Beyond diplomacy

The introduction to the Lonely Planet travel guide for Lebanon is one of the most appealing you could imagine: «Lebanon packs a lot into its modest borders: ancient cities, ski resorts, impressive architecture and striking landscapes are just the start. Then there’s great food (reputedly the best in the region) and great nightlife (Beirut claims to be the party capital of the Middle East).» However, the editors of the popular travel guide’s online version were careful to add a series of warnings – under the title «Regional Military Conflict» – highlighting the fact that military strikes by Israel «have rendered travel in Lebanon very unsafe.» The warning also stresses that land mines planted in the occupied part of Lebanon over more than two decades of Israeli occupation still litter the area and, crucially, that not at all of them carry the landmark warning sign («a rusty-red upside-down triangle with ‘Al-Ghram’ written in Arabic script»). Hikers are advised to consult locals before venturing off the beaten track. But, to be honest, I doubt that any travelers will be visiting Lebanon in the near future. In fact very few are likely to plan a trip anywhere near the war-torn country. Even diplomats, whose job it is to remain as close as possible to areas requiring their services, do not dare to approach what has become a dangerous war zone. Ships carrying humanitarian aid arrive at the port of Beirut but only after significant delays. And this seems a little ironic, as if we are sending this aid to make ourselves feel better about our ignorance, ideological confusion and secret satisfaction that all these terrible things are not happening in our country. Meanwhile, public bewilderment is huge. Many believe that Israeli air strikes are targeting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon and Beirut. And this is a convenient explanation for those who do not make the extremely simple distinction made by Arab countries. Hezbollah is not the same as Hamas. Similarly, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should not be put in the same bag as al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. It is good to be able to make such distinctions. Specifically, it would be good to see such distinctions being actively invoked in US diplomacy, and obviously also in European diplomacy. But this is rather difficult as aspects of the Middle East conflict tend to be reproduced in the domestic politics of our countries; hence the image of Spain’s smiling Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero wearing the traditional Palestinian black-and-white scarf in order to express his solidarity with the victims of Israeli attacks. Maybe we will see some changes following the scheduled visit to Tel Aviv of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. After all, we heard of no developments following a visit to Lebanon by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, perhaps because it was merely a response to a visit to the region by his rival for the French presidency, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. But even the most dynamic diplomacy cannot change hard facts. Criticism being leveled against Israel for an «exaggerated reaction» is entirely justified. On the other hand, Israel has no reason to overlook the fact that Hezbollah struck first, killing six Israeli soldiers and abducting another two. This was just a stupid provocation. And who does it benefit? Only those who have something to gain from the Palestinians’ incompetent leadership. None of the conservative Arab regimes would want extreme, bellicose Islamist organizations in control, as they know that Western diplomacy is obliged to support democratic procedures like the one that brought Hamas to power. In the broader Arab and Islamic world, dictatorial regimes compete with existing theocracies, while certain opportunistic militarist leaders serve whoever offers them the best deal. The situation has become so confused that Libyan President Muammar Khadafy seems like a sensible and conservative leader. It is quite clear that all these extremists hate anything vaguely reminiscent of democracy, human rights, religious tolerance and other «frills» of civilization. So we should concentrate on two things: first, on limiting the loss of human life to as great an extent as possible; and secondly on figuring out how best to exploit any opportunities for mediation to improve ties. Both Arabs and Israelis need to cooperate if progress is to be made in these areas, but not those whose chief aim is to terrorize their rivals.