CAIRO — The Middle East is a place where the dust hardly ever settles. When it occasionally does, even for a short interval — as U.N. Resolution 1701 for cessation of hostilities in Lebanon seems to be holding — it is time to take stock of events in the hopes that a responsible debate may influence those in power.
Let’s start with the United States. President George W. Bush has been short on neither initiatives nor catchy slogans and acronyms. Recent years are littered with them: Global War on Terror, Road Map, Middle East Partnership Initiative, Broader Middle East and North Africa — originally Greater Middle East Initiative — Democracy Assisted Dialogue, and so on. His latest reverie, envisioned in the thick of the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, was the New Middle East (NME), with U.S. clients Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia serving as the pillars of regional order.
But like all his previous initiatives since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington almost five years ago now, the NME ran into trouble from the outset. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced its birth while rejecting an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Her poor timing made the initiative appear heartless, as thousands of civilians were being uprooted, killed or maimed by Israel’s ruthless artillery and air force.
This so embarrassed the three Arab NME partners that each raced to distance itself from the U.S.-sponsored initiative. Saudi Arabia, which had remained silent for nearly two weeks, did so with a $500 million contribution to rebuilding devastated areas of Lebanon and another billion to support Lebanon’s threatened currency.
Egypt’s heir apparent Gamal Mubarak followed suit in the fourth week of the fighting by heading a 70-member delegation on a solidarity visit to Beirut. But, rather than earning him the respect of an outraged Egyptian public, revelations in the opposition press that his plane had to obtain a safe passage and authority to land from the Israelis garnered howls of derision. As for America, anything it touches in the Mideast has become radioactive, even for clients and friends.
In the course of maneuvering to delay the U.N. ceasefire, Bush and Rice continually reiterated the need for a Security Council resolution that deals forcefully with “the roots of the problem.” Of course, for them and for Israel, this was Hezbollah and the need to eradicate or at a minimum disarm it and force its fighters to a safe distance from settlements and towns in northern Israel.
While this is a reasonable demand, the rest of the Middle East — and, indeed, much of the world, including Europe — regard the root cause of the conflict as Israeli intransigence and arrogance, together with America’s blind support for it. Both America and Israel have cited foot-dragging in implementing U.N. Resolution 1559, which calls for disarming all non-state actors in Lebanon and the deployment of government forces all the way to the southern border. But for years the U.S. and Israel have not uttered a word about the dozens of U.N. resolutions, going back as far as Resolution 49 on partition in 1947, which called for the establishment of distinct Arab and Jewish states on roughly half of Mandated Palestine.
This and many other resolutions seeking redress for injustices toward Palestinians have been ignored by the U.S. Thus, for 300 million Arabs, the “root cause” of the Mideast conflict is not Hezbollah. As its leader, Hassan Nasrallah aptly put it, “We are just a reaction to chronic injustice.”
It may well be that there is more than one root cause — every party to the conflict has a favorite one. There is no point in belaboring whose root cause is deeper. In fact, arguing over grievances merely drives the sides further apart.
The overdue U.N. Resolution 1701 may, with its adoption, indicate that all parties are fatigued, or could no longer withstand world pressure. This is good news for all concerned and provides an opportunity to tackle each party’s “root cause.”
Seizing the opportunity requires that humility rather than moral supremacy prevails. Empathy, not ethnocentrism, should be the order of the day now that the guns are falling silent and we have rediscovered the limits of military force.
But if we have learned anything at all from the tragic assassinations of the region’s greatest peacemakers, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it is that the guns do not remain silent for long. During any lull, a fanatic from either side could jump to center stage and, through an act of madness, kick up the settling dust and dash the hopes of the many on both sides who still long for lasting peace.
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