All-out war threatens to fill void left by 'Butcher of Beirut'
ARIEL Sharon is not yet dead. The former prime minister of Israel lies in a military hospital outside Tel Aviv, having not woken from the coma he fell into six months ago. An international day of prayer was called for him last month, but never has he been more sorely missed than today. It is precisely the absence of the "Butcher of Beirut" that has placed the Middle East on the precipice of a new war.
Those accustomed to criticising Israel will see a familiar theme: a military machine blowing up Lebanese bridges and killing civilians in what was, to quote French president Jacques Chirac, a "disproportionate act of war". To its supporters, Israel is showing it will not be bullied and will retaliate to provocation from Hamas terrorists. But dig deeper and another picture emerges.
Three months ago, Ehud Olmert was elected Israel's prime minister. It is a position normally held by warriors. Several of his predecessors, Moshe Dayan to Ehud Barak, were generals - acknowledgement that being head of this tiny state, surrounded by its enemies, is akin to running a military garrison.
The first duty is to defend the Jewish state from its five hostile neighbours, and this calls for military judgment. It involves having fought against the Arab enemy, reading the psychology of the terrorist and having impeccable strongman credentials. Above all, the terrorist enemy must know you will not yield to the slightest provocation.
Yet we know little about Olmert. He was a willing political aide to Sharon, but he trained as a lawyer and has been a career politician since the age of 28. Now 61, he is a slight man who looks like he may well compromise on provocation. He is also painfully aware he must quickly forge a no-nonsense reputation, which is why Lebanese airports are being bombed in retaliation for Hezbollah attacks.
Sharon has never had to prove his credentials. He was, by common consent, the hardest man in Israel. He joined Israel paramilitaries as a teenager and in the 1967 Yom Kippur war defied orders to bridge the Nile and lead his brigade within 70 miles of Cairo. For this he was known as a maverick, and by some a war hero. To others, he is a war criminal guilty of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon. But no one thought him a soft touch.
So it was Sharon who could order 8,000 Israelis out of the Gaza strip in a unilateral withdrawal. As an architect behind the illegal settlements, he had the authority to order the retreat - and send the Israeli army after those who refused. He had become persuaded that the best way to protect Israel was to retreat, and no one could accuse him of cowardice. It is hard to think that, just last Christmas, Israel and Palestine were so close to peace.
Rather than take the chance to live peacefully in the newly evacuated Gaza, Hamas used it as a position to make a raid on a border post and kidnap Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old soldier. When Lebanese Hezbollah kidnapped another two, his resolve was tested on two fronts. Hence he has launched air strikes on Lebanon, and has sworn to get the hostages back. Without Sharon's reputation, Olmert has to make his own.
Thus politics in the Middle East is run along the Old Testament strategy: life for a life; eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth. Olmert is bombing Lebanon in a gamble that Damascus will keep a tighter rein on Hezbollah guerrillas. The risk is that the terrorists will respond like they did in 1968 and settle down for a new wave of relentless violence. The greatest fear is of a wider conflagration.
The shadow of Iran hangs over the conflict, and is felt by all players. Olmert is now, in a way, not just fighting with Hamas and Hezbollah, but with Syria and Lebanon where the two groups are politically based. Hezbollah is part-financed by Tehran and suggested it may take the kidnapped Israelis back there. This would take the battle into a far bigger league.
Already there are demands for an Arab fightback. The leaders of Egypt and Jordan may appeal for calm, but some 5,000 people gathered in Cairo calling for a united uprising by Arab states and 2,000 gathered in Amman to call for Jews to leave Israel. Washington has remained silent, but there is no doubt where its sympathies lie. The nightmare is if the hostages are taken to Iran and Olmert decides it is once again time to launch air strikes at that country.
The key to understanding Israel's psychology comes in a conversation which Sharon had with Ben Gurion, founder of modern Israel, which he liked to recount. "It doesn't matter what the world says about Israel. The only thing that matters is that we can exist here on the land of our forefathers," Sharon was told. "And unless we show the Arabs that there is a high price to pay for murdering Jews, we won't survive."
So Olmert was yesterday bombing the Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut, making it 44 targets bombed in 24 hours. Hezbollah showed what it has bought with all that Iranian cash and flew an unmanned drone plane into an Israeli warship, killing four. The risk is that the Israel-Hezbollah conflict will by the end of next week have mutated into an Israel-Lebanon war and that its tensions with Hamas may spill over into tensions with Syria.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand president of Iran, has spoken of the "crushing response" which Israel can expect if it crosses Syria. His words can easily be presented as an ultimatum, which Olmert may feel he has to test. Last October, Ahmadinejad declared he would like to wipe Israel "off the map" - it would be entirely rational for Olmert to strike first.
Three years ago, Ahmadinejad and Olmert were acting as mayors of Tehran and Jerusalem respectively. Both are now unexpectedly rival figures in the most potentially explosive situation in the world - feeling their way in global politics to see how the other will respond. And this is why the situation is so dangerous. Neither is experienced in such a standoff. Either could make a dramatic gesture to intimidate the other. And none of us can be sure how this will end.
Fraser Nelson is political editor of The Spectator
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