The Middle East’s Hair Trigger

TEL AVIV – Across the Middle East, a fatalistic conventional wisdom is taking hold: war is unavoidable. Some see war as a way of resolving an increasingly deadlocked situation, shaking up a dysfunctional regional order whose main actors are not only at loggerheads, but are also incapable of resolving the legitimacy deficits of their respective regimes.

A volley of incendiary remarks between Israel and both Syria and Hezbollah has fueled anxieties about the possibility of war on Israel’s northern border. The level of sensitivity is such that the latest tension was initiated by the Syrians, who misinterpreted as a threat Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s call to start peace negotiations precisely in order to prevent “an all-out regional war.”

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Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for the first time explicitly warned the Israelis that a new round of conflict would no longer be confined to an Israeli-Lebanese showdown, but would involve the entire regional “axis of confrontation” – Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. This would also be the case if Israel unleashed its Air Force against Iran’s nuclear installations. Moreover, Nasrallah made it clear that Israel’s “Dahyia Doctrine” of total devastation of Lebanon in case of war would be answered in kind.

The prospect of a Middle East conflagration has prompted an airlift of senior American officials to Israel to warn of the devastating consequences that an Israeli attack on Iran might have. Indeed, the Obama administration’s main challenge these days is not peacemaking, but regional conflict management and preemption. CIA Director Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have already come and gone, with Vice President Joe Biden and a high-level delegation of the State Department and the National Security Council due in Jerusalem in early March.

But preventing war will not be easy, because Barack Obama’s mystique has worn off in the Arab world. The expectation that he would allow the Arabs, particularly the Syrians and the Palestinians, to recover their land without resorting to arms has been proved, by his own admission, to be unrealistic. Nor has he been able to rein in Iran’s relentless drive for regional hegemony, or convince it to abandon its quest for nuclear arms.

Israel will most likely listen to America’s advice and consider a preemptive attack on Iran only after all diplomatic means have been exhausted, and after whatever sanctions are agreed upon fail to cut short Iran’s march toward possessing the bomb. No matter how unjustified Israel’s traditional military behavior seems in the eyes of its enemies and critics, it has always aspired to base its military actions on grounds that can be justified.

This would seem to be particularly true when it comes to an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Israel would not like to be seen as the spoiler of a diplomatic solution to a dispute that in any case cannot be resolved by military means alone.

Wars in the Middle East, it should be recalled, have started even when the parties did not really want them. The 1967 war is one example. Today’s anxieties, too, are fed by perceptions and fears, by real and imagined concerns. The Iranian challenge to Israel’s strategic hegemony is presented as a Holocaust-style existential threat, and Israel’s other enemies – Hezbollah, which believes that it can bring about “the end of the Zionist entity,” and Syria, which publicly boasts of its ballistic missiles’ capacity to destroy Israel’s main urban centers – are similarly viewed as irrational actors.

A covert war between Israel and Iran has been going on for some time now. The assassinations – allegedly by Israel – of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s military chief and Iran’s closest ally in the organization, two years ago, and more recently of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh, Hamas’s liaison officer with the Al-Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, suggest that an unplanned chain of events could trigger a real war.

The Lebanese front may ignite if Hezbollah seeks to avenge Mughniyah’s death, or simply as a result of a knee-jerk reaction to a provocation, as in 2006. If Iran and Syria then decide to back Hezbollah, a direct Israeli-Iranian showdown could follow. What Israel planned as a preemptive attack on Iran might then be presented as an act of self-defense .

General James Jones, President Obama's national security adviser, recently put forward a different, albeit equally ominous, prediction. Iran's response to the mounting international pressure might be, he said, to launch an attack on Israel through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Such attacks might trigger a wider regional conflagration.

War threats in the Middle East should never be dismissed as hollow. Prophecies of war, moreover, have too frequently proven themselves to be self-fulfilling. But America’s extraordinary efforts to rein in Israel might not be enough to avert a calamity. The days of Pax Americana in the region are over, which means that avoiding a regional explosion will require mobilizing the major international actors that favor diplomatic solutions for the Arab-Israeli conflict and for Iran’s quest to become a legitimate partner in a new regional system.