The "Accidental" War between Israel and Hizbullah, Summer 2006: The Middle East Conflicts in the Lebanese Test Tube

After one Israeli soldier was kidnapped by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on June 25, 2006 and two were kidnapped by Hizbullah gunmen on the Lebanese border on July 12, 2006, many observers in the region were surprised at how quickly and fiercely the conflict escalated into a bloody war.

Explanations were quickly proffered, but what all of them had in common was a lack of conclusive evidence, as each of them only cast light on one particular facet of the war. The most widely heard were: Khaled Mash'al, the head of Hamas's external leadership based in Damascus, asked Lebanese Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to start a war by kidnapping Israeli soldiers in order to revive the spirit of Hamas in its battle against Israel. Or: Tehran urged Hizbullah to escalate the conflict with Israel before the G8 Summit in St Petersburg on August 15, 2006 so that the issue of Iran's nuclear effort would be struck off the agenda - which happened. Or: The United States had long been encouraging Israel to resolve the conflict with Hizbullah by military means - more or less as a test run for predictable confrontation between the United States and Tehran. All that was needed was the right opportunity.

These explanatory efforts demonstrate, however, that the war between Israel and Hizbullah is a multidimensional conflict with local, bilateral, regional and international implications. There is Hamas's struggle to govern the autonomous Palestinian territories; Hizbullah's attempt to uphold its special status in Lebanon; the attempt by the new center-left government in Israel to exercise its right to self-defense and to deter its enemies in a convincing and enduring way in a war on two fronts; Syria's interests in Lebanon; the shift in the balance of power between Shiites and Sunnis; and, finally, the nuclear conflict with Iran in its international dimension.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 12, 2006 brought about a cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah. Nevertheless, this cease-fire is extremely fragile, as the resolution was not only unclear on matters relating to border controls, disarming Hizbullah and the use of force, but also to date has only provided unilateral security for Israel.

The complexity of the conflicts described here clearly illustrate that the only way to defuse the crisis in this region in a comprehensive and sustainable manner will be to undertake a joint international initiative.

Revive the Comprehensive Middle East Peace Process

Since 2000 the Arab-Israeli Madrid Peace Process has been thoroughly neglected in diplomatic quarters. It is high time that this overall political process was not merely revived, but reinvented.

Compared with 1991, the chances of success have improved as the key external players - the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - have been meeting as the Middle East Quartet since 2002. The Near East Quartet also has a clearly defined goal - two states - and this is founded on transatlantic consensus.

The U.S., which has in the past regarded EU policy as reactive and ineffective, has begun to recognize the EU's strong points: developing long-term strategies and providing backing for diplomatic initiatives and financial support for the peace processes. The EU is now better equipped, thanks to its Common Foreign & Security Policy (CFSP), to respond more quickly and efficiently to political crises and conflicts - as demonstrated by the recent European-led UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. Israel, too, has fewer reservations about the EU and is allowing the Europeans to play a more active role in the Middle East conflict, reflected in the first deployment of European personnel along the border between Rafah and Egypt (EU-Border Assistance Mission) that began in 2005.

The Middle East Quartet has proved its worth as the most robust mechanism for mediating between Israelis and Palestinians. The mandate of the Quartet, which so far has been confined to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should be extended to include other conflicts in the region. It is also worth considering including China in the group as a new key external player in order to be more effective, especially on Iran.

Raising the status of the Quartet would send out a dual message: The international community is working together on crisis prevention, conflict management and conflict resolution in this region. The international community is prepared, in light of the region's multidimensional crisis, to involve the "Axis of Evil" in the form of Syria and Iran.

Secure Israel and Assert Palestine

One vital factor for progress in this region is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the current state of play is anything but encouraging.

To end the violence the aim must be to end the occupation and to resolve the conflict bilaterally. If Hamas is not prepared to do this, negotiations could be held indirectly with the democratically elected president of the PA and leader of the PLO, which is in any case legally entitled to negotiate with Israel. The outcome could be put to a referendum by the Hamas administration. Direct negotiations with Hamas are also conceivable, if the conditions which must be fulfilled before negotiations can begin are met step by step (positive conditionality).

The credibility and legitimacy of international Middle East policy can only be restored if the Middle East Quartet demonstrates that the planned Road Map for peace is being implemented and accepted internationally. This implies dealing with its downside: phases-oriented gradualism. In retrospect, these phases have not built confidence. The gradualism and the principle of reciprocity have not yet led to any tangible results. Although the gradualism of the Madrid Middle East Peace Process and the Oslo Process founded on confidence-building did spawn a number of bilateral agreements1, the phase structure did not bring the Palestinians any land (given the advances made by the Israeli settlement and infrastructure policies), nor did it bring the Israelis any security (given the Palestinian strategy of suicide attacks).

In light of this, the parties should move directly to final-status negotiations, as the compromise solutions for final-status issues have been on the table for a long time. Another reason why final-status negotiations should begin without delay is that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution is closing, given demographic trends and Israel's policy for settlement and infrastructure in the Holy Land. A binational state, the logical consequence of these developments, would present a gruesome scenario from the Israeli standpoint, as it would destroy the very foundations on which Israel is built as a Jewish and democratic society.

Strengthen Lebanon

Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vital precondition in any sustainable solution to the crisis in the Middle East, but in itself it is, of course, insufficient. One fundamental factor in the domestic pacification of Lebanon is a resumption of the internal Lebanese dialogue on the full implementation of the 1989 Taif Agreement and UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Disarming Hizbullah and restoring the sovereign powers of the Lebanese state, in particular the state monopoly on the use of force, depend upon counter-incentives being offered to Hizbullah.

These incentives are above all political. To date the Shiites have only had 27 out of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament, because of a fixed proportionate system based on religions. This is only 21.1%, although according to unofficial estimates the Shiites account for a much larger share of the population.

This internal pacification process must be complemented by the resolution of other open Israeli-Lebanese disputes, such as a successful exchange of Israeli and Lebanese prisoners, as well as international, above all Arab, financial assistance to facilitate the return of internally displaced persons and the reconstruction of devastated areas.

Involve Syria

Yet developments in Lebanon are not only influenced by the relationship between Hizbullah and Israel and the political imbalance between religious communities, but also by the activities of the regional players Syria and Iran.

In the Arab world a triangular principle applies: no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria and no agreement without Saudi Arabia. This refers to the military power of Egypt, the disruptive potential of Syria and the financial clout of Saudi Arabia. This triad obviously also applies to Lebanon. Without Syria's active involvement, all international efforts to stabilize Lebanon will remain patchwork.

Syria has always held itself to be a leading advocate of Pan-Arabism, or Arab nationalism, and the defender of the Palestinian liberation struggle. That is why Hizbullah and the radical Palestinian resistance groups always have been pawns and Lebanon a proxy battlefield for Syria in the Arab-Israeli conflict, obviously partly to avoid direct confrontation with a militarily superior Israel. Today Syria needs Hizbullah for its continuing gadfly campaign against Israel, but also to preserve its influence in Lebanon.

Given the rapid decline in oil reserves - Syria will have become a net importer of oil by 2020 according to Syrian data, and by 2014 according to foreign sources - and the continuing lack of financial and economic aid from the Arab and Western communities, Syria's iron foreign policy principle of "Live off the crisis, keep the crisis simmering, but when it comes to the crunch be part of the solution" is in jeopardy.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2003 repeatedly has been offering Israel direct peace negotiations without any prior conditions. It is also not much of a surprise that, if Syria has turned on the charm, Jerusalem is not taking any notice: As long as the U.S. can take the cudgel to soften Syria up in its "War on Terror," Israel's hand will be strengthened automatically in negotiations on the occupied Golan Heights.

Syria - a state founded on a diversity of religions and ethnic groups - will only be ready to yield its pawn Hizbullah, its direct influence in Lebanon, its support for the Iraqi resistance and the tactical alliance with Iran achieved through foreign policy if: international pressure on Israel leads to serious, productive negotiations about the Golan Heights; the EU chips in with its unsuspended EURO-MED Association Agreement as an additional incentive; the U.S. offers to repeal SALSA (Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act of 2003); and Saudi Arabia makes a Syrian-Israeli agreement look financially appealing. A solution to the border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria - especially with regard to the Shebaa Farms2 - can only emerge as part of this total package.

Integrate Iran and Solve the Nuclear Conflict Peacefully

Iran can only be expected to play a constructive role in the Middle East conflict, i.e. refrain from using Hizbullah for asymmetric warfare and acts of sabotage, if a compromise with Tehran is reached on the nuclear issue that the Iranians feel "saves face".

The U.S., which describes Iran in its latest national security strategy assessment as the greatest threat to the country, so far also has been absent from the negotiating table. And this was the main reason why the negotiations between the EU-3 and Iran failed. Apparently only Washington can deliver the security guarantees and the status gain for Iran that might change Iran's cost-benefit analysis of its nuclear program.

In addition, there have been proposals for political compromises which would serve short-, medium- and long-term solutions, such as those submitted in summer 2005 by Tim Guldimann, Switzerland's ambassador to Iran from 1999 to 2004, and Bruno Pellaud, deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of its Verification Department from 1993 to 1999.

Under this agreement Iran would undertake to exercise nuclear self-restraint and would accept far-reaching international monitoring of its nuclear activities. The international community would, in return, grant the country a very limited enrichment capacity, provide technological support and offer attractive cooperation.

Stabilize Iraq

The break-up of Iraq can only be prevented by a strong federal government of national unity, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the fundamental review of the constitution. There is still time to do this. The four-month period originally envisaged for fundamentally revising the constitution after the government of Nouri al-Maliki took office in May 2006 has been extended to 24 months. Without a broad commitment from the international community, and without integrating the regional neighbors, hostile ethnic groups will not, however, manage to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity.

Increased political legitimacy is a basic precondition for improving security in Iraq. It is equally important to enhance the quality of the instruments for improving security, the Iraqi security forces.

Build a Broad-based Policy of Disarmament and Détente

Resolving the Middle East conflict, stabilizing Iraq and overcoming the nuclear conflict with Iran are all prerequisites for a broad-based regional policy of disarmament and détente, the aim being to create a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which must lead to greater security and cooperation in the region.

The Middle East is suffering from a multipolar conflict, which is taking place along several overlapping interfaces between Turkey, Iran, Israel and the Arab world. In this region weapons of mass destruction are not simply there for deterrence but are actually being used. There is also no territorial status quo, with many border issues still unresolved. Besides, apart from the Arab League, there is no regional multilateral institution that might serve to build confidence.

Other models - such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organization of American States (OAS) - may offer helpful inspiration for a regional security structure. The role of the external players will focus on mediation, however. The initiative needs to come from the region itself. And there already exist several embryonic approaches: the Mubarak Initiative, the initiative launched by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and, not least, the initiative by the former Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan. This process will only succeed in the long term if a common, viable code of conduct can take shape. The process needs to be dynamic and embrace all the players - the Arab world, Israel, Iran and Turkey - to permit dialogue between the states in the region and between the states and their (civil) societies.

Promote Socio-economic Development and Integration

The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) will not replace the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) or the Barcelona Process, but since 2003 the EMP has been subordinate to the ENP. Through its European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) the EU has made 14.3 billion euros available from 2007 to 2013, which is much more funding for the 10 Mediterranean littoral states and six Eastern European countries than in the past under the still segregated programs MEDA and TACIS (8.5 billion euros from 2000 to 2006). This makes the EU the biggest external player in development cooperation for the region, able to sustainably drive socio-economic development and regional integration. The ENP also offers more than the EMP, with access to the four freedoms (capital, goods, services and labor). But the ENP must prove its case by liberalizing trade in agricultural produce and constructing a common migration policy.

Press for More Open Politics

The international community should be pressing for the region to open up more in political terms. Two forums in particular, the ENP and the Broader Middle East Initiative (BMENA), can be used. With the ENP the EU is also changing course strategically. It renounces the whip threatened but never applied under the EMP (suspension clause) and relies instead on incentives (positive conditionality): The better the common targets in bilateral action plans are achieved, the greater the political, economic and financial rewards. The EU should work to ensure that specific domestic political reform targets are included in these action plans alongside the many concrete aims relating to economic modernization.

In the BMENA, born in 2004 when transatlantic ranks were closed after the rifts engendered by the latest Iraq war, the international community should ensure that the initiative is founded on the following principles: Apart from regional ownership and avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach, the priorities are credibility and advancing democracy. The credibility of the BMENA Initiative can only be achieved if consistent and non-violent efforts are made to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq crisis and the nuclear conflict with Iran.

Promoting democracy must also answer hitherto unresolved questions about how to deal with Islamism. The aim must be to integrate into the political process those sections of the Islamist movement who are ready and capable of this, and who declare unmistakably that they renounce violence and are willing to live in peace and to respect the rules of the democratic game in their countries.

It would be fundamentally wrong to tar all Islamist groups with the same brush and stigmatize them as seditious or terrorist, or to marginalize and repress them. Participation in parliamentary activity and government not only serves integration, but inevitably leads to a demystification of Islamist movements.

International political and financial support for secular, democratic movements in the region is particularly important in the way it can reconquer those spheres and sectors of society that have so successfully been occupied by the Islamist movement.


Peace in the region of the Near/Middle East and North Africa currently seems to be a mirage, a hallucination. But a mirage is not an optical illusion so much as a visual effect, a reflection in the air. The mirage, then, is rooted in natural processes that can be physically explained. Peace in the Middle East is also possible if we address the origins of the conflicts in this region.

1 The Declaration of Common Principles of 13/9/1993; the Cairo Agreement (Oslo I) of May 4, 1994 (including the Paris Protocol on Economic Cooperation of April 29, 1994); the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (Oslo II) of September 28, 1995; the Hebron Protocol of January 15, 1997; the Wye River Memorandum of October 23, 1998; and the Wye River Agreement II of September 4, 1999.
2 UN Security Council Resolution 425 has been confirmed after Israel's complete withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 on the basis of at least two documents: the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line of 1949 attributing the Shebaa Farms to Syria. Lebanon and Syria have so far resisted this interpretation but without producing documentary substantiation.