An invasion will be seen as an invasion, nothing more.
The opportunity for a nonmilitary solution (the phrase "peaceful solution" may be going too far) is golden right now but not for long. In a remarkable statement, the Saudi foreign minister criticized Hezbollah's cross-border attacks as "unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts." So did the leaders of Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Some criticized Israel's response as "disproportionate," or they urged "restraint." But these caveats seemed almost pro forma. Rarely, if ever, have Arab leaders so condemned other Arabs on an issue of conflict with the Jewish State.
Yet there's something else that binds those Arab leaders—they're all Sunnis, while Hezbollah, Iran, and (nominally) Syria are ruled by Shiites. This is another reason this fire needs to be put out as soon as possible. Otherwise, it might not only ignite the grand battle between Israel and its most fervent foes, but also feed the flames of the region's larger war between Sunnis and Shiites.
It isn't clear—it's a matter of dispute even among the experts—how tightly Syria controls Hezbollah, or to what extent Syria (or Iran) knew in advance of Hezbollah's actions this past week. Certainly there is some degree of control; very probably, there was some level of advance knowledge. But we won't know to what degree, at what level—we won't know if either country has the ability or desire to put a lid on Hezbollah's activities—unless channels of communication are opened.
Yesterday, I wondered when President Bush would send Condoleezza Rice on a mission of "shuttle diplomacy." There's something else he has to do first. The point of shuttle diplomacy, when Henry Kissinger and James Baker conducted it, was to talk with leaders who can't talk with one another, shuttling back and forth conveying messages, feints, fears, and ultimately offers. One problem right now is that the United States—the would-be shuttle diplomat—has long cut off relations with Syria and Iran, both of Hezbollah's enablers (and thus potential disablers). If Bush doesn't reopen the lines, there's no point in sending Rice on the plane; it would be a shuttle to nowhere—and, short of sensational luck, a region sliding to war.