Feb 19, 2008 11:50 am


Those who dream of a final settlement of the Israeli Palestinian conflict its central role in world affairs. During the Cold War it was a major Soviet/Arab card and today it is a major Shia card. Barry Rubin explains:

In the course of Hizballah’s threats against Israel, following the assassination of that group’s international terrorism director, Imad Mugniyah, there was an extremely important point that speaks to the Middle East’s future.

The statement came from General Muhammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the Tehran regime’s main military force (and future guardians of Iran’s nuclear weapons). He predicted,"In the near future, we will witness the destruction of Israel, the aggressor, this cancerous microbe Israel."

But that’s not the important part. What’s interesting is who will do the destroying. According to Jafari, Israel will be wiped off the map by…Hizballah.[1] One could just take that as bluster and propaganda. Yet, wait a minute; it reveals a major shift from what has been true for the last 60 years or more.

Jafari, and other Iranians, don’t want to say that Iran itself is going to do the wiping out. After all, such hints in the past strengthened international resolve against Iran getting the nuclear weapons that it might use to destroy Israel. Such a posture also justifies an Israeli attack on Iran, since that country is openly threatening genocide against it.

In effect, though, Jafari is erasing all the historical actors in the conflict: Arab states, Arab nationalist groups, Sunni Muslims, and—most remarkably of all—the Palestinians.

The battle is being waged by the heroes of today and the victors of tomorrow—Shia Muslims, and Lebanese ones at that. It is not even a Muslim-Jewish battle (which is in general the Islamist line), because the great majority of Muslims are also not included.

Of course, Hizballah has always maintained that it would fight and defeat Israel, though it was mainly interested in retaking the south of Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. But to talk about Hizballah, and only Hizballah, as fighting and defeating Israel is a whole new theory of the conflict.

Weren’t the Palestinians supposed to be the vanguard? Isn’t this battle supposedly being waged on behalf of them?

As early as 2000, Hizballah presented itself as the model for the Palestinians. Now, however, the conflict is being increasingly presented as a Shia cause—not an Arab or Muslim one—to be used to promote Iranian hegemony in the region. The Arabs are left out, the Sunni are left out, and the Palestinians are left out. It is possible for Sunni and Shia to cooperate—the best examples are the Syrian regime’s popularity with its Sunni majority, and Hamas being a client of Iran—but this is not easy. More often they are in competition, even shedding each other’s blood, their forces split.

(An interesting example: In Kuwait, Shia rallied to mourn Mugniyah while the government condemned him as a terrorist. During the 1980s, Iran was behind several terror attacks on Kuwait, included an attempted assassination of its ruler. Perhaps Mugniyah was involved.)

Consider a point that everyone always ignores: there is not and has never been any large Hamas political organization, much less a militia, among the tens of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon. Why? Because the Iranians, Syrians, and Hizballah didn’t allow anyone to function except their own puppet groups. Syria supports Hamas but that is not their real favourite client.

Of course the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Iraqis, and 10 other Arab states--at least as of now--are not directly involved in fighting the conflict. They have dropped out in an active sense, whatever propaganda they make on the issue. But how do the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and Fatah (or even Hamas) feel about this new definition in which they are not important?

This is, of course, an Iranian and Shia chauvinist ploy (the alliance includes Syria which has a Sunni majority but whose regime claims to be Shia): we now own the Palestinian card.

If, however, the Palestinian card is used as a partisan tool by Tehran, why should Sunnis and Arab states support its efforts? If a minority in Lebanon wants to use the conflict to support its own ambitions—and links with foreign powers—why should the Lebanese majority consent to suffer and die by making their country a battlefield?

And why should the West think that the issue is about the Palestinians when it is increasingly obvious—though this has always been true—that it is about power struggles for control of the region.

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