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DLC | New Dem Dispatch | July 18, 2006
Understanding the Middle Eastern Crisis

No one can be less than alarmed about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, and the risks to world peace it represents.

But it's critical that we understand exactly how this crisis erupted in order to truly resolve it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being regionalized by terrorist groups backed by Iran and Syria.

Two terrorist organizations with private armies conducted unprovoked attacks against a sovereign state across international borders. Both organizations deny Israel's right to exist. Both operate from territory where no government has the capacity -- or in the case of the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, the will -- to control them. Quite appropriately, Israeli counter-measures are not a matter of reprisals or measured responses, but of removing a threat that no one else is prepared to remove -- a matter of national self-defense.

Thus, all the international calls for Israel to limit itself to "proportional" military action miss the whole point. And proposals such as those made by French president Chirac for an immediate cease-fire represent little more than a demand that Israel stop defending itself and passively wait until the next time Hamas or Hezbollah chooses to kidnap or kill soldiers or rain missiles down on Israeli civilians.

Israel should be smart and strategic in its response to these attacks. Israel should limit its military strikes in Lebanon to those necessary to disable or destroy Hezbollah. It's in Israel's interests, and in those of the region as a whole, to have a stable government in Lebanon that is capable of controlling terrorists and of acting as a peaceful neighbor. The last thing the Middle East needs is another failed state, and the last thing Israel and the United States need is a pro-jihadist backlash in the region.

If the international community wants Israel to stop short of removing the terrorist threat, then the international community needs to:

(1) Make it clear it repudiates the rejectionist claim that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish State and condemns terrorism against Israel just as it does terrorism against any other state. Europeans in particular have long advanced an implicit and unique exception for anti-Israeli terrorists on grounds that they have a "right to resistance" against Israeli occupation of territories obtained since 1967. But both Hamas and Hezbollah are operating from territories Israeli has unilaterally abandoned; and both explicitly reject Israel's existence within boundaries established in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. This is about Israeli sovereignty, not Israeli occupations, and terrorist acts against Israel should be opposed just as strongly as terrorist acts against, say, France.

(2) Find a way to enforce the long-standing UN mandate that Hezbollah be disarmed. The revival of Lebanon after its long civil war was based in part on the idea that Hezbollah would disband its militias and pursue its goals through peaceful political activity. It has indeed become part of the Lebanese political system, but also maintains the strongest military force in the country, thanks to massive infusions of Iranian money, training and weaponry. If UN Security Council members don't want Israel to destroy Hezbollah's military arm, they must commit themselves to do it themselves, by deploying a real international force in southern Lebanon that can prevent future attacks on Israel once the current fighting is over.

(3) Intensify pressure against Hamas to recognize Israel and reject terrorism if it wants to be regarded as a legitimate governing party. Like Hezbollah, Hamas faces a choice between terrorism or democratic politics; it cannot have it both ways. To their credit, Palestine's European paymasters supported U.S. efforts to cut off subsidies to the Palestinian Authority until such time as Hamas abandoned its rejectionist policies and terrorist tactics. But Hamas has abundantly confirmed its status as a Jihadist terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel, in both actions and rhetoric (such as The Washington Post op-ed last week by the Palestinian Authority prime minister pledging continued attacks on Israeli civilians until such time as Israel dealt with the "core 1948 issues," meaning the existence of a Jewish State). Hamas needs to be taken at its word and treated accordingly.

(4) Isolate and sanction Iran and Syria until such time as they stop serving as staging grounds and paymasters for rejectionist terrorism. The case for international action against Iran was overwhelming even before last week's events, given Tehran's serial defiance of global non-proliferation policies. Its deep complicity in the attacks on Israel -- Iran heavily finances and supplies Hezbollah, and also recently began channeling aid to Hamas, after a conference confirming Iran's determination to wipe Israel off the map -- makes such action urgent. Emboldened by international tolerance, and also by the preoccupation of the United States with Iraq, Iran is clearly pressing ahead with an agenda to destabilize the Middle East and establish itself as the dominant regional power. Iran's chief ally in the region, Syria, was nicely positioned to help in this flanking tactic, given its long support for Hamas and its residual interests in controlling Lebanon.

Both Tehran and Damascus have become clear threats to regional and world peace, and must be isolated and sanctioned, not appeased. Weapons transfers to terrorist groups must stop. Terrorist headquarters must be shut down. Those who fear Israeli military action against either regime need to supply an alternative way to rein in these rogue states. And Russia and China must finally understand that if they want to be great powers in a post-Cold War world, they must abandon their Cold War habit of aiding and abetting anti-western tyrants in Tehran, Damascus or Pyongyang.

And that's really the bottom line about how the United States should guide the international community in this crisis: deal with the problems if you don't want Israel to deal with them on their own terms, as it must. The administration should dispatch Secretary of State Condi Rice to the region to lead diplomatic efforts aimed at disarming Hezbollah, reining in Hamas, and imposing real sanctions on Iran and Syria for their complicity in terrorism.

The reality right now is that the fight against jihadism has entered a new and even more dangerous phase. If the United States aggressively pursues a multilateral, anti-jihadist strategy in this case or others, then we will be in a better position to not only serve as a peacemaker in the Middle East, but to reprise America's Cold War leadership in creating a collective security system that can thwart terrorists and tyrants alike.

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