- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2006

“By doing the Lord’s work,” as columnist Lawrence Kudlow put it, “Israel is defending… its very existence but also America’s homeland as our frontline democratic ally in the Middle East.”

Hyperbolic rhetoric on all sides of the latest Middle Eastern crisis has been a boon to the law of unintended consequences. The Israel-can-do-no-wrong school holds we are now in World War IV (World War III was the Cold War). Notwithstanding Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s diplomatic heft, the situation is clearly beyond diplomacy. Nothing will deter Israel from obliterating both the Hezbollah and Hamas militias, as the U.S. obliterated the Saddam Hussein regime. Then come the insurgencies.

In Iraq, 31/2 years after the U.S. invasion, the civilian casualty toll has grown to about 100 a day. In Afghanistan, almost six years after Operation Enduring Freedom, a resurgent Taliban took over a town and a village with weapons purchased with the local hard currency — opium poppies and heroin.

Iraq proved to be a force multiplier for jihadi recruitment in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Beirut, already a martyred city after 15 years of civil war bloodletting, will now be the next big boost for those who blame a U.S.-Zionist conspiracy for the latest wave of death and destruction.

Quickly forgotten is the capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah that triggered Israel’s air, sea and ground offensives in both Gaza and Lebanon. From the Arab world’s radical media to Europe’s liberal media, a consensus has emerged that Israel has far more ambitious objectives: the toppling of the Assad dictatorship in Syria and the Mullahocracy in Iran.

A regional war is in the offing. Israel’s ultimatum to Hezbollah to cease and desist its military activities in Lebanon is not Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s decision to take. Hezbollah’s chain of command goes up to Revolutionary Guard headquarters in Tehran to Iran’s Supreme Religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Qom. Such a decision would bypass President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who does not control the Revolutionary Guards, the armed forces or the intelligence services. But Mr. Ahmadinejad would welcome a regional upheaval as an opportunity to “wipe Israel off the map.” Israeli and/or U.S. air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, in his optic, would be the detonator for mayhem throughout the region. And Mr. Ahmadinejad has powerful supporters among Qom’s retrograde clerics.

President Bush seems to believe Syrian President Bashar Assad holds the whip hand over Hezbollah and is itching to get back into Lebanon. Nothing could be further removed from present realities. When Syria occupied and controlled Lebanon (1976-March 2006), it kept Hezbollah on a short leash. Iranian rocket and missile supplies transited through Damascus airport to Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon, but Syria’s all-pervasive intelligence apparatus made sure nothing happened that might provoke Israeli retaliation against Syria.

Today, Iran, not Syria, controls Hezbollah through the Revolutionary Guards’ al Quds operatives whose assignment is to train foreign forces to use more sophisticated Iran-supplied missiles (e.g., the C-802 cruise missile that disabled an Israeli warship last week).

Even Syria’s detractors in Lebanon conceded Syrian forces had been a “stabilizing” force in the country’s volatile politics. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war produced neither victors nor vanquished — and this despite the loss of the equivalent of 11 million Americans killed (given the population ratio).

Lebanon spent billions rebuilding Beirut, which once again became the Paris of the Middle East. Its principal source of revenue is tourism. Wealthy Gulf oil sheiks and Saudi royals maintain summer homes in and around Beirut. Millions of foreigners came to Lebanon for their summer vacations. But the east-west divide between pro-Western Christians (40 percent) and Muslims was never really bridged, only papered over. In 2005 elections, the Shia Hezbollah (Party of God) went from eight to 23 seats in Lebanon’s 128-member parliament, and now has two ministers plus one approved by Hezbollah in the country’s coalition government. It is renowned for its social services, unmatched by other political parties.

Hezbollah was created in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion when Israeli troops reached Beirut. The 1987 Palestinian intifada against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank gave birth to Hamas, the political party that won free elections last January, and whose capture of one Israeli soldier set off massive retaliatory action.

Prisoner exchanges have taken place several times in previous years. And both Hamas and Hezbollah claim this is what they had planned to bring about with their three Israeli prisoners. But Israel seized a strategic opportunity to create new geopolitical facts.

Dead as the dodo is the idea of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has no further reason to have a “balanced” and “measured” response to the capture of three of its soldiers. The time for patience has run out. Gone, too, is any pretense of U.S. even-handedness between Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli air-land-sea restraint will only come after Hezbollah has been totally flushed out of southern Lebanon and replaced there by the Lebanese army. This may be a bridge too far.

The poorly trained and led Lebanese army is no match for Hezbollah’s militia. The more damage and chaos Israel brings to Lebanon, the more Islamist extremists will join the anti-U.S. crusade. Hezbollah’s Mr. Nasrallah, speaking the language of jihad, calls the new facts Israel has created “a historic opportunity to score a defeat against the Zionist enemy.” Go figure.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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