Long-standing conflicts between peoples often create their own myths – over grievances, appropriate uses of force, and likely paths to peace. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East.
With Israel and Hezbollah engaged in escalating conflict, leaders, experts and media the world over assume predictable, if not helpful, positions on the causes, consequences and likely solutions. But the path to real peace lies in clear-eyed thinking, not mythology. Only by discarding shibboleths will the world grapple effectively with the bloodshed of that region.
Thus, we should discard four myths that cloud thinking about the Middle East and today’s war:
Myth 1: The path to peace lies in an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. Many think so, including President Carter. That’s why he and others call for restarting the Middle East peace process. A resolution on that conflict, they say, would defuse the fighting in southern Lebanon.
But such a resolution presumes that two states, Israel and Palestine, eventually will live side by side in peace. The problem is that key players in today’s war do not share that vision.
Hezbollah and Hamas, the terrorist groups that ignited today’s flames, and Iran (their key state sponsor) are committed to Israel’s destruction. As Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said recently, “There is no solution to this conflict in this region except with the disappearance of Israel.”
His only hope for a Palestinian state is one that replaces the Jewish state.
Myth 2: Peace is always better than war. It’s tempting to think so. But premature peace can prompt a worse war down the road – especially a peace that strengthens its true enemies.
In this case, a cease-fire that leaves Hezbollah to rule over southern Lebanon, outside the control of that nation’s government, would only precipitate more bloodshed. Emboldened that it withstood Israel’s onslaught, Hezbollah would restock its shelves with weapons from Iran and plan its next attack, as would its emboldened partners in terrorism, Hamas and Islamic Palestinian Jihad.
More ominously, Iran would feel emboldened. Watching European leaders pressure the United States to contain Israel, Iran’s leaders would believe more strongly that the West has no stomach for confrontation. Iran not only would provide more funds, more training, and more support to its terrorist clients, it also would push ahead on its quest to develop nuclear weapons.
Myth 3: Talk is always better than silence. Rather than let Israel forcefully confront Hezbollah and Hamas, critics say, the United States should reach out to Iran and Syria, who hold great sway over them.
The hope for talk is rooted in “rational actor” theory – that all people are reasonable and open to persuasion. But the leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and their like-minded disciples are fanatical, not rational. They seek confrontation, not compromise – victory, not accommodation.
A talk with these fanatics would be worse than useless. It would implicitly put certain issues, such as Israel’s existence, on the agenda for discussion. Should President Franklin D. Roosevelt have “talked” to a Hitler while he murdered Jews and conquered Europe? It also could ease the growing pressure on Iran to scrap its nuclear program by subsuming that issue in “talk” as well.
Myth 4: Israel is using “disproportionate” force to defend itself. That’s true if you see no moral distinction between terrorists who target innocent men, women and children and a state that accidentally kills innocents as it targets terrorists. Or if you see no distinction between terrorists who hide behind civilians and a state that warns civilians to depart before dropping bombs.
When attacked by clear-sighted enemies, nations respond with overwhelming force to eliminate the threat. The United States did that after Pearl Harbor, as did Allied forces against the Nazis.
Indeed, some leaders who urge Israeli restraint have made clear they would practice no restraint themselves. French President Jacques Chirac threatened to use nuclear weapons on any state that directed a terrorist attack on France. What’s good for France should be good for Israel.
The myths of the Middle East are enticing. But they will only set back efforts to reach a lasting peace in that troubled region. The only way to make progress is to face realities on the ground.