A question of values
The West must remember what the Middle East conflict is about
The speed and reach of modern communications give society today more information than any before. This does not mean, though, that we are necessarily always well informed. Perspective is often clouded by the impact of the latest development. This is especially true of recent events in the Middle East. For understandable reasons, Western opinion is in grave danger of misinterpreting the tragedy of Qana.
The human response to images of dead children and the grief of the bereaved is an emotional one: the sooner this stops, the better. If only it were that simple. This conflict is about much more than a spat across the Israel-Lebanon border.
There will never be peace in the region as long as Hezbollah, backed by its sponsoring regimes in Iran and Syria, is allowed to threaten Israel militarily. A ceasefire that left Hezbollah claiming victory on the battlefield would hugely strengthen its fighters as well as those of Hamas, draining authority from the Lebanese Government and Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, while unsettling further Western-friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Defeating Hezbollah, though, would strengthen the arm of those Arab leaders who see the benefit of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution while also curbing the regional influence of Tehran and Damascus.
There are wider reasons why the emotional impact of the past 48 hours must be placed in the right framework. The criticism that Israeli attacks aimed at Hezbollah are disproportionate is lazy and facile in several ways, especially in implying a moral relativism between the two sides that does not exist. This is not the contest between misguided equals that many in the West seem to see. One is the region’s lone democracy, which for much of its existence has faced a very real existential threat and would like, if possible, to live in peace with its neighbours. The other is a terrorist organisation, bent on preventing such a future.
The announcement by Ehud Olmert that he could not foresee a ceasefire in the short term may disappoint many, not least those who viewed Israel’s 48-hour suspension of air strikes as a quick step to peace. Mr Olmert’s assessment does not preclude a necessary change in military strategy while allowing him to demonstrate to a defiant Israeli public that he has not gone soft. This is, though, essentially a development concerning tactics. What should not be lost is the scope of the overall battle.
Hezbollah is not an emancipation movement. It represents a virulent stream of extremist Islam, characterised by misogyny, homophobia, utter intolerance of difference even within its own religion and a belief system rooted many several centuries past. Whether Hezbollah intended to spark such a ferocious response from Israel is uncertain. That it has been planning this war for some time, though, is clear from its arsenal and fortifications.
News from a war zone will always be grisly, and 21st-century communications bring into the living room the human horrors of armed conflict. But these should not deflect from the clash of values and competing ideologies behind the pictures. It may reassure many in the West that such a threat seems comfortably far away. But the consequences of the current conflict stretch far beyond the region, and they have to be faced.