Friday, July 14, 2006

Conflict And Context

In every crisis there is a message and a sub-text.

Thus a crisis that at first sight pits Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah, inevitably reaches out to involve Syria and Iran, both strong supporters of the Lebanese-based Shia movement. Sectarian violence escalates in Iraq due in part between Shia, who support Lebanon and the Sunni’s, who do not.

Events in the Middle East have pushed themselves onto the G8 summit agenda in St Petersburg, making this crisis so difficult to resolve. It also underlines how dangerous its ramifications could be unless the fighting is halted.

On display are the traditional differences that pit the big international players with stakes in the region against each other. America, Russia, the European powers like the French, the Germans and the British; and China, a key UN Security Council member, is making a guest appearance. However, the traditional differences emphasize how little any of the G8 countries can do to actually influence events on the ground. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin set out his country's position, saying: "No hostage-takings are acceptable," adding that neither was "the use of full-scale force" as reported by the BBC. The American response has been strained. Typically, a conflict that every second-term President of the United States tries to solve, President Bush was non-committal during a press conference in Germany two days ago. This left real response language up to U.S. Secretary of State Rice who called Israel’s actions justified, but in the same response called for restraint and eluded to a cease-fire request.

The Europeans, like the Russians, have expressed their concern that the Israeli attacks have been disproportionate in nature. The French, with their historical ties to Lebanon, have expressed particular anguish at the Israeli attacks. But all have called for the three captured Israeli soldiers at the heart of this crisis to be released.

There is also hopelessness. There is the essential sense of hopelessness of the Palestinians with no diplomatic opening in sight. The leadership of the Palestinians is contested, its own leaders are split between Gaza and Damascus, and many paramilitary and militant groups linked to it, often act on their own or at the bidding of outside forces. In many ways it is the very weakness of Hamas that makes the crisis in the Gaza Strip so intractable, notwithstanding Israel and Washington's antipathy towards the Hamas government. This situation is mirrored in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, whom regards itself as a resistance movement, has effectively set up its own institutions and infrastructure in the south of the country. Add to all this the undoubted meddling of countries like Iran which are caught up in a wider power-play with Washington, linked both to Tehran's nuclear ambitions and to events on the ground in Iraq. Given these complex linkages, there is uncertainty on who and where exactly to bring its diplomatic weight to bear.

The G8 meeting risks appearing powerless, for the Palestinian and Israeli children and families displaced, wounded, hungry, and tried, let us hope leadership, rather than indecision prevail.

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