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A new starting point for peace

The war in Lebanon is not just a battle for territory, but for the existence of Israel.


[Middle East] Haifa, Beirut and many other Lebanese and Israeli cities and villages are under fire. Who, a few weeks ago, would have thought it possible? Worldwide, the reaction to the images from Lebanon, Gaza and Israel has been shocking and disgusting.

It was, of course, well known that Hezbollah – which is rightly considered a terrorist group – had accumulated a stockpile of Katyusha rockets and long-range missiles. It was also no secret that Hezbollah operates as a state within the state, with its highly motivated private army and terrorist structure. It is Hezbollah – not the Lebanese authorities and their army – that has controlled the Lebanese-Israeli border since the Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

Although Hezbollah governs two Lebanese government ministers and several MPs, the group does not promote the interests of the Lebanese state. On the contrary, their interests are defined in Damascus and Tehran where much of the weapons come from. This external control is the main cause of the ongoing tragedy, which in reality is a so-called deputy war.

Who are the deputies for whom, and for what cause? Let's look at the background of this war. Inside Hamas, which is also heavily influenced by Syria and Iran, emerged after the election victory and the subsequent mandate to govern the Palestinian territories, a fundamental debate over whether the organization should recognize the state of Israel. They were right in front of a breakthrough when the Hamas leadership (based in Damascus) ordered the attack on a military post in Israel where several soldiers were killed and one abducted.

Israel's subsequent military response, which inevitably had to cause many Palestinian casualties, was obviously foreseen and even coldly calculated in the calculations of those who organized the attack. The burgeoning Palestinian unity was torpedoed, a recognition of Israel made irrelevant, and the radicals once again lost their victory.

A few days later, Hezbollah followed up with the abduction of two more Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border, making it clear that Hamas and Hezbollah had coordinated their actions to provoke a major confrontation with Israel. All this happened just days before the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, where Iran's nuclear ambitions were the top priority.

Radical forces. The ongoing war in Lebanon is not a war between the Arab world and Israel. On the contrary, it is a war staged by the radical forces of the regions – Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians, Hezbollah in Lebanon, plus Syria and Iran – which categorically rejects any agreement with Israel. There were three reasons for creating the conflict: First, to ease the pressure on Hamas from the Palestinian community to recognize Israel. Secondly, to undermine a democratization of Lebanon that will marginalize Syria. And third, to draw attention to the debate over Iran's nuclear program, and to demonstrate to the West what "tools" they have at their disposal in the event of a conflict.

Moderate Arab governments are fully aware of what is at stake in this war: It is about Syria's regional hegemony over Lebanon and Palestine, and about Iran's hegemonic demands on the entire Middle East. Nevertheless, the war in Lebanon and Gaza may prove to be a gross miscalculation on the part of the radicals. By firing rockets at Haifa, Israel's third largest city, a border has been blown. From now on it is no longer a matter of territories, chargebacks or occupation. Instead, the main question has become the strategic threat to Israel's existence.

The dismissive front has underestimated Israel's determination and retaliation ability. It has been proven that there is no way back to the status quo in Lebanon, and Iran's hegemonic ambitions have been revealed to the whole world. The unstrategic of this is obvious, because it doesn't take much imagination to see what the Middle East would look like if an Iranian nuclear umbrella were to protect the radicals.

The error calculation will become apparent as four conditions develop:

  • Israel avoids being drawn into a ground war in Lebanon.
  • UN Resolution 1559 – which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon with the help of the international community – is implemented and a return to the status quo is made impossible.
  • Today's (de facto) anti-hegemonic coalition, made up of moderate Arab states (including moderate Palestinians) is developing into a solid and serious peace alternative.
  • The Middle East Quartet, led by the United States, is actively involved in a viable solution and provides the necessary political, economic and military guarantees to maintain the solution over time.

Opportunities for peace. Israel has a key role to play here. Twice, they unilaterally withdrew forces to the recognized borders – from southern Lebanon and Gaza. Both times, Israel's land-for-peace strategy resulted in land-for-war. Now that Israel's existence is threatened, a peace settlement with neighboring Arab states seems more unattainable than ever.

I think today's war in Lebanon can open up new opportunities for peace. The quicker the weapons in Lebanon, the better. But let's not forget the starting point of the war: the conflict within Hamas for possible recognition of Israel. Let us also not forget the moderate Arab governments' attitude towards this war and the hidden intentions of those who started it.

Israel's security makes a restructuring of Lebanon's internal organization and a guarantee of state sovereignty an indisputable point. The time has come to play the Syrian card and help President Bashar-al-Assad get in the way of normalization. With the Golan Heights, Israel has the key in hand. Without Syria, Iran is completely alone. Iraq would also benefit from such a development.

The situation is not as hopeless for the Palestinians as it seems. In Israeli prisons, consensus among Fatah and Hamas Palestinians has developed a consensus to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. This new Palestinian realism must be supported. But there is no way beyond the historical point of June 1967 (for some parties).

Has understanding of a new strategic threat made debates about land and settlements seem irrelevant to Israelis? Because this war is aimed at the existence of Israel, strategic and thus regional security will become all the more important.

So how will Israel define its security in the future? At the moment, Israel is emphasizing massive retaliation, but they would benefit from taking advantage of the political and diplomatic opportunities this war brings to take the initiative to invite a comprehensive peace to all who acknowledge their existence and distance themselves from violence on a permanent basis. – not only in words, but also in actions.

This is the moment to think big! This applies not only to Israel and its neighbors, but also to the United States and Europe. This war offers an opportunity for lasting peace. We must not let it go.

By: Joschka Fischer

Joschka Fischer has been leader of the German Green Party for 20 years, German Foreign Minister and Vice-Chancellor from 1998 to 2005.

© Project Syndicate / Institute for Human Sciences

Translated by Anne Arneberg

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