09/13/2006

Errors of the war on terror

By George Soros

Israel's failure to subdue Hezbollah demonstrates the many weaknesses of the war-on-terror concept. One weakness is that even if the targets are terrorists, the victims are often innocent civilians, and their suffering reinforces the terrorist cause.

In response to Hezbollah's attacks, Israel was justified in wanting to destroy the movement and to protect itself against the threat of missiles on its border. However, Israel should have taken greater care to minimize collateral damage. The civilian casualties and material damage inflicted on Lebanon inflamed Muslims and world opinion against Israel, and converted Hezbollah from aggressors to heroes of resistance. Weakening Lebanon has also made it more difficult to rein in Hezbollah.

Another weakness of the war-on-terror concept is that it relies on military action and rules out political approaches. Israel withdrew from Lebanon and then from Gaza unilaterally, rather than negotiating political settlements with the Lebanese government and the Palestinian Authority. The strengthening of Hezbollah and Hamas was a direct consequence of that approach. The war-on-terror concept stands in the way of recognizing this fact because it separates "us" from "them," and denies the fact that our actions may shape their behavior.

A third weakness is that the war-on-terror concept lumps together different political movements that use terrorist tactics. It fails to distinguish between Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaida or the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi militia in Iraq. Yet all these terrorist manifestations are different and require different responses. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah can be treated merely as targets in the war on terror because they have deep roots in their societies, yet profound differences exist between them.

Looking back it is easy to see where Israeli policy went wrong. When Mahmoud Abbas was elected chairman of the PA, Israel should have gone out of its way to strengthen him and his reformist team.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza, the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, negotiated a six-point plan for the Middle East on behalf of the Quartet (Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations). It included opening crossings between Gaza and the West Bank, an airport and seaport in Gaza, opening the border with Egypt, and transferring the greenhouses abandoned by Israeli settlers into Arab hands. None of the six points was implemented.

This contributed to Hamas' electoral victory. The Bush administration, having pushed Israel to hold elections, then backed Israel's refusal to deal with a Hamas government. The effect has been to impose further hardship on the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, Abbas was able to forge an agreement with the political arm of Hamas for the formation of a unity government. It was to foil this agreement that the military branch of Hamas, run from Damascus, engaged in the provocation that brought a heavy-handed response from Israel - which in turn incited Hezbollah to further provocation, opening a second front. That is how extremists play off against each other to destroy any chance of political progress.

Israel has been a participant in this game and President Bush bought into this flawed policy, uncritically supporting Israel. Events have shown that this policy leads to an escalation of violence. The process has advanced to the point where Israel's unquestioned military superiority is no longer sufficient to overcome the negative consequences of its policy. Israel is now more endangered existentially than it was at the time of the Oslo Accord. Similarly, the United States has become less safe since President Bush declared war on terror.

The time has come to realize that today's policies are counterproductive. There will be no end to the vicious circle of escalating violence without a political settlement of the Palestine question. In fact, the prospects for engaging in negotiations are better now than they were a few months ago. Israelis must realize that a military deterrent is not sufficient on its own. And Arabs, having redeemed themselves on the battlefield, may be more willing to entertain a compromise.

Strong voices argue that Israel must never negotiate from a position of weakness. They are wrong. Israel's position is liable to become weaker the longer it persists on its present course. Similarly, Hezbollah, having tasted the sense but not the reality of victory (and egged on by Syria and Iran), may prove recalcitrant.

But that is where the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas comes into play. The people of Palestine yearn for peace and relief from suffering. The political - as distinct from the military - wing of Hamas must be responsive to their desires. It is not too late for Israel to encourage and to deal with an Abbas-led Palestinian unity government as the first step toward a better balanced approach. What is missing is a U.S. government that is not blinded by the war-on-terror concept.

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Financier and philanthropist George Soros is author of "The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror" (Public Affairs, 2006?).Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006. www.project-syndicate.org

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