The Risks of Israel's Two-Front War

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Flames rise from the fuel tanks of the Beirut International airport after an Israeli air strike in Beirut

As Israeli military forces launched strikes in Lebanon this week in response to the Hizballah cross-border attack in which at least eight soldiers were killed and two captured, the defense chief of staff warned that Israel could "turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years." A more precise estimate, perhaps, would be 38.

It was back in 1968, in response to a Palestinian terrorist attack on an El Al aircraft at Athens airport, that Israeli commandos blew up 13 planes at Beirut airport belonging to Lebanon's Middle East Airlines.

Then, as now, Israel intended to warn Lebanese authorities to curb the activities of terrorist groups operating in its sovereign territory. Time will tell whether Israel's tactic, which has included bombing the runways of Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport, produces the desired results, and leads Hizballah to free the two Israeli soldiers. But there is a real risk that the move may have the same unintended consequence of the raid 38 years ago: pushing Lebanon further into a spiral of internal strife and even a civil war that embroils the entire Middle East.

As in 1968, Lebanon is a society fragmented along religious and political lines and ruled by a weak central government that is reluctant, if not powerless, to police semi-autonomous, armed factions like Hizballah that are backed by foreign powers. In 1975, civil war erupted between pro-Palestinian Lebanese factions and mainly Christian groups that could no longer tolerate the Palestine Liberation Organization operating in their country. More than 100,000 Lebanese died before the civil war officially ended in 1990.

Yet, despite the exit of the PLO in 1982, of Israeli occupation forces in 2000 and of Syrian troops last year, Lebanon is divided between Hizballah and its allies on one hand, and an alliance of Christians and non-Shi'ite Muslims that wants Hizballah disarmed on the other. Lebanese have tried hard to escape the ghosts and hardship of the civil war years, and the reconstruction led by the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri has reinvigorated the tourist industry. Hizballah's move and Israel's response to it, however, is likely to send thousands of foreign visitors — and their much-needed money — fleeing the country, and could even spark a return to Beirut's dark days of internal strife.

What is clear is that with Israel fighting enemies on two fronts, the Middle East strain is deepening. This week's operation inside Israel's borders by Hizballah, which is financed by Iran and closely allied with radical Palestinian factions like Hamas, brings into focus the new dangerous balance of power in the region that has been taking shape since the Bush administration sent U.S. forces into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

In Iraq, the fall of one of the Arab world's most formidable regimes has left religious and ethnic factions scrambling for power in a near civil war that seems to get bloodier by the day. Iran has been intent on filling the regional power vacuum left by the toppling of Saddam. Besides continuing to back Hizballah, which it actually created in 1982 after Israeli forces launched a wide-scale invasion of Lebanon to destroy the PLO, Iran has been extending its influence inside Iraq and could end up the dominant foreign influence there when the U.S. ultimately withdraws. So confident — or reckless — is the new Iran that Tehran seems to be going to the brink with the West in a showdown over its nuclear ambitions, risking a possible preventive military strike by the U.S. or Israel.

Elsewhere, Iran provides crucial support to Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, the three Arab players most visibly defying American and Israeli designs for the Middle East. Syria may prove another tempting target for Israeli forces, which buzzed President Bashar Assad's palace last month as a warning to end its backing for terrorist groups. Jordanian authorities recently accused Hamas of smuggling weapons into Jordan from Syria with the intention of staging terrorist attacks against King Abdullah II's rule. But any military action against Damascus could backfire by plunging Syria itself into a sectarian conflict between Alawite loyalists and the Sunni Muslim majority that has felt excluded during the reign of the Assads.

All of this is happening, of course, against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a source of contention as much as ever. Israel broke off political talks with Yasser Arafat on a settlement in 2001 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was elected, while President Bush has shunned the active Middle East diplomacy practiced by most of his predecessors. But despite Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip a year ago, Israeli and U.S. policies of shunning negotiations have not produced much new hope of lasting progress. In fact, Palestinian voters six months ago ousted the late Yasser Arafat's secular Fatah group from power and elected a Hamas government — which, like Hizballah, is backed by Iran and is sworn to destroy the Jewish state.

It was the abduction of an Israeli soldier in an operation praised by Hamas last month that triggered the new tensions in the region, including major Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip where the missing soldier is believed to be held. And the Israeli siege of Gaza has led to serious worries in Cairo that Palestinian refugees may stream across the border into Egypt, presenting President Hosni Mubarak's regime with another internal political crisis.

The escalation of Middle East tensions is also boosting the fortunes of hard-liners over moderates, at least for now. Jordan's Abdullah II last month nudged Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas toward starting peace talks, but now that appears off the table. Other moderates, including Egypt's Mubarak and Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, also seem eclipsed. In contrast, it is Khaled Meshal, the militant leader of Hamas in exile, and Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah's chief in Lebanon, both backed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran and Assad in Syria, who are driving current developments.

And the leaders of those two groups are clearly delighted to see Israel widening the conflict — since fighting, rather than politics, is what they have always done best. Militants possibly affiliated with one of those two groups launched a missile strike at the Northern Israeli city of Haifa on Thursday in another move that risked severe Israeli retaliation. Such an escalation would only further reduce the already slim odds that Hizballah, Hamas and other militant groups are likely to release their captives unconditionally as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has demanded. So with the battle lines drawn, from Baghdad to Beirut, the summer in the Middle East may yet get a lot, lot hotter.