Adrian Hamilton: This crisis can only be solved by outside intervention

The trouble is that there is little reason at present for the participants to draw back

The Independent

Published: 14 July 2006

If the G8 were to do something useful this weekend, instead of just making platitudinous pronouncements on generalised global concerns, it would be to come out with a clear and positive intervention in the rapidly escalating Middle East crisis.

It's just ridiculous to discuss, as G8 are planning, questions of energy security, oil prices, Iranian nuclear ambitions or international terrorism without recognising that the cauldron of the Middle East lies at the centre of all these issues. And just at this moment, the vessel is threatening to blow up.

On the one side you've got two groups, Hamas in Gaza and now Hizbollah in Lebanon, who feel that, having seized Israeli soldiers, they have a real handle on Israel which they're not going to give up. On the other side, you have an angry Israel led by a weak new Prime Minister that feels it must win this confrontation and break the power of Hamas and Hizbollah once and for all. Negotiation is not on the table, as the Israelis made clear when they bombed the offices of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry after it had proposed such a course.

The trouble is that, at the moment, there is little reason for any of the participants to draw back, other than concern for the poor brutalised civilians, for whom no one seems too worried about at present.

Israel has now upped the ante to the point at which, as its spokesman said to the BBC yesterday, it cannot pull back. It has thrown in the bombers, the tanks and now its warships in an effort to force the governments of Palestine and Lebanon to rein back the militias on the borders. Airports have been bombed, the houses of Hamas leaders razed to the ground, power stations disabled, bridges destroyed - all in the name of holding the two states responsible for the actions of the radicals.

This is a nonsense, of course. The Lebanese government has very little control over Hizbollah and will have even less now that the Israeli troops have crossed the border, while an embattled Hamas authority in Palestine has neither the will nor the need to clamp down on the militants on its side.

All Israel's actions will do is to set the populations of its two neighbours against it and rally support for Hamas and Hizbollah. It could also bring down the Lebanese government and create even more instability on its borders - the prospect which is so worrying to France and the US, in their different ways. Which is exactly why neither Hamas and Hizbollah are going to give up their hostages. After years of being berated for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, the Islamic radicals feel they have pulled off quite a coup by attacking the Israeli militia and taking hostages. Prisoner exchange has worked for them in the past, and even if it doesn't work this time, the ferocity of the Israeli response has played into their hands.

Meanwhile, Iran and Syria - whether you believe they incited Hizbollah to make this attack on an Israeli patrol or not - have only to sit on the sidelines and watch it happen. The more pressure is put on them, the worse the Israeli actions in Lebanon, the more their domestic public opinion will rally behind them.

Of course Israel has a case, particularly over the Lebanese incursions. It was a gross violation of the UN-brokered peace line. But that is not how the Palestinians see it, nor the rest of the Arab world. In their eyes, they are fighting a nuclear state with the full panoply of military power. Anything that gives them a little victory, a handle however small on the Israelis, is a major triumph in populist terms.

Israel can go on bashing Hamas and Hizbollah, assassinating its leaders along with their wives and children, and it can go on squeezing the civilian population with blockades and the destruction of the infrastructure until they are exhausted and broken. But what it cannot do - although some of its military seem to have been raring for a chance to have a go in this latest crisis - is to defeat Hizbollah or Hamas by purely military means. We are in the classic position of what the US military calls "asymmetric warfare".

If Israel seems so reluctant to accept this, then there must be at least the suspicion that the ferocity of its response owes more to the weakness of Ehud Olmert, its new and unprepossessing Prime Minister, than to strength. Olmert is overreacting because he needs to show he is just as tough as his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, and Israel in turn needs to keep escalating the conflict because it has got itself into a position where it cannot be seen to be losing face by negotiating with hostage-takers.

Which is all the more reason why the outside world has to intervene before the crisis finally blows itself out in a mass of bodies, most of them innocent civilians. The leaders of the G8 cannot force a peace, but they can provide the occasion of pulling the parties apart, back behind their borders.