On June 25, an Israeli soldier was captured, apparently by a combination of three fringe Palestinian groups, one an offshoot of the military wing of Hamas. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) re-entered Gaza three days latter, on a mission to find him. Two weeks later, another Islamic resistance group, Hezbollah, captured two more IDF soldiers, and IDF forces retaliated quickly, launching an ever-widening aerial bombardment, hitting the Beirut airport, and other key infrastructures in northern Lebanon, as well as numerous targets in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, while Hezbollah launched missiles into Israel's interior.
Israel's massive response--meant to destroy Hezbollah--appears on the brink of massive failure, since Hezbollah's mere survival is enough to severely undermine the aura of Israeli invincibility built up over the decades. Like America's invasion of Iraq, the attacks seem to have been launched without any thought about what comes next, or having a "plan B" in case things didn't work out as hoped for.
On March 28, 2002, 22 members of the Arab League unanimously approved a Saudi-crafted peace initiative at a summit in Beirut. The "Beirut Declaration" as it came to be known had the appearance of a dramatic gesture, promising to explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, in exchange for a return of the Occupied Territories.
Had it been pursued, the carnage and chaos now unfolding in Lebanon could have been rendered impossible. What's more, such a peace agreement would have deprived al Qaeda of a major grievance to exploit, and made it much easier to strengthen moderate voices throughout the Arab world and among Muslims generally. Instead, the Bush Administration remained focused on invading Iraq, under the false assumption that this would benefit Israel as well.
"They totally ignored it," Mideast expert Steven Zunes told Random Lengths. "It was a major breakthrough offering pretty much what Israel had been wanting all these years--land for peace."
Zunes is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.
Ironically--or predictably, depending on your perspective--the current hostilities have disrupted yet another Arab peace effort that most Americans have never heard of. The original kidnapping derailed a promising agreement between Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Gaza's Hamas government. It called for a political initiative, explicitly endorsing a two-state solution, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and calling for the creation of a Palestinian government of national unity--just the sort of entity that could credibly negotiate such a solution.
Furthermore, the kidnappings were just a pretext on both sides. Both Hezbollah, and the IDF had long been planning their attacks, simply waiting for the right moment, the right excuse to launch them.
The Beirut Declaration came at a dire moment, much like the present situation, with Arafat physically under Israeli attack, and General Anthony Zinni--the American mediator hand-picked by Secretary of State Colin Powell--working furiously for a cease-fire. But the Beirut Declaration went far beyond responding to the immediate crisis. Two weeks later, Powell had a two-hour working meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and other top Saudi officials, sharply focused on the Beirut Declaration. Despite Powell's hopeful press conference afterwards, the US never showed further interest.
Although not known at the time, Bush had already decided to invade Iraq, and thus put the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on the back burner. The decision had put the British government in a bind, as British reporter Michael Smith wrote in The Telegraph on September 18, 2004: "A Secret UK Eyes Only briefing paper was warning that there was no legal justification for war. So Mr. Blair was advised that a strategy would have to be put in place which would provide a legal basis for war."
This mid-March 2002 paper was part of a trail leading directly to the July 23 "Downing Street Memo," in which Richard Dearlove, head of British foreign intelligence service MI6, reported that in Washington "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of going to war against Iraq.
The Arab Summit had also passed a resolution unanimously opposing that invasion. The Bush Administration ignored both resolutions. Yet, it was necessary to appear engaged and peace-seeking in June 2002. Bush gave a major speech about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but failed to even mention the Beirut Declaration.
"He was trying to appear more even-handed to assuage the anger in the Arab world," Zunes explained. "But the failure to even refer to the increasing urgent Arab peace initiative indicates he wasn't all that serious about it."
Since then, the Beirut Declaration has virtually disappeared from memory in the US. "Its indicative of yet another manifestation of the rewriting of the history of the conflict, that wants to make the US seem like the only hope for peace," Zunes said. This creates a "rationale for the contradictory role that the US plays of the chief mediater and chief backer of the more powerful party in the conflict."
By never discussing Arab peace initiatives the fantasy is maintained that only Israel and the US are interested in peace. And this, in turn, is used to justify their resort to war. Similar contradictions plague supposed US support for democracy, as seen in the fact that Israel is attacking two Arab democracies--Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority--and that its actions have been condemned by a third: our own creation, the new Iraqi government.
The situation directly clashes with the alleged neo-con "idealism" about democratizing the Middle East. Zunes saw two possible interpretations of what was happening with the neo-con's "democracy" agenda. "The more cynical one [interpretation] is it was a desperate rationale, given the lack of weapons of mass destruction and the lack of a connection to al Qaeda," after the invasion of Iraq--around the time when the neo-cons dramatically stepped up their talk about democracy.
"The second is they were naive enough to assume that democracy means pro-American--pro-American and free-market capitalist," Zunes explained, then added, "Its no accident that half the neocons are former Trotskyites. They have the same ideological blindness." (Irving Kristol, considered the founder of American neo-conservatism, was only the most prominent of the neo-cons to have been a member of the Fourth International--the worldwide organization of anti-Stalinst communists--during the late 1930s and 1940s. Over time, the neo-con's enduring anti-Stalinism lead them to form alliances with the CIA and the American defense establishment, pulling them first to the right of the Democratic Party, then into the Republican Party.)
General Zinni, the Middle East envoy when the Beirut Declaration was announced, soon became one of the earliest critics of the coming war. On August 24, 2002, the Tampa Tribune reported on his speech to Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee:
"Zinni said a war to bring down Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein would have numerous undesirable side effects and should be low on the nation's list of foreign policy objectives."
In the speech, Zinni said, "The Middle East peace process, in my mind, has to be a higher priority. Winning the war on terrorism has to be a higher priority. More directly, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Central Asia need to be resolved, making sure Al Qaeda can't rise again from the ashes that are destroyed. Taliban cannot come back--that the warlords can't regain power over Kabul and Karzai, and destroy everything that has happened so far.
"Our relationships in the region are in major disrepair, not to the point where we can't fix them, but we need to quit making enemies we don't need to make enemies out of. And we need to fix those relationships. There's a deep chasm growing between that part of the world and our part of the world. And it's strange, about a month after 9/11, they were sympathetic and compassionate toward us. How did it happen over the last year? And we need to look at that -- that is a higher priority."
Bush didn't listen. And the Mideast is again engulfed in flames.