'Moment of opportunity': yes, but only if the US asks Israel the hard questions

President Bush says the horrific violence in Lebanon presents a "moment of opportunity" to solve the crisis in the Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims that the explosions represent merely the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." Both are correct, but, ironically, for reasons they could not have possibly imagined.

The Bush administration continues to cling to the fantasy that a peaceful, prosperous Middle East can be brought about through brute force and capitulation of the enemy. In this fantasy, a "new Middle East" will see the terrorists vanquished, replaced by a happy, pacified populace, embracing American-style democracy. Haven't we heard this before?

The irony of Dr. Rice's twisted "birth pangs" remark: She's right, but for the wrong reason. A new Middle East will surely emerge, but it is likely to be a place more unstable, more hostile to American influence, and more hateful of Israel than at any time since perhaps 1967. Far from weakening Hizbullah, itself a response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the brutal air war of 2006 is only laying the groundwork for future enemies to take comfort in their rage against the Jewish state. Who knows what new Hizbullah is rising from the dust, amid the survivors at Qana?

Which brings us to the second ironic truth. Yes, the president is right: This is a "moment of opportunity," but only if he reverses course, and stops enabling Israel from the punishing behavior that threatens its, and our, long-term interests. Hizbullah is already emerging as the victor in this dirty war, having stood up to Israel and given a humiliated Arab public something to rally around. It is clear by now that Hizbullah, embedded in the fabric of Lebanese society and its image strengthened across the Arab world, will not be destroyed.

All Israel and the US have gained from this brutal pounding, and the deaths of hundreds of innocents, is increasing enmity and further isolation from the Arab world. Indeed, in their tacit and lonely support for Israel's bombing of Lebanese ambulances, homes, roads, airports, and state infrastructure, US officials have done the Jewish state no favors.

A true friend of Israel (never mind the Arabs) would not rush its ally an emergency shipment of precision-guided bombs that it knew would kill more Lebanese civilians. Instead, a true friend would have had the courage to say, "Stop." And then this friend would start asking hard questions about the meaning of long-term security.

Among the questions for Israel: Doesn't this all seem too familiar? Don't you remember 1968, when your forces tried to root out insurgents in the West Bank town of Karama, only to strengthen their leader, Yasser Arafat? Don't you recall 1988, when, trying to weaken Mr. Arafat, you encouraged the growth of Hamas in Gaza? Have you forgotten that Hizbullah grew from the dust of your own bombs during your invasion of Lebanon, a generation ago? Are you so trapped by the wounds of your own terrible history as to repeat these mistakes over and over? Has "never again," tragically, become "again and again?"

Why have you never found the safe harbor you sought for your people? Is it only because you live in a sea of Arab enemies? Or could your own hard response – 10 eyes for an eye, 10 teeth for a tooth – have something to do with it? When will you learn that long-term security cannot come from creating infinitely more enemies? How long will you keep repeating history?

Of course, such a conversation between, say, Mr. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is as much of a fantasy as the president's notion of a "moment of opportunity," or Rice's "birth pangs" illusion. The US is too deeply embedded in a parallel repetition of history in Iraq, and too beholden to its own supporters of Israel, Christian and Jewish alike, to have the courage, or even the perspective, to ask such hard and necessary questions.

Yet, absent such a frank conversation, US officials should at least have the courage to ask themselves how it is in the American national interest to offer blind support to an ally careening down the wrong road. That road, just like the US road in Iraq, is headed off the cliff.

Sandy Tolan is author of "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East." He directs the Project on International Reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley.

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