07/23/2006 10:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Strengthening Militants, Marginalizing Moderates in the Middle East

The following is an op-ed from myself published yesterday in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune.

President Bush recently said the "root cause" of today's Middle East violence "is Hezbollah" because "this crisis started when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers." But there was a key development before that abduction that Bush and others tragically overlooked.

On June 20, the Associated Press reported that "Hamas is drawing close to a compromise on a document that would implicitly recognize Israel" for the first time. This political effort was spearheaded by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a pragmatist. But Hamas' militant wing, led by politburo chief Khaled Meshal from exile in Syria, did not approve.

As a Syrian political analyst reported in last Saturday's Asia Times, Haniyeh was reaching out to Israel because he "wants to run a country" and seeks "to prove that he was not in power to combat Israel but to improve the livelihood of the Palestinians." Meshal, however, "leads the anti-pragmatism fold in Hamas that still wants to destroy the Jewish state."

So five days after the AP report, an Israeli soldier was abducted in an operation believed to have been directed by Meshal. The Jewish Week reported that the kidnapping had "caught Haniyeh by surprise," and that the prime minister attempted to order the soldier's release, but was "ignored" by those from his party's militant wing involved in the operation.

How did Israel react? It retaliated with military force. Just what Meshal and the militants wanted.

In the midst of another round of violence, Haniyeh and his fellow pragmatists did not have the political standing to moderate long-standing Hamas positions, and they backed off from recognizing Israel.

Shortly thereafter, Lebanon's Hezbollah added fuel to the fire with its abductions. Hezbollah was seeking an opportunity to provoke Israel, because if outstanding issues between Israel and Lebanon were resolved, Hezbollah's reason for being would evaporate. Edward Walker, chief of the Middle East Institute, told the Boston Globe that Israel is "the pawn in this thing ... They are being used by Hezbollah ... ."

Events did not have to play out this way. When the first abduction happened, instead of reacting with force, the Israeli government could have announced that it would not allow extremists to disrupt the important talks underway. That would have bolstered the Hamas pragmatists, giving them incentive to remain on a path toward peace.

Hezbollah would have been stifled as well. If Israel were getting international praise, and not criticism for a "disproportionate response," an operation against Israel could not have been expected to garner much support among Lebanese, not to mention Arabs and Muslims abroad. Either the abductions wouldn't have happened, or they would have compromised Hezbollah's political standing.

Truly befuddling is why the Bush administration did not use its leverage with the Israeli government to shore up Hamas pragmatists. Bush claims to promote democracy abroad so we can defeat terrorism. Yet when faced with democratically elected Hamas officials beginning to moderate themselves, Bush chose to undermine them.

Next time -- and sadly, there will be a next time -- we should call upon our president to reverse the predictable responses and work with Israelis, Palestinians and others to strengthen moderates and marginalize extremists. If he doesn't, we should wonder if he really means what he says about promoting democracy and stability in the region.