Blinded by a concept
THE FAILURE OF Israel to subdue Hezbollah demonstrates the many weaknesses of the war-on-terror concept. One of those weaknesses is that even if the targets are terrorists, the victims are often innocent civilians, and their suffering reinforces the terrorist cause.
In response to Hezbollah's attacks, Israel was justified in attacking Hezbollah to protect itself against the threat of missiles on its border. However, Israel should have taken greater care to minimize collateral damage. The civilian casualties and material damage inflicted on Lebanon inflamed Muslims and world opinion against Israel and converted Hezbollah from aggressors to heroes of resistance for many. Weakening Lebanon has also made it more difficult to rein in Hezbollah.
Another weakness of the war-on-terror concept is that it relies on military action and rules out political approaches. Israel previously withdrew from Lebanon and then from Gaza unilaterally, rather than negotiating political settlements with the Lebanese government and the Palestinian authority. The strengthening of Hezbollah and Hamas was a direct consequence of that approach. The war-on-terror concept stands in the way of recognizing this fact because it separates ``us" from ``them" and denies that our actions help shape their behavior.
A third weakness is that the war-on-terror concept lumps together different political movements that use terrorist tactics. It fails to distinguish among Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, or the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi militia in Iraq. Yet all these terrorist manifestations, being different, require different responses. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah can be treated merely as targets in the war on terror because both have deep roots in their societies; yet there are profound differences between them.
Looking back, it is easy to see where Israeli policy went wrong. When Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Israel should have gone out of its way to strengthen him and his reformist team. When Israel withdrew from Gaza, the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, negotiated a six-point plan on behalf of the Quartet for the Middle East (Russia, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations). It included opening crossings between Gaza and the West Bank, allowing an airport and seaport in Gaza, opening the border with Egypt; and transferring the greenhouses abandoned by Israeli settlers into Arab hands. None of the six points was implemented. This contributed to Hamas's electoral victory. The Bush administration, having pushed Israel to allow the Palestinians to hold elections, then backed Israel's refusal to deal with a Hamas government. The effect was to impose further hardship on the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, Abbas was able to forge an agreement with the political arm of Hamas for the formation of a unity government. It was to foil this agreement that the military branch of Hamas, run from Damascus, engaged in the provocation that brought a heavy-handed response from Israel -- which in turn incited Hezbollah to further provocation, opening a second front.
That is how extremists play off against each other to destroy any chance of political progress.
Israel has been a participant in this game, and President Bush bought into this flawed policy, uncritically supporting Israel. Events have shown that this policy leads to the escalation of violence. The process has advanced to the point where Israel's unquestioned military superiority is no longer sufficient to overcome the negative consequences of its policy. Israel is now more endangered in its existence than it was at the time of the Oslo Agreement on peace.
Similarly, the United States has become less safe since Bush declared war on terror.
The time has come to realize that the present policies are counterproductive. There will be no end to the vicious circle of escalating violence without a political settlement of the Palestine question. In fact, the prospects for engaging in negotiations are better now than they were a few months ago. The Israelis must realize that a military deterrent is not sufficient on its own. And Arabs, having redeemed themselves on the battlefield, may be more willing to entertain a compromise.
There are strong voices arguing that Israel must never negotiate from a position of weakness. They are wrong. Israel's position is liable to become weaker the longer it persists on its present course. Similarly Hezbollah, having tasted the sense but not the reality of victory (and egged on by Syria and Iran) may prove recalcitrant. But that is where the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas comes into play. The Palestinian people yearn for peace and relief from suffering. The political -- as distinct from the military -- wing of Hamas must be responsive to their desires. It is not too late for Israel to encourage and deal with an Abbas-led Palestinian unity government as the first step toward a better-balanced approach.
Given how strong the US-Israeli relationship is, it would help Israel to achieve its own legitimate aims if the US government were not blinded by the war-on-terror concept.
George Soros, a financier and philanthropist, is author of ``The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror."
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company