The Next Middle Eastern War

Regional powers must avoid another war with Israel. Armed conflict will never achieve peace.

For the past six months or so, twice a week the regional and international media warn about the looming risk of war between some combination of Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and Arab- or Iranian-backed popular militias. The stories’ frequency and regularity are striking, and presumably based on some certainties for this war-is-coming mindset.

Equally striking is the depth of details about the enhanced and substantial war-making capabilities of both sides, in particular Israel and Hezbollah. I doubt anyone else will be seriously involved in the next war, whenever it comes. Having lived through the last such battle in 2006, with the sound of Israeli missiles whizzing over our apartment to strike an old communications tower on the Beirut shoreline, I believe the stories that say the ferocity and extent of the fighting to come would cause unprecedented damage in Israel and Lebanon, mostly to civilians.

Having also lived through the last fifty years of Arab-Israeli wars, I also have no doubt that one more war—however barbaric and destructive it would be—would not solve anything, but would only make things worse in the post-war period. One more Hezbollah-Israel war would only pave the way for even worse things ahead, if we do not resolve the core issues that have made our lives a long-running tragedy of destruction and wasted national capabilities on both sides. This has been the case for the past one hundred years of the conflict between Arabism and Zionism.

What started early in the twentieth century as occasional local skirmishes between handfuls of fighters for control of a farm, a hilltop, or some village fields, during Palestine’s transition from Ottoman to British control, has always—always—seen every round of fighting give birth in the post-war period to reinvigorated capabilities and will to fight on both sides, because they never resolved the core reasons that pushed them to war in the first place, and often created new issues that had to be resolved.

Those handfuls of rag-tag village and kibbutz fighters a century ago have now become hundreds of thousands of both sides’ armed soldiers, another several hundred thousand missiles and rockets, hundreds of advanced fighter jets, nuclear weapons, assorted banned weapons, significant capabilities in drones and electronic warfare, and perhaps a few million crazed citizens on both sides who are willing to charge at the other and fight to the finish. In the past sixty years the conflict that was left unresolved has given birth to Israeli nuclear weapons, Lebanese resistance movements in the south, Israel’s occupation of Syrian and Palestinian lands, the birth of Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and Syria, terror attacks against civilians on all sides, and the expanding Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli colonial practices.

The gravity of a new war’s devastating consequences on civilians and national infrastructure has now prompted assorted scenarios to prevent an accidental war from breaking out, or to minimize its extent if it does happen. Those might be useful efforts, but history again suggests that we cannot avoid another round of devastating war that ravages entire countries if we leave the fruits of past conflicts—occupied lands, denied national integrity, settler-colonialism—to ripen and blossom annually with the certainty of the changing seasons.

We would be much better advised to find a way to prod all sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and those who have joined it, like Iran and the United States, to go back to square one and ask some simple questions that can be found in any introductory primer on conflict-resolution: What are the core territorial and political issues in this dispute? Do we know the proven positions of the populations engaged in this battle on terms for accepting a negotiated, permanent peace? Are there proposals on the table that would allow leaders of both sides to agree on a permanent resolution of the conflict’s many dimensions, and thus eliminate once and for all the continued underlying causes of war?

The Arab, Israeli, Iranian, and American leaders who manage war scenarios have acted with astounding and continuing collective incompetence in resolving this conflict, for reasons that I cannot understand. The few potential breakthroughs in the past century—the mid-1970s disengagement agreements, the 1990s Madrid Peace Conference, the bilateral Jordan-Egypt-Israel peace agreements, the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords—all failed to push the parties to a comprehensive, permanent peace.

So the small and big wars continue, alongside regular assassinations, missile attacks, and other limited military actions, after which new organizations and capabilities are always born and prepare to fight the next, more devastating war. It is human nature, probably, that sees the indomitable human will to survive muster its fighting capabilities, in situations where diplomacy and reasonable compromises have failed repeatedly to achieve the satisfactory exercise of mutual national rights.

We know both sides can fight, as they have proven over and over again. We also know neither side will surrender, as they have also proven. Why have we never seen these obviously determined and able leaders put their minds to resolving equitably the underlying issues that keep them fighting and their people suffering?

Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global