Dump myths to start on a path to a real Mideast peace

August 08, 2006|By LAWRENCE J. HAAS

WASHINGTON -- Longstanding conflicts between peoples often create 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.

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."

Myth 2: Peace is always better than war. But premature peace can prompt a worse war down the road - especially a peace that strengthens its true enemies. A cease-fire that leaves Hezbollah to rule over southern Lebanon, outside the control of that nation's government, will only precipitate more bloodshed.

Emboldened that it withstood Israel's onslaught, Hezbollah will restock with weapons from Iran and plan its next attack, as will its emboldened partners in terrorism, Hamas and Islamic Palestinian Jihad. More ominously, Iran will feel emboldened.

Watching European officials pressure the United States to contain Israel, Iran's leaders will believe more strongly that the West has no stomach for confrontation. Iran not only will provide more funds, more training and more support to its terrorist clients, it also will 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 the "rational actor" theory - that all people are reasonable and open to persuasion. But the leaders of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and their disciples 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 killed Jews and conquered Europe?

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.

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 set back efforts to reach a lasting peace. The only way to make progress is to face realities on the ground.

Lawrence J. Haas is a visiting senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute. His e-mail is ljh23@georgetown.edu.

Columnists Clarence Page and Trudy Rubin are on vacation.

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