[OUTLOOK]A fire in a regional tinderbox

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[OUTLOOK]A fire in a regional tinderbox

Three weeks have passed since the armed clash erupted between Israel and Hezbollah began in Lebanon.
This is the newest tragedy to unfold in the heart of the world’s energy provider, the Middle East, and the international community has responded with anxiety, anger and tears. There have been ongoing talks about having a multinational force intervene and a potential cease-fire, but it appears the conflict will go in one of three directions.
First, it could remain a confrontation strictly between Israel and Hezbollah. On the surface, this military offensive was simply a response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by the Islamic group. Israel has emphasized the threat posed by the 12,000 missiles Hezbollah has aimed toward Israel, missiles that were put in place after the Israelis took the peaceful step of withdrawing from South Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
For both sides, however, the damage and losses have snowballed at an alarming rate, culminating in catastrophes such as the bombing in Qana. Due to combat fatigue, it is possible that the two may soon sit at a negotiating table, with either a third party or with the United Nations acting as an arbitrator.
Second, it could end up pitting Israel against the Arab states, spreading the conflict throughout the Middle East. Both the Israelis and the Hezbollah militants have solemnly declared that their ultimate goal is to wipe the opposing side off the face of the earth. Syria and Iran have been providing both overt and covert support to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Moreover, the uncertainty caused by Iraq, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda could act as a call for solidarity throughout the Middle East. If this starts affecting major oil producers, an oil shock could result. Iran, with its nuclear program and ruling class of Islamic fundamentalists, is an especially crucial player. Whether Iran aggressively intervenes will be the key factor in deciding whether this war will be developed into a broader Middle East war.
Third, the conflict that has plagued the Middle East for the past 60 years could explode into World War III, with pro-Israel states fighting pro-Arab nations. Recently, a Hezbollah spokesperson said, “We are ready to dispatch [2,000 of our best agents] to every corner of the world to jeopardize Israel’s and America’s interests. If America wants to ignite World War III. we welcome it.”
Within the United States, politicians such as the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are expressing serious concern regarding the possible outbreak of a third world war.
The origins of the current battle could be traced up from the Crusades of medieval times, but a more direct cause could be found in the historical and political side effects of the first two World Wars. That is why the focus of the international community is not so much on Jerusalem and Beirut as it is on Washington, the political power most deeply involved in the balance of power in the Middle East. America’s Middle East policy started as a way to contain the spread of Soviet power, and full-blown intervention began in the 1960s. The Americans have used various diplomatic and military tactics to prevent the leadership in the Middle East from falling into Soviet, European or Arab nationalist hands.
Israel has served as America’s religious, ideological and economic base for advancement in the Middle East; since the Sept. 11 attacks, it has been a major partner in the war against terror.
Israel has shown considerable tactical prowess in naming Hezbollah as its target even as it advances on the largely Christian south of Lebanon, thus cementing American support.
Hezbollah has spent the past 20 years sending suicide bombers into American embassies, airports and residential areas, causing hundreds of deaths. Because of this, Hezbollah has been perceived as almost as much of a threat to the United States as Al Qaeda. In the cease-fire proposal package presented by U.S. President George W. Bush, the usual anti-terror principles, such as supporting the Lebanese government and enforcing Hezbollah’s disarmament, are featured prominently.
With increasing international and domestic criticism against Israel, however, American opinion appears to be leaning toward freeing the kidnapped soldiers and blocking Syrian and Iranian intervention, thus preventing another full-scale war in the Middle East.
One cannot help but wonder about the fate of Israel and the Arab nations, and how their endless fighting will affect the balance of power in the Middle East.
In the early 1970s, crude oil cost a mere $2 per barrel. Now, prices have skyrocketed to more than 35 times that amount. We need to remember that war and peace in the oil-rich Middle East is something that does and will affect us all.

* The writer is a professor at Sejong University and a former diplomat at the Foreign Ministry.


by Kim Joung-won
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