The Extremists Unbound

JERUSALEM – The pattern of policymaking in the Middle East, as it was defined since President Bush’s “axis if evil” speech of January 2002, is undergoing a momentous change of direction. Bush’s foreign-policy paradigm of an alliance of “moderates” to defeat the “extremists” – a model too enthusiastically seconded by an unimaginative Israeli leadership and by those Arabs (led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who dread the forces of radical change – has collapsed. The “extremists,” whom Bush expected to be defeated through economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and military action, have prevailed. It is the “moderates” who must now adapt their policies.

Israel and the United States failed resoundingly in their attempt to dislodge Hamas from Gaza, or in forcing it to accept conditions for an end to the international boycott. Fearing the costs of an invasion of Gaza’s urban alleys, Israel handed a strategic victory to Hamas. It accepted a truce, brokered by an Egyptian government fearful of Iran’s influence in neighboring Gaza, that not only gave Hamas political legitimacy and undermined the international community’s policy of not negotiating with this fundamentalist group, but that also allowed it to continue rearming. Indeed, Hamas now poses a strategic threat to Israel’s urban centers and military facilities.

Israel’s war in 2006 in Lebanon against Hezbollah, supported by the US and the entire Arab “moderate” camp, was no more successful. In fact, Hezbollah is now not only militarily stronger than ever – Security Council Resolution 1701, which called for its disarmament, has proven to be an utter failure – but also more politically robust than before the war. Admirably adept at weaving together all of Lebanon’s political, religious, and nationalists threads, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nazrallah, is today the undisputed master of Lebanon.

The Syrian patron of Hezbollah, President Bashar al-Assad, another member of the “axis of evil,” is also doing well, thank you. Not only Israel and the US, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia have hoped for the political demise of this friend of every radical regional cause – from Hamas and Iran to the anti-Western forces in Lebanon – that they oppose. But Assad managed to emerge from Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 to become the broker without whom a Lebanese government could not be created and a president could not be elected.