One year ago, over a hummus based lunch in a Beirut suburb, conversation stirred away (as usual in the ever “peaceful” Beirut) from the best Hummus places, to the current Lebanese political (if you can still call it political) situation. My hosts’ conclusion was reminiscent of the one I always heard my elders tell: “as long as there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace, there will be no peace in Lebanon”. This inherited political dogma was followed by the usual verdict: “But Israel does not want peace”
My reaction stunned the entire gathering; I had ventured into a risky zone (and I am not talking about the restaurant’s restrooms) when I wondered if after all, and for the first time in 50 years, Israel did not have a strategic advantage into making peace with the Arab nations. My point was (and still is) that warfare had significantly changed since the 1990’s: humanity (if you can call it that way) had moved from the era of the mighty air-force (as used in the Bosnia/Serbian war by the US) to an era dominated by medium and long range missiles. And this has a great impact on the geo-strategy of the Middle East; for the first time in 50 years, the heartland of Israel can be the target of any war between Israel and its neighbors. As the 2006 war on Lebanon has shown, even guerrillas like Hezbollah are able to hit towns like Haifa. If attacked, Iran and Syria can no doubt hit Tel Aviv; and the tourism and business minded new Israelis (as opposed to the early Jewish pioneers) cannot accept this. Israel cannot therefore afford not to make peace anymore. My remarks were quickly dusted away by the entire table; Israel receives yearly billions of dollars from the US and peace will only stop this financial gift. That may be true, but missiles hitting Tel Aviv could end up costing much more to the Israeli economy, and until anti-missiles technologies become mature (and the US & China have been heavily investing in this field) Israel therefore needs peace.
The Middle East is at a turning point. Which path will the Arab leaders choose to take? What choices do the Israelis still have? and what will Iran do? On the latter point, one should never forget that historically, the Persians have always looked towards the Mediterranean with gourmet eyes, and have faced the west (then represented by Alexander the great and others) many times on the Mediterranean shores. Add to this the religious aspect, and one can wonder if after 50 years of Israeli peace stalling, the Iranians won’t take over.
Jihad Bitar is a Media and Political Analyst based in Beirut. You can find his reflections on the Arab media scene on his blog.