This time may be different

Michael Barone

7/24/2006 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

This Middle East crisis is different from all other Middle East crises. Over the years, since the Six-Day War of 1967, the United States and other onlookers have gotten used to a certain kind of Middle East crisis. Palestinians or their sympathizers would threaten and wreak violence against Israel. Israel would respond, sometimes locally, sometimes by major actions like the defensive War of 1973 or the occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982. The cry would go up: Let the cycle of violence end, let Israel give up land that it has occupied in return for peace.

On occasion, with established states whose leaders decided they had no interest in continuing violence, the recommended solution would work. Anwar Sadat of Egypt, the one nation whose giant demographic size made it an existential threat to Israel, decided to go to Jerusalem and then to Camp David where, under the tutelage of Jimmy Carter, he and Israel's Menachem Begin made what has turned out to be a cold peace. The late King Hussein of Jordan, threatened by Palestinian terrorists himself, dealt quietly with Israel and, in time, made a formal peace as well. Sadat and Hussein, and their successors, never really wanted to destroy Israel. So they made peace.

The formula of land for peace has not worked as well with others. Bill Clinton devoted much of his vast psychic energy and negotiating skill to making a land-for-peace deal between first Yitzhak Rabin and then Ehud Barak of Israel, and Yasir Arafat of the PLO. In 2000, he got Barak to offer Arafat the lion's share of the West Bank and Gaza in return for peace. Arafat refused and launched the Second Intifada instead. Rabin and Barak, both distinguished military leaders, imagined that Arafat wanted land enough to make peace. But Arafat preferred the armed struggle that left him in control of Palestinian Authority funds. He encouraged the Palestinian people to continue to lust after the destruction of Israel.

Today, almost no one is demanding a land-for-peace deal. The reason is obvious. Israel left the Gaza strip last year, and the Palestinians there, instead of observing a cold peace, began launching missiles into Israel and elected a Hamas government that seeks Israel's destruction. Now, Hamas forces have killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Similarly, Israel left southern Lebanon to the tender mercies of Iran-supported Hezbollah fully six years ago. But Hezbollah, urged on by the Iranian mullahs who want to deflect attention from their nuclear program, has lobbed missiles into Haifa and attacked Israeli soldiers.

No government can be expected to ignore such armed attacks on its people and its military forces. Land-for-peace is a non-starter. Hamas and Hezbollah already have land. And they have made it clear that they will never willingly make peace.

The Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah has also prompted leaders of other Arab nations to respond differently than they have in Middle East crises in the past. Then, they were content to give verbal support to the likes of Arafat, to please the "Arab street" and the intellectuals in their own countries. Arafat and his ilk posed no real threat to them. But they have responded very differently to this crisis, which appears to be an attempt by the Iranian mullahs to project their influence throughout the region. Iran, with its missiles and its nuclear program, with its non-Arab ethnicity and militant Shiite Islam, is a threat to the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Hence their denunciations of the Hezbollah attacks.

The guiding impulse of most leaders in Europe and of many in the United States is to seek some sort of negotiated compromise. That is what Bill Clinton did when Hezbollah attacked Israel 10 years ago, and he sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher to negotiate with President Hafez Assad of Syria. But today, even the Europeans recognize that this approach is not only futile, but dangerous. Syria is a cat's-paw of Iran, and Iran, with its missiles and possible warheads, is an existential threat not only to others in the Middle East, but to Europe. Appeasement is possible when the attacker stands ready to be appeased, as Sadat and King Hussein were. It is dangerous where there is no such willingness, as seems to be the case for Iran's mullahs and its batty, Holocaust-denying president.

The question now is whether Israel has the capacity and the will to eliminate the aggressive capability of Hezbollah and Hamas. And whether the United States has the nerve to continue to back Israel in its determination to do so. The outcome is not clear. But at least there is no cry for the non-solution of land for peace.