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Week of 8.4.06

Alon Ben-Meir on the Israel-Lebanon Crisis

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, and a professor of International Relations and Middle-Eastern studies at the Center for Global Studies at NYU and at the New School. Born in Baghdad, he is fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew.

What is Hezbollah trying to achieve?

Professor Alon Ben-Meir Their agenda is similar to that of Iran. They don't accept Israel's right to exist but they cannot by themselves do anything about it. So they needed Iran and they needed Syria, who have a different agenda altogether, to support them. Hezbollah wanted to prove to the Arab world that they are a viable organization capable of confronting Israel... not believing that Israel would respond in the massive way is has. That's where they miscalculated.

Why do Iran and Syria back Hezbollah?

Iran wants to become a regional hegemony. With the rise of Shiite in Iraq, you have a crescent of 100 million Shiite extending from the Gulf all the way to Lebanon, sitting on nearly 40 percent of the known oil reserves. This is massive power with a massive number of people, with the most critical piece of real estate in the Middle East, that is Iran and Iraq...The Shiite rise represents almost a mortal danger to the Sunnis.

So the battle in Lebanon today might seem as if it's just between Israel and Hezbollah but the truth of the matter is also between Shia and Sunni. This is why Saudi Arabia and Egypt were almost mute initially about the Israeli attack because they want to see Hezbollah decimated. And in so doing they will limit the Iranian expansion into the region. They want to stop Iran's ambitions to dominate the Middle East .

Syria is Sunni, Iran is Shiite, so this is an unlikely alliance isn't it?

Absolutely. This is a marriage of convenience at best, and it will be dissolved the moment Syria feels it received what it was seeking - specifically, recovery of the Golan Heights and recognition of its special role in Lebanon...If the United States and Israel do not address the issue of the Golan, all this talk about sustainable ceasefire will work temporarily. Syria is perfectly capable of continuing to destabilize the region in one way or another.

Do you believe that the United States has to take different steps to engage Syria in resolving this conflict?

Without any question in my mind. People will say Syria is a rogue state, Syria is a terrorist state, Syria tries to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation...all true. But one has to ask what is the alternative...The United States ought to appeal directly to Syria...[Syria] has been part of the problem; it ought to be part of the solution.

How does the Arab world view Hezbollah?

[The Arab world] takes pride in the fact that there is somebody that can put up a good fight against Israel...In the end, when all is said and done, the Sunni will be delighted that Hezbollah has been broken. But the side effect is most important...Iran's influence will be dramatically curtailed. And that is for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States, the music that they want to hear.

There have been some suggestions that Iran is using this conflict as a way to take some pressure off its nuclear ambitions. What do you think?

There is no doubt about it that this was part of the calculations of the Iranian government...Iran has on two, three, four occasions clearly said that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth, has no right to exist, [and] denied the Holocaust ever took place. So Iran is not a friend. It's not just not a friend to Israel, it's not a friend to anyone. Iran is for Iran.

Iran has to be reduced to size, and the only nations that can do so are the United States and the European Community. But the European Community is unfortunately fickle about these things; they don't have the spine.

The addiction to oil is the mother of all sins. As long as we continue to be addicted to relatively cheap oil from the Middle East, our policies in that region are compromised in one form or another.

What should the U.S. do to resolve this conflict?

I have always been a real critic of [the Bush] administration and I was saying to my friends this is the first time that I agreed with what President Bush and Condoleezza Rice are trying to achieve. I think it's the right path to demand that Hezbollah be disarmed. It is the right path to demand a serious, robust force be placed, maybe 25,000 to 30,000 men and women, in Lebanon. It is the right thing to give Israel more time to weaken, if not disarm, Hezbollah completely. And it is the right thing to try to maintain Lebanon's fragile democracy. What is wrong with the American approach is that they still are unwilling to deal with the most critical player, and that is Syria.

Does Al Qaeda play a role a role in this crisis?

They would like to. Al-Zawahiri, the second in command in Al Qaeda, came on television charging Arabs to rise against America, to rise against Israel. But there is a big difference between them: Hezbollah is Shiite and al Qaeda is Sunni. For a little bit of time they can talk the same language and try to support each other. But the truth of the matter is the animosity between the two sides is far too deep to be peppered up by this particular event. They will go through the motions now, but when things are settled they will go back to exactly the way they were before. Al Qaeda is intending on undermining all Arab regimes that do not believe their way of thinking. Hezbollah would like to create a different kind of Islamic state. And this rivalry between the two will last for a long, long time.

What is the American public's biggest misunderstanding about what's going on in the Middle East?

There is a profound misunderstanding between the West and the East...This misunderstanding stems from the West's inability and perhaps unwillingness to really understand the Arab and Muslim mindset. This will explain to you why we have failed miserably in Iraq because we never understood the Iraqi mentality: how do they live their life, their factionalism, their tribalism, all of these things. And we come there trying to advance ideas like democracy as if it was a pill — you swallow it and you wake up in the morning a free man ...

We don't understand even the root causes of terrorism, let alone other causes ...The real causes [are the] Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poverty and disdain, and desperation...Reform ought to be far more gradual and nurtured to allow for homegrown democratic reforms. We have to take time.