A Bad Status Quo

By John Waterbury
Monday, August 7, 2006

BEIRUT -- Unfortunately, it is all connected: Hezbollah, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iran and, indeed, Iraq. One cannot "solve" the Hezbollah problem without coming to terms with all the pieces. Anyone who has dealt with the successive Middle East crises over several decades knows there is a kind of infinite regress of cause and effect. I cut into the process somewhat arbitrarily in 1967.

Next June will be the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War. Six days and 40 years. I wonder if, at the end of formal combat in 1967, Moshe Dayan declared "mission accomplished."

Out of the Israeli triumph of 1967 there emerged a status quo that has prevailed with some modifications ever since, and no matter how unsatisfactory, the international system prefers the status quo to change.

Israel has had a distinct preference for the status quo, founded on conventional military superiority over all its neighbors and some strategic depth through its retaining the occupied territories.

While the Cold War continued, the United States was not entirely comfortable with the status quo as it offered the Soviet Union a restive back yard in which to meddle, but the situation was manageable until 1973.

In 1973 Egypt's Anwar Sadat resorted to a limited war against Israel to dislodge it from the Suez Canal and to draw the United States into an active role of mediation. It is doubtful that Sadat anticipated even the limited military success his forces attained. He did anticipate an international crisis. Moscow obligingly threatened intervention, and Henry Kissinger began his famous shuttle diplomacy. Israel gave up the occupied Sinai Peninsula but not the essential ingredients of the status quo: military superiority, Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights. This modification of the status quo was embodied in the Camp David accords of 1979.

From then on, and up to 1989, the Arab states, led by Egypt (and with the exception of Iraq), pretty much abandoned the military option against Israel. Even Iraq was more intent on using its military power against Iran and Kuwait than against Israel. Nor, after 1973, did any of the Arab oil producers, with the exception of Iraq, do anything to drive up prices or interdict oil supply.

Arab authoritarians tacitly accepted the status quo in exchange for tacit acceptance of their rule by Washington. Arab governmental, financial and military support for the Palestinians dwindled. Action spoke volumes more than words.

With the end of the Cold War, Washington's alignment with Israel and the status quo in the Arab-Israeli theater become more solid than ever. If Israel seemed willing to move, as under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, Washington moved, too. If Israel was unwilling to move, as under Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, Washington asked few questions. Two intifadas shook but did not break the status quo.

But time has not healed wounds. There has been none of the oft-trumpeted confidence-building. The real issues -- safe and recognized borders, settlements, Jerusalem, the occupied territories including the Golan Heights, refugees, nuclear arms -- all remain unresolved. The balance sheet of death and destruction is longer than ever, bitterness on all sides is deeper than ever, and there is no end in sight.

Under Barak, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon, and under Sharon it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. In neither case was any formal understanding negotiated with Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority. This was a modification of the status quo but not a fundamental change.

It is far too early to tell whether the ferocious battle between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon will lead Israel to question the desirability and viability of the status quo, but surely after 39-plus years of pounding away militarily at the symptoms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is time to have a go, once again, at the identifiable causes. It requires U.S. engagement -- bipartisan and involving more than one administration. The process will be harder than anything Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton faced, and it cannot be done quickly.

Perhaps because I work and live in the battle zone, I find the status quo unviable. If this is the devil we know, then Satan, get thee behind me.

The writer is president of American University of Beirut.

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