The laws of physics say that actions produce equivalent counteractions, and in international relations these may not be what’s expected.

American policy in the Middle East under George Bush and Condoleezza Rice has sought to polarize the region’s forces in the belief that it benefits by promoting a clear confrontation between those, as President George W. Bush said in 2001, “who are with us and those who are against us.” Washington reckons that it wins because it is, in conventional terms, the more powerful.

But suppose the situation is not a conventional one, and the application of power produces ricochet, indirect or asymmetrical reactions. Take the case of Lebanon, whose modern history is one of compromise among the communities that make up the country, which are not automatically hostile to one another but have distinct and divergent interests, and historically have also been the object of foreign intervention and attempts to set the communities against one another.

American policy has never acknowledged the fact that, to exist as a nation, the divided Lebanese have to compromise. Washington and Israel have both consistently seen Lebanon as a country that could be divided, polarized and toppled into their camp, or made to serve their interests inside the Arab camp.

Both have promoted policies intended to put the Christians in power over the Muslims, and if that proved impossible (as it has), to promote an alliance of Sunni Muslims, Druze and Christians against the Syrian- and Iranian-supported Hezbollah.

Take what has just happened. Hezbollah, the movement that has mobilized what historically has been the poorest and least powerful Lebanese community, that of the Shiite population, has seen its power and prestige vastly increased by recent Israeli actions. Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Lebanon in 2006, provoked by Hezbollah, intended by Israel to destroy or decisively weaken Hezbollah by causing the other communities to hold it responsible for the war, was a failure.

This did not happen. Hezbollah was hailed as the victor over Israel. Lebanon nonetheless has since been in a political stalemate between what usually has been described as the “American-backed” prime minister and the hostile Shiite sympathizers of Hezbollah, over nomination of a new president.

In May, the prime minister ordered dismantlement of a secret Hezbollah-controlled communications network, clearly built to improve Hezbollah’s military performance in another war. Another crisis ensued, during which Hezbollah and allied Amal armed militants displayed their military strength by occupying western Beirut, and their political sophistication by going no further. They accepted a proposal by the secretary-general of the Arab League and the emir of Qatar for talks to settle the crisis.

This Arab intervention was an unpleasant surprise to Washington, but produced agreement for a new government under a new president, the former head of the carefully neutral Lebanese army. He has been sworn into office.

Jonathan Power, the experienced commentator on Third World affairs, has recently drawn attention to another case where policies aimed at one result have produced its opposite, this time in Israel.

He quotes Edward Luttwak’s argument (last year, in Prospect magazine) that the Middle East since the end of the Cold War has lost its strategic interest for the West. It possesses oil, certainly. But it is much easier to buy oil on the international market than to invade countries and fight for it. The American experience in Iraq demonstrates that.

The West, and the United States in particular, has always acknowledged a strategic interest, as well as moral obligation, to defend a Jewish Israel. However, the strategic interest now is absent, and as Power says, there may soon no longer be a Jewish Israel.

Israel’s systematic colonization and annexation of the Palestinian territories over the last 40 years, and equally systematic opposition to the creation of an independent Palestinian state — no longer a serious prospect, as was evident during President’s Bush’s recent visit to Israel — have turned Israel into an Arab-Jewish state under Jewish control.

The Palestinian Authority, realistically speaking, has ceased to exist; it is simply an agent of the Israeli government. Israel’s problem now is how to survive as a religiously divided single state, half-free and half-occupied.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert both warned their people that this would happen. It is why Sharon withdrew from Gaza. But that solved nothing, as the building of colonies continued, and continues.

Israel now finds itself a single amalgamated political entity with a huge Palestinian minority, which before long will become a majority, living in quasi-apartheid conditions. The defense of such a state can scarcely be described as a Western strategic interest.

Defend it against what? No Arab government has any interest in attacking it. The only threat to it is the hypothetical one of Iran’s as-yet-hypothetical nuclear weapons. But why should Iran attack it, as Israel undoes itself as a Jewish state?

It will have serious continuing problems of internal unrest and control, if Hamas and other groups function as domestic resistance movements. But no foreign country can do anything about that, nor would want to.

The Zionist movement, by insisting on keeping possession of Palestine, and the Palestinian population conquered in 1967, has destroyed the Jewish state it was its dream to create. This only now is being recognized.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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