AS Israeli troops and their foe, Hezbollah, face off across a 5km-wide wasteland, the Middle East’s most influential players are starting to reveal their hands. For the past month, most have sniffed the wind, waiting for the decisive phases of the war to take shape.
But a view is starting to emerge across the Arab world that regardless of who wins, Hezbollah has advanced the Arab Muslim cause and given decades of barely contained resentment towards Israel an emboldened, militant, edge.
Just as Hezbollah’s wily chief Hassan Nasrallah intended, the conflict is being viewed by many Arabs – and their leaders – through a historical prism. Nasrallah’s 6000-strong band of guerillas is making every metre of ground difficult and bloody for Israeli forces and paving the way for a hostile phase of anti-Israeli, and anti-US, politicking.
Egypt and Jordan, the only two relative friends Israel has in the Arab world, are wriggling uncomfortably at the rising tide of support for Hezbollah and the heated questioning of their roles in what is increasingly being viewed as an untenable US hegemony across the Middle East.
Like Saudi Arabia, the two Arab states have long feared the rise of fundamental Shia Islam in the region, viewing radical Shias as a danger to their staunchly Sunni Arab and stable governments.
This was the official Saudi news agency in week one of the crisis, warning of the dangers of Shia militancy: “A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside Lebanon and those behind them without recourse to the legal authorities and consulting and co-ordinating with Arab nations. These elements should bear the responsibility for their irresponsible actions and they alone should end the crisis they have created.”
Its position now is sharply softer and has evolved to apportion blame towards Israel for escalating the conflict through intensive military strikes that have killed civilians and battered Lebanon’s essential services.
The trio is even more threatened by the looming shadow of Hezbollah’s overlord, Iran, which they believe is in the process of relaunching its Islamic revolution of 1979, which ran out of steam in the mid-1990s. But the Shias of Hezbollah have started to take the people with them and, for now, all three opinion shapers have been left with little option but to fall in behind, albeit to varying degrees. Even in Arab autocracies, the voice of the people counts for a lot. And now is not the time for them to be debunking perceptions that Shia Islam means heroic resistance.
On Arab television – as reliable an opinion poll as there is in the Middle East – viewer emails and talkback calls seem almost unanimous in their support of Hezbollah, with most seeing the bedlam of the past month through a David v Goliath context (the scene of the biblical battle was not far down the road). That Israel chose on Thursday not to exercise its option to fully invade southern Lebanon said to many callers that Hezbollah had spooked the mighty Israeli army’s commanders and politicians.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said late in the day that the decision had been deferred “to give peace a chance”, referring to tortured negotiations before the UN Security Council on a ceasefire and deployment of an international stabilisation force to southern Lebanon.
But the decision to stand down the ground dogs of war hours after the Israeli cabinet voted to unleash them came after 15 soldiers were killed by Hezbollah in 12 hours. More sobering was that 12 of them were reservists who had been called up from their day jobs to fight and die for their country. Losing scores of regular soldiers is far easier to deal with politically than sending to a slaughter field young men who only days before were making a living in offices and factories.
“We must be able to look at every mother, father and child and say that we tried every other move,” Peretz said.
“We’re doing everything so that both efforts will serve each other and at the end of the day the objectives we set are demilitarisation of the south of Lebanon and the entrance of a multinational force in conjunction with the Lebanese army.”
Israeli officials have sensed for the past month that Syria is in no mood for a fight, and still hold to that conviction for now. However, the change in tone from Damascus’s politburo was noticeable early in the week, when Foreign Minister Walid Moallem announced he would “be proud to be a resistance fighter”. Asked about fears that the fighting could spread to the whole region, Moallem replied it would be “most welcome”.
“Syria is readying itself and doesn’t hide its military readiness. We will respond to any Israeli aggression immediately,” Moallem said. “If Israel attacks Syria by any means, on the ground, in the air, our leadership ordered the armed forces to reply immediately.”
Moallem, the first senior Syrian official to visit Lebanon since Syria ended three decades of military presence in April last year, criticised a US-French draft of a UN Security Council resolution to end the war.
“This draft resolution is a description for the continuation of the war because, unfortunately, it’s not fair for Lebanon, therefore it’s a plan for the possibility of the eruption of civil war in Lebanon and nobody, nobody, nobody has anything to gain from that happening, except Israel,” he said.
“Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and the Lebanese national resistance today are defending the dignity of the Arab nation and the unity of the nation like it is defending the dignity of Lebanon, the unity of Lebanon and the Lebanese people,” Moallem said.
The rhetoric was a sharp advance on remarks from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad late last month that were widely interpreted as posturing, in which he said his army was raising its readiness to “meet the new challenges of the region”. On Thursday and Friday, Syrian officials were clearing out bomb shelters for the first time in decades.
Israel still believes the Syrian army would be reluctant to join the fight but increasingly fears the tide of regional support for Hezbollah’s so-called resistance, which could gather enough of a groundswell to sweep its emboldened enemies on to a broad Middle East battlefield.
Arab TV channels have given the conflict historically significant titles, with Al-Jazeera dubbing it “the sixth war” and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar network calling it “the open war”. Also deriving a sense of history from the occasion is Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during the week granted a rare interview to a US network in which he warned his American counterpart George W. Bush to get off his case and to reassess the US role in the region.
“They don’t want to live side by side in peace with other nations,” Ahmadinejad said. “The American Government, sir, it is very clear to me they have to change their behaviour and everything will be resolved. Well, please look at the make-up of the American administration, the behaviour of the American administration.”
Moving on to the US’s tough stance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which has seen it take the Iranian Government to the UN Security Council under pain of sanctions, and possible military attack, Ahmadinejad added: “See how they talk down to my nation. And this recent resolution passed about the nuclear issue, look at the wording. Well, with the letter I wanted to open a window towards the light for the President so that he can see that one can look on the world through a different perspective.”
Iran’s overtures to the US, especially an 18-page letter sent from Tehran to Washington early this year, have been rebuffed. But, with momentum steadily building against the US on all sides of the region, Ahmadinejad has the neighbours’ attention when he airs his gripes. “We are all free to choose,” he said. “But please give him this message, sir: those who refuse to accept an invitation will not have a good ending or fate. You see that his approval rating is dropping every day. Hatred vis-a-vis the President is increasing every day around the world.”
The inherent danger in the shift in attitude is that the will to sort out a regional solution that incorporates Israel is fast dissipating. Relations between Arab nations and the Jewish state appear to be in worse shape than at any time since well before Israel left Lebanon in 2000. Israel and the rest of the region want peace to deliver them from a looming maelstrom.
But they all need to curb the looming will for something more sinister. Martin Chulov, The Australian