- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The biggest stumbling block to peace in the Middle East is the mindset of suspicion, reaction and hatred among its sentient people. That “comfort zone” ultimately hurts those who practice it far more than it hurts the objects of their vitriol.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is an excellent example. Nasrallah was once seen as the undisputed Lebanese patriot, fighting for Lebanese sovereignty. “Hassan Nasrallah enjoyed a great deal of support in Lebanon when Hezbollah was fighting the Israeli occupation troops before the Israelis withdrew in the year 2000,” said Hisham Melhem, Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau chief, at a New America Foundation event last week on developments in Beirut. “[He] became at least 10 feet tall when he lost his 18-year-old son fighting Israelis in South Lebanon. He has that kind of stature no Arab leader ” can claim,” he said.

Today, however, many Lebanese people see Nasrallah’s actions as impinging on Lebanese sovereignty and bringing to light the influence of Iran and Syria in Beirut. Worse, Hezbollah is targeting and killing Lebanese citizens. Unlike the civil wars in Lebanon in 1958 and 1975, recent fighting in Beirut has been deeply sectarian — and as a result, the Saudi “[k]ing is even more hawkish than Bush and concerned about what he believes is Tehran’s march through the Middle East,” the Washington Post reported Saturday. “Abdullah wants to see the Bush administration bring greater pressure on Iran.”

President Bush stopped in Riyadh during his Middle East tour last week, asking for help in navigating the region’s challenging dynamics and dealing with surging oil prices. What Mr. Bush and the Saudi king agreed to — if anything — will become clear in time. Abdullah may demand that the United States be more proactive toward Iran. But for now, two things are obvious.

First, the United States cannot pressure Iran; it has no leverage. The war in Iraq and American policies in the Middle East have won the United States no Muslim allies in the region. The Middle East’s Arab-Muslim population does not want the United States to take military or even diplomatic action to halt Iran’s nuclear activities. More than a year ago, the University of Maryland and Zogby International conducted a poll in seven countries — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. An average of 61 percent of respondents said Iran has a right to its nuclear program; 51 percent said they believe Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Only Israelis feel directly threatened by Iran’s nuclear program.

However, the polled countries’ leaders think differently. America’s problem with Iran began with the Islamic revolution but the conflict between Iran and Sunni Arabs goes back centuries. Logically, the fight with the United States is easier to solve — and that, coupled with the debate in Washington over whether to negotiate with Tehran — makes the Arab states nervous. What seems an obvious defeat for the United States in the region may not be definitive. The Arab countries do not understand the United States‘ actions or motives — which makes it impossible for them to cooperate with the United States in Iraq. Yet their leaders worry about Iran’s growing influence.

Second, Iran has skillfully mastered and manipulated the Palestinian issue to gain favor among Sunni Arabs. Hezbollah has gained a bigger foothold in Lebanon by being elected to the parliament and has surely placed its people in key positions, with an exclusive telecommunications network and a surveillance program at Beirut’s airport. Clearly, this mode of operations does nothing to advance Lebanese unity and solidarity. Yet the government’s brief decision to halt Hezbollah’s exclusive access came to a quick end. Nasrallah proved who holds the power in the country. But it’s also not without historical precedent.

“Hitler justified Munich by concern for Sudeten Germans,” said Stanley Kober, a research fellow at the Cato Institute. “He got the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia. Once he was behind the Czech defenses, he took the rest of the country in 1939. At that point, British opinion hardened, but too late for the Czechs. Britain extended a guarantee to Poland. [Then] Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II [began].” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.

But while hatred of Israel constantly grows in the region, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he is committed to a two-state solution and to recognizing the previous agreements regarding the Jewish state’s right to exist. Surely, the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma will not be solved bilaterally. Yet one wonders whether the regional players are really looking out for the Palestinians’ best interests.

Israelis pay a price to live in an environment filled with hatred toward them. But in the end, the side that blames Israel and the United States for everything that goes wrong loses the most. Hatred keeps people in the dark — and is radicalizing the region. It may be time for Arab Muslims to admit and address the fact that “political Islam” has brought them more destruction than the West has.

Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.

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