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Lebanon has filed a complaint with the UN saying that an Israeli spy ring in the country has been gathering information on Hizballah. The office of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said Israel violated Lebanese sovereignty by “setting up on its territory spy rings that were uncovered by the Lebanese army and security services.”
Whether or not such a ring existed or whether those arrested did anything I have no idea. But this story brings out some fascinating and little noted broader aspects of Middle East politics.
First, of course, is the fact that Lebanon regards itself at war with Israel. This fulfills the Arab proverb which goes: You hit me and then run crying to complain. Lebanese politicians brag about their country’s involvement in resistance and struggle against Israel. The more radical—that is the supporters of Iran and Syria—call for wiping Israel off the map and brag about their direct role in attacking it.
Why, then, act offended and victimized if Israel strikes back?
There is nothing particularly Lebanese about this, of course, quite the opposite. More moderate Lebanese politicians try to avoid putting a priority on bashing Israel. If they could, they’d get out of the conflict altogether because they know it is used by their enemies—and the enemies of Lebanese sovereignty—against them.
Why does Hizballah smuggle in arms, maintain a huge militia, bring in Iranian and Syrian influence, control large portions of the country, and basically do whatever it wants? Why to fight Israel, of course!
And so Rule Number One of Arab politics is: Fighting, or saying you are fighting, Israel justifies anything, including taking over whole countries, repressing your own people, suppressing criticism and anything else.
No wonder the Arab regimes and revolutionary movements stick with such determination to keeping the conflict going. It is so incredibly useful to them as a tool in domestic and regional politics.
And that’s why you cannot talk, bargain, apologize, or concede them into changing.
There are exceptions to this rule, though only since the late 1970s.
Most important were the Egyptian and Jordanian treaties ending the conflict, which cost the Egyptian regime many years of Arab boycotts and which cost the architect of the treaty, President Anwar Sadat, his life.
Of course, the opposition Islamist groups oppose these treaties and if they ever came to power—through elections or any other means—their first act would be to revoke them and restart the direct conflict. That’s something to keep in mind for those who think that the Muslim Brotherhoods are now moderate, democratic groups who pose no risk if they get into government.
Returning to the Lebanon case, what could be more absurd than the government which daily lives with the violation of its sovereignty by Syria and Iran while never protesting at all, going to the UN to complain about an alleged Israeli spy ring? But its hands are tied. It’s helpless to protect itself from assaults by fellow Arab or by Muslim-majority regimes.
There’s also an anti-Western variant of this rule: Thou shalt not seek non-Arab, non-Muslim aid even against a fellow Arab or Muslim trying to murder you. It turned out, though, that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein went too far when he thought this rule would protect him when he seized Kuwait in 1991. The danger was so clear that the Saudis and Kuwaitis did turn to America to save them.
The same thing happened in the late 1980s when the Gulf Arab states turned to the West to protect their tankers under Iranian attack. Indeed, the energetic U.S. response helped end the Iran-Iraq war when Tehran became fearful—albeit wrongly so–in 1988 that the United States might attack them directly.
Yet we should remember that some were so shocked that Saudi Arabia would ask for U.S. forces, even when the knife was at its throat, that they took up arms against both victim and protector. The best known of these people is Usama bin Ladin. The September 11 attack took place not for reasons having to do with U.S. support for Israel but because of the U.S. defense of Saudi Arabia.
At any rate, the conflicts with Israel and the West provide the rope which dictators and radical movements use to bind up their domestic victims and their would-be foreign victims.
If you think this conflict is about the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that’s very secondary indeed in the calculations of rulers, intellectual dreamers of ideological nightmares, and the men with guns.
Why would they give up their mightiest weapon?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. His blog, Rubin Reports is at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/.