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The Middle East: The Sword Is Trump


The recent escalation of violence between Israel and its Palestinian and Lebanese enemies illustrates yet again a perennial feature of this excruciating conflict: on both sides, those who refuse to compromise hold the trump cards.

Both Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon have the ability to seize the initiative and derail efforts to forge compromise and coexistence. Simply by staging an attack on Israel they simultaneously empower the hardliners on the Israeli side and eviscerate the moderates on both sides. That is obvious to any one who reads the mainstream U.S. press, but the same dynamic applies to Israel.

Each time an Israeli government seriously attempts a settlement, hardliners in the military and among the settlers in the occupied territories can and do derail it by provoking the Palestinians. For example, the army can mount an incursion into Palestinian territory, or settlers can seize and occupy another plot of Palestinian land, thereby provoking Palestinian retaliation which will justify pulling back from the peace process.

A century of bitter and bloody conflict has fertilized the deep roots of the eye-for-an-eye ethic that is central to the traditions of the Middle East. Israel, condemned by Arabs as a Western outpost, has had to relearn its biblical ethic to survive in the region. In such an environment, the peacemaker, the compromiser, is a traitor, for there is always the most recent outrage to avenge. The hardliners know that they can produce a new outrage to motivate their own side simply by attacking the other side. The response will never be long in coming.

The Hizbollah attack shows how this logic grips even the most powerful states in the Middle East. Hizbollah is bankrolled by the Iranians and guided by the Syrians, but may well have acted on its own. Having acted, however, Hizbollah knows that neither Iran nor Syria will undermine its own legitimacy and credibility by condemning what Hizbollah did. No Middle Eastern state has enough popular support and legitimacy to risk being labelled a traitor to the Arab and Islamic cause.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is absolutely central to Middle Eastern politics. The region will never have peace until that conflict is resolved. And the conflict is intrinsically irresolvable because of the cycle of revenge, and because there is no solution that would be acceptable to the hardliners on both sides. It is possible for moderates on both sides to find common ground, but then they are simply repudiated, removed from power, even killed by hardliners. Witness Sadat and Rabin.

The Israeli hardliners insist on keeping the occupied territories and expelling the Palestinians from them if necessary. The Arab hardliners insist that Israel must be extinguished. Even though majorities of both populations might wish a compromise, and even though they elect leaders to work for such a compromise, they still regard the other side as the enemy, and they will still see any attack from the other side as requiring a response in kind.

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Such a destructive dynamic is dangerous not only to Israel and the Arabs, but to the whole world. The United States has a clear interest in controlling the conflict and getting to a peaceful resolution, but we have very few tools with which to do that. Unfortunately, our current policy largely leaves those few tools on the workbench. All U.S. administrations since the establishment of Israel in 1948 have supported the Jewish state, and that is a very large part of the explanation for the pervasive hostility to the United States among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East.


George W. Bush has taken support for Israel to a new level, refraining even from attempting to moderate Israeli behavior. Worse, Bush has refused even to talk with Hamas or Hizbollah, because they are “terrorists,” and with Iran, because it supports Hamas and Hizbollah (and is part of the “Axis of Evil”).

That approach cannot possibly lead to peace. To control a conflict, or to end it, the bitterest enemies must be brought in. Bush, like his predecessors back at least to Carter, seeks to solve the conflict with an accommodation among moderates. What is absolutely necessary—and excruciatingly difficult—is to engage the hardliners on both sides. We should start by talking with them.

John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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