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Hope and Anger Fill Arab Street in Wake of Israel-hezbollah War

August 24, 2006
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In the wake of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, there is both great anger and hope in the Arab world. There is anger at Israel for laying waste to Lebanon and bombarding its civilians. There is anger at the United States for giving Israel a green light and providing it with weapons used to devastate Lebanon. And there is anger at Arab governments for standing by while Lebanon was being destroyed.

But there also is renewed hope in cities like Amman, and among Arabs all over the Middle East — hope that Israel, which they see as a colonialist, Western imposition that is the cancer of the Arab world, can be defeated.

“I believe this confrontation is just as important as the Six-Day War,” Hani Hourani, director general of Al-Urdun Al-Jadid research center, told JTA in Amman.

“The 1967 war created the myth of Israeli superiority,” he said. “This July-August war is telling us it is a myth, it is not a reality. Israel can be defeated.

“We had given up on the military option. We believed this belonged to history,” Hourani continued. “By taking the initiative, Hezbollah created a new way of thinking about the whole conflict in the region: Israel is not that invincible. It could be beaten. It could be harmed. Hezbollah, even if we don’t agree with its ideology, was suggesting a different option to the Arab people.”

That option is confronting Israel by force, rather than negotiating from a position of weakness, Hourani said.

If Hourani is right, then the Middle East indeed may be entering a new era, one in which Arabs may forego grudging acceptance of Israel as an unwanted reality and in which growing numbers of Arabs will once again try to resolve the issue by force of arms — perhaps seeking to eliminate the Jewish state entirely.

Even if flawed — and many Israeli analysts say it is — this new way of thinking is troublesome not only for Israel, but for Arab regimes aligned with U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Israel’s wartime actions and its inability to silence Hezbollah rockets have put Arab leaders on the defensive both for standing idly by while Lebanon was under fire and for their close ties with the United States, widely viewed here as Israel’s ideological and military sponsor.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week backpedaled from his earlier criticism of Hezbollah for provoking the conflict with Israel, declaring instead that Hezbollah is “part of the Lebanese national fabric.”

Similarly, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who also initially blamed Hezbollah for sparking the conflict, told Jordanian media earlier this month that Israel’s “aggression has exceeded all limits.”

“Arab rulers are afraid more for their rule than they care about Palestine,” said Abdel Mahdi Al-Soudi, a professor of sociology at the University of Jordan. “Nobody’s convinced that 300 million people cannot defeat Israel. This is ridiculous.”

Israeli military strategists and political scientists note that Hezbollah’s successes in Lebanon would be difficult to replicate in other conflict zones. In the event of an attack by Syria, Israel could hit the Syrian army directly, an option it didn’t have in Lebanon, where the state seeks to evade responsibility for Hezbollah’s actions.

As for rocket fire from Palestinian areas in Gaza or the West Bank, Israeli forces can operate much more freely and effectively there than on the foreign turf of southern Lebanon.

“Without a doubt, the Arab world realized Israel is vulnerable to a certain type of war. I am less certain this battle strategy can be brought to other areas,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Predictions that Arab states will revert to their old strategy of confronting Israel with arms look “like part of the lack of realism from Arabs,” Avineri said,

But Arabs across the region say their rulers should at the very least leverage Israel’s failures in Lebanon to extract concessions from Israel and the United States.

“I believe the moderate governments will face very difficult days,” Hourani said. “The Arab regimes will face this question, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan: If Hezbollah can do this while they are a few hundred fighters, why are you doing nothing and just taking orders from the White House?

“You can use what happened in Lebanon in negotiations with America or the Israelis,” he said.

Aside from exposing Arab regimes as ineffectual and passive, the war in Lebanon has strengthened hard-line positions in the Arab world and embarrassed moderates who support reconciliation with Israel.

Support for peace with Israel was always paper-thin in Jordan, backed by the regime but opposed by the country’s powerful professional societies and religious organizations. The perceived barbarity of Israel’s attacks in Lebanon — reinforced by images of Lebanese civilian casualties broadcast endlessly on Arab TV stations from Syria to Qatar — has enraged the Arab street and even has some relative moderates describing Israel in the harshest of terms.

“Since 1994 we are speaking about peace, and then Israel destroys buildings on top of civilians,” said Faisal Al-Rfouh, a vice dean at the University of Jordan and the country’s former minister of culture. Now, he said, “How can I stand in front of my students and talk about peace? They say, ‘This is your peace!?’ “

Israel often argues that it faces a no-win situation: With Hezbollah fighters feeling no compunction about using their own countrymen as human shields, Israel either suffers rocket attacks on its home front or risks hurting civilians if it retaliates, earning the condemnation of the world.

“This monthlong war changed an entire generation,” opined Samir Barhoum, editor of the Jordan Times, an English-language daily published in Amman.

“My way of perceiving Israel changed. I used to think Israel was a civilized people. But this was a racist war. As long as you are not Jewish, you are a target,” he said. “Now maybe Israel has put off a solution for another 10 to 20 years.”

This shift in thinking among Arab moderates is a reminder of what serves as the foundation of the relationship between Israel and the Arab world: Israeli military supremacy.

Until now, regimes like those in Jordan and Egypt that had made peace with Israel, and moderates who backed those agreements, came to their positions not because they accepted the Jews’ historical right to their homeland but because of the Arabs’ inability to defeat Israel.

The Arabs’ crushing defeat in 1967, said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, “laid the groundwork for a major shift in our thinking, and it took time for this notion to be widely accepted by the populace.”

If Israel can be beaten, however, then the equation changes.

Perhaps Arab countries will seek not only to turn the clock back to 1967 — before Israel controlled the Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza Strip — but to 1948, when Israel did not exist.

“The Arabs want the 1967 border for the moment. Listen to me: for the moment,” Soudi said. “This will change.”

The Arabs may sign peace treaties, he said, but “nobody will sign on to end the conflict. Nobody will sign something saying Israel will be Israel forever.”

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