The next little war, and how to avoid it

Updated: Nov 30 2006, 05:50am hrs
Tony Blair has been saying lately that the problems of Iraq cannot be solved unless the West recognises that all the problems of the region are connected. He therefore wants a whole Middle East policy. Given how hard it is to find the right policy for Iraq or Iran or Lebanon or Palestine on their own, inventing a grand unifying theory of Middle East diplomacy is a task beyond the wit even of Britain's big-thinking prime minister. On one point, however, he is right. A lot of the Middle East, not just Iraq, is in a dangerous mess.

The murder this week of Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese cabinet minister, is a reminder of one such danger.

Following Hizbullah's divine victory against Israel last summer, the Shia-based party is trying to topple Lebanon's government. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian leader, says he is trying to do this by strictly peaceful means. He and his allies have pulled their six ministers out of the cabinet, enabling Shias to argue that the largest sect is no longer represented by the administration of the pro-Western prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Hizbullah and Syria deny killing Mr Gemayel, but are widely disbelieved. Christians see this as part of a pattern of murders through which Syria has been trying to wrest back the control it lost when its army was forced from Lebanon last year by outrage at what Lebanese assumed was Syria's killing of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who had dared to question Syria's suzerainty.

Could all this start a civil war like the one that killed tens of thousands in the 1970s and 1980s Some of the ingredients that went into making that war are present once again: precarious relations between Lebanon's finely balanced sects, a government in crisis and the interference of powerful outsiders, from France and America to Syria and Iran, eager to support their respective favourites. But other ingredients are absent. This time, for example, the Christians know that they would be outgunned; and the Lebanese as a whole seem desperate to avoid another calamity. A tough international message that talking to Syria about Iraq does not mean it has a free hand in Lebanon could help reduce the risks.

Where the fire will go next It testifies to the general fragility of the Middle East that even after the Gemayel assassination Lebanon is only the second-likeliest location for the region's next violent clash. A bigger danger exists in the Gaza Strip. The low-intensity war that Israel and the Palestinians have been fighting there for many months now has the potential to become abruptly bloodier.

This is because of the failure of Ariel Sharon's last great gamble. He hoped that after Israel left Gaza last year the Palestinians would stop fighting. Not all did. Rockets have continued to fly almost daily across the border into Israel's southern towns. Israeli efforts to stop this barrage with air strikes, artillery and raids have killed hundreds of Palestinians, including civilians, but have not achieved their aim.

Ehud Olmert, Mr Sharon's successor, is weak: he learned in Lebanon that military adventures can fail. But anger at the rockets is growing, so Israel is now debating whether to reconquer Gaza before the Palestinians smuggle in an arsenal of the kind that enabled Hizbullah to bloody Israel's nose last summer.

Can this invasion be prevented Maybe. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians' president, is pushing for a national-unity government to replace the Hamas-dominated one elected last January. Hamas refuses to accept Israel's right to exist, forswear violence or honour previous Palestinian agreements with Israel. This insistence on its rejectionist principles has resulted in an international embargo and brought economic misery to Gaza and the West Bank. The hope now is that Hamas can be made to accept a new government operating under guidelines that will allow the world to end the embargo, pave the way for a prisoner exchange and enable diplomacy to resume.

This will be a hard sell. Palestinians are in a bad way but in no mood to accept anything that smells like a surrender. Nor, understandably, are Israel or America willing to deal with a government that tears up previous agreements and says its aim is to destroy the Jewish state. Getting a deal will therefore depend on offering Hamas something substantial in return for modifying its stand. At a minimum, this would have to include a resumption of the tax revenues Israel has withheld, open trade across Gaza's borders and a clear signalan international summit, perhaps that the longed-for Palestinian state will be more than just another of George Bush's ephemeral visions. The certain alternative is a lot more violence.

The Economist Newspaper Limited 2006