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.”

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.