Every war, as a practical-minded American general named Eisenhower once noted, will surprise you. Cry havoc, let slip the dogs of war, and whom they will turn on is never as clear as the armchair generals, or even the real ones, may imagine.
And this Arab-Israeli war may be different from all the others. For one thing, it isn't an Arab-Israeli war, not yet, but an Islamist-Israeli war. Surprisingly, the Arab League withheld its automatic stamp of approval for any and all assaults on Israelis.
Can it be that autocratic Arab rulers like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have realized they have more to fear from jihadist outfits like Hezbollah - and its backers - than the Israelis do?
What backers? Syria's fingerprints, and Iran's as well, are all over the rockets landing hourly in Nahariyah, Haifa, Nazareth . . . and all around northern Israel.
Meanwhile, across the border, caught between Hezbollah and Israel, a battered, burning Lebanon is ceasing to be a country and is becoming a battlefield. And this war may have only begun. The skirmishes along the border herald a full-scale ground war.
Things do change in the Middle East and in the crises there: This time the United States isn't playing the role of Honest Broker, aka Uncle Sucker. Washington hasn't joined the reflexive cry for stopping the Israeli offensive ASAP. In that regard, George W. Bush seems a different kind of president - one interested not so much in putting an end to this immediate crisis as seeing that it not recur in the future.
How? By helping to ensure that, whenever this unpleasantness ends, Hezbollah will no longer be in a position to stage a repeat performance of the attacks that triggered this one.
That's a tall order. Just how do Washington and Jerusalem propose to achieve such a goal? There's no secret about that: Ideally, Hezbollah's militia would be cleared out of southern Lebanon, disarmed and replaced with another force - like the Lebanese army. Or maybe with an international contingent that, unlike the U.N. force on the border now, might actually be of use. And, oh, yes, those Israeli hostages would be returned unharmed. (Do you think they're still alive?)
Whether all this will prove one more disaster in the history of the Middle East or a victory for peace and stability there could depend on how much time the Israelis are given to end, or at least loosen, Hezbollah's grip on southern Lebanon. The U.N.'s role, as always in the Middle East, will not be to prevent a war but to confirm what the war has wrought on the ground.