Just as I was leaving Beirut on a Newsweek trip nearly thirty years ago, armored personnel carriers began taking positions at intersections in that beautiful city--the first sign of the civil war that soon engulfed the country. That fight was between Christians and Palestine Liberation Organization zealots backed by Lebanese Muslims. Soon, Syria intervened--initially behind the Christians! Within a few years, Israel had invaded Lebanon to clear out the PLO, and the exquisite St. Georges hotel and the rest of the skyline turned into castles of rubble.
The vision of those APCs under the palm trees came back to me this week as Israeli warplanes and artillery blasted Beirut back to the bad old days. The Israelis maintained that they were retaliating for the capture of two of their soldiers and the rocketing of Jewish homes by Hezbollah fighters from the sanctuary of southern Lebanon--and it's fair to question the ferocity of the Israeli response. But this latest episode dramatizes a larger truth about the Middle East that I only glimpsed three decades ago.
Every time, the Israelis are positioned to give back more Arab territory and move closer to accepting a Palestinian state next door, they are rescued by their Arab neighbors.
Since the Camp David accords, Israel has turned the Sinai back to Egypt, retreated once from Lebanon after the 1980 incursion, handed Gaza over to the Palestinians and was contemplating some West Bank withdrawals behind its new security fence in anticipation of a Palestinian state.
But over that same period of time, Egyptian fanatics assassinated Anwar Sadat, the man who made peace with Israel; King Hussein of Jordan first made war on the PLO, then backed Iraq in Saddam Hussein's disastrous grab at Kuwait; Yasser Arafat waged two Intifadas against Israel; Hafez Assad of Syria was succeeded by his chinless bumbling son, Bashir, whose operatives likely assassinated the popular onetime prime minister of Lebanon; and now Arafat's successors are wrestling with the Hamas jihadi for control of the nascent Palestinian state.
These centrifugal forces churning the Arab world guarantee that some self-defeating adventure by its adversaries will inevitably rescue Israel from taking the last steps in any "roadmap" to settlement with its neighbors. And the jihadist hatred demonstrated time and again by Hamas and Hezbollah gives the Israelis persuasive evidence that they have no credible partners for peace.
It's always easy to condemn Israel for the deadly efficiency and aggressiveness of its military response to provocations from its enemies. But the truth is that Israel's secret weapon is the Arabs themselves.