Commentary Magazine


Topic: trusted mediator

War and Peace in the Levant

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

The dramatic scale of Hezbollah’s rearmament will not be without consequences. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told Haaretz yesterday that “he was growing increasingly worried by reports describing the quantity and types of weapons being smuggled to the terrorist organization.” The Washington Post reports that Hezbollah has dispersed its rockets throughout Lebanon, ensuring a conflict that will engulf the entire country. Tony Badran wonders whether Bashar Assad has foolishly convinced himself that he will again be held harmless if another war breaks out.

The war calculations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah involve an estimation of how much time the Obama administration will give Israel to fight. In 2006 — very much owing, of course, to Israel’s poor performance — the IDF fought for only a month before accepting terms from the UN. There are good reasons to believe that next time, Israel will have even less time.

A new war would explode the myth that Obama’s outreach to the Arabs and pressure on Israel have set the Middle East on a new path. Israeli-Arab wars, this narrative holds, were the kind of things that happened during the Bush years, when the president ignored the peace process and alienated Muslims, and neocons imperiled world peace before breakfast. To have a war unfold in the enlightened, post-Cairo speech era, after dozens of visits by George Mitchell to the region — that would be quite an embarrassment.

How many days — much less weeks — would pass before Obama began criticizing the Israeli operation and refusing diplomatic protection at the UN?

The resistance groups are surely counting on America to enforce a short conflict that restricts the IDF’s ability to strike back forcefully at Hezbollah. But it is not clear, given Obama’s declining political fortunes, how much leverage he will have over Israel. In private, the Arabs will be telling Obama to let Israel finish the job. What Nasrallah is counting on, Obama may not be able to deliver. Or may choose not to. Or F-16s may begin sorties over Damascus. The uncertainty about where America stands is dangerous.

Obama hoped that tilting the United States away from Israel and toward the Arabs would transform America into an “honest broker” and, therefore, a trusted mediator. He has been fastidiously promoting a narrative of equal culpability. But as we have seen over the past year, this rhetoric, aside from its departure from reality, alienates Israelis while gaining nothing from the Arabs but a hardening in their belief that their intransigence will win out in the end.

To the extent that Obama’s evenhandedness is interpreted by Hezbollah as a sign that the risks associated with another attack on Israel have been lessened, there will be a heightened likelihood of conflict. America, as the ultimate guarantor of the regional order, has over the past few decades internalized a hard truth about the Middle East: be a strong ally of Israel and prevent conflict, or be an indecisive friend and invite conflict. Obama imagines that his presidency allows the United States to transcend old choices — “false choices” as he calls them — but one decision he will always have to make is where he stands between friends and enemies. Not to choose is also a choice.

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