The Middle East Conflict: Birth Pangs or a Miscarriage?

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice drew many raised eyebrows when she predicted that the battle between Israel and Hezbollah marked the 'birth pangs' of a new Middle East. Maybe she was showing extraordinary prescience; maybe foolhardy optimism. Several weeks and hundreds of deaths after the conflict erupted, the path to a 'new' Middle East looks as treacherous as it has for a generation. The deck seems stacked against Secretary Rice's hopeful forecast.

The government of Israel is determined - and is solidly backed by public opinion at home - to put an end to the Hezbollah threat and thereby break a tool of Iran. Even Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres has been sounding hawkish about the need for Israel to win decisively and be seen doing so. "Israel must emerge from this war as a winner or else the war will continue," he said. Eti Livni, a friend of Olmert and Knesset member, told Time magazine: "If Nasrallah is alive at the end of this and gives one of his speeches it cannot look like an Israeli victory."

However, the greater range of Hezbollah rockets means that even pushing guerrillas north of the Litani River may not protect northern Israel. If Israel fails to secure a military victory, that will be widely interpreted as a political victory for Hezbollah. Its resistance strengthens its bargaining position within Lebanon. And Israel's expanding military campaign -- by causing greater destruction in Lebanon -- pushes the Lebanese government and Hezbollah closer.

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