Everybody hurts

There are no winners or losers to come out of the latest Middle East conflict, argues Paddy Ashdown. Listening to Prime Minister Blair’s recent “arc of extremism” speech, with its echoes of King Abdullah of Jordan’s “Shi’ite crescent”, one may have doubts about his grasp of the intricacies of the Middle East.

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By  Paddy Ashdown Published  August 13, 2006

|~||~||~|There are no winners or losers to come out of the latest Middle East conflict, argues Paddy Ashdown. Listening to Prime Minister Blair’s recent “arc of extremism” speech, with its echoes of King Abdullah of Jordan’s “Shi’ite crescent”, one may have doubts about his grasp of the intricacies of the Middle East. But his basic point about the Manichean struggle underway between moderation and extremism in the Arab world is correct. There can be no doubt about who will win this in the end. The great civilising and tolerant religion of Islam will, in the long run, no more fall prey to the forces of extremism, darkness and ignorance, than did Christianity and the West when it to was (still is in some cases) challenged by the call of extremism. Unfortunately, as Keynes once said, in the long term we are all dead. And a large number have been added to the cruel list of the unjust dead in Lebanon and Israel these last weeks. As I write it looks as though as though the United Nations Security Council will, finally, pass a resolution calling for a cease fire and interposing an international force between the warring parties. We are at last, perhaps, God willing coming into the end game of these weeks of tragedy and danger. Not that it will be plain sailing after this – as one part of this crisis draws to a close a new passage, perhaps of equal danger, will open up. If an international force is deployed, how does it steer the delicate course between being too weak and becoming trapped and impotent in the conflict, like the UN in Bosnia – and being too strong and swiftly becoming the enemy that stands between either or both sides and the war aims they have not yet abandoned. An international force, however strong, can only maintain peace by consent – it cannot make peace between two parties who don’t want it. Any international force will need to be strong, strongly backed by the international community and have a strong mandate. All these things can be built in New York. But the crucial condition for their success, the consent of the parties to peace on the ground, can only be built in the Lebanon. Maybe both sides have achieved enough to call it a victory and are exhausted enough to want it to end. The next few days will tell, but I can’t see it yet. What we do not need to wait to see is how much has been lost in all this cruel stupidity. And I am not just referring to the innocent dead – so many of them children – who are filling up the graveyards. Israel has lost most and suddenly finds itself in a weakening position, after decades of, largely, getting its own way in the Middle East. The cornerstone of Israel’s strategy for survival, the invincibility of its armed forces has been severely damaged. Its political position, especially in the West has been weakened by its abandonment of proportionality and the terrible mistakes it has made in targeting. But the Arab world has lost as well. Hezbollah’s sustained and flagrant breach of UN Security Council Resolutions, not just recently, but over the last few years, may have done it no harm on the Arab street. But it has exposed Hezbollah to the wider world as an organisation of threat rather than responsibility. The wisest thing for Hezbollah now would be for it to convert its relative military gains in this contest, into political gains, by showing itself to be a responsible partner in building a new peace in Lebanon. But will it be wise enough to do this ? The biggest losers of all, however have been moderate forces in the Arab world. The real importance of the events in Lebanon may not lie in Lebanon. They may come from a dramatic shift in the centre of gravity of Arab opinion, and especially opinion on the street. The effects of this have yet to be seen – but they are likely to be felt well beyond the borders of Lebanon. Iran and Syria have been the big gainers. They have been wise enough to stay out of the fight and look set now to have a part to play in any wider peace that comes out of all this. And it is to that peace that the world should now turn its attention. The only redeeming feature of these weeks of blood tragedy and loss would be if it led, at last to the wider Middle Eastern settlement which has been so miserably long in coming, which includes at last a resolution to the Palestine problem, which provides the only context for a US exit with dignity from the Iraqi tragedy and which would enable the great nation of Arabs to return to living in peace and harmony once more. ■ Paddy Ashdown is the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats party and High Representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina.||**||

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