US faces long haul to peace in Middle East

Aftermath of Qana massacre: The Israeli attack has undermined Clinton's initiative at Sharm el-Sheikh to tackle `terrorism'

A cruel American cartoon shows two ageing US diplomats sitting on a park bench in Washington, studying a newspaper filled with news of the war in Lebanon. One of the State Department veterans shakes his head sadly and says: "It wouldn't have happened if Warren Christopher was alive."

Mr Christopher, the US Secretary of State, may prove the cynics wrong in the next few days by winning a ceasefire in Lebanon, but it is an uphill job. "We think we have a chance of putting a deal together this week," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman in Damascus yesterday, as Mr Christopher met President Hafez al-Assad. "Success is not assured. We'll stay as long as it is useful."

It is Mr Christopher's 19th time in Syria since he took office and it is by far his most important visit. There is more at stake here than an end to the fighting in Lebanon. In under two weeks Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath, backed by the US until the Qana massacre, has put at risk the main American policy aims in the Middle East.

And it all happened so quickly. Only last month the US seemed to be at the peak of its influence in the region. In the wake of the suicide bombs in Israel in March President Bill Clinton assembled 27 world leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, including leaders from the Arab world, to attend a conference to show their solidarity with Israel. Few would have attended without US prompting.

All this is at risk because of Grapes of Wrath and the rain of explosives on south Lebanon. Yevgeny Primakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, at a rancorous meeting with Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, told him: "Your attacks in Lebanon are without proportion to Hizbollah activity and, in the end, you have hardly killed any Hizbollah members, but have killed hundreds of civilians. If you sought to convene the Sharm el-Sheikh conference today, the heads of state would not come."

The damage to US policy is even deeper than that. Grapes of Wrath has poisoned the political atmosphere in the Middle East as a whole. Initial American endorsement of the operation is damaging the "peace process" by which hostility between Israel and the Arabs would be defused in a Middle East which is largely under the hegemony of the US since the end of the Gulf war in 1991.

Syria and its ally Iran did not go to Sharm el-Sheikh but they appeared isolated in their opposition. No longer. The Syrian newspapers yesterday showed President Assad meeting five foreign ministers in one day. Iran also showed signs of breaking out of the isolation which the US is trying to impose on it. Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian Foreign Minister, held talks in Damascus with Mr Primakov and Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister.

Worse, from the US point of view, none of this is helping Mr Peres win the election on 29 May - a central aim of President Clinton. Sharm el- Sheikh was aimed at fostering the political survival of Mr Peres after the suicide bombs. But the latest polls show that Grapes of Wrath is not helping the prime minister. His lead over Binyamin Netanyahu, his rival for the prime minister's office, is only 5 per cent. Many Israeli-Arabs, one of Labour's key constituencies, say they will abstain.

In a sense Mr Clinton gave a warning at Sharm el-Sheikh about what was going to happen. He pledged support for Israel in combating the "terrorists" of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are Palestinian movements which carried out the suicide bomb attacks in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv. But Hizbollah is purely Lebanese. It carried out some successful ambushes in the last month and has killed 77 Israeli soldiers in the last three years. Israeli casualties had not increased markedly in recent months.

In the wake of Sharm el-Sheikh, Israel and the US appeared intent on teaching Syria a lesson. Viewed from Damascus, Operation Grapes of Wrath may appear to be the latest in a series of hostile moves by Washington and Tel Aviv. In the last six months Jordan has turned against its old friends in Iraq and has successfully cultivated Israel and the US. Equally menacing for Syria is the military agreement signed by Israel with Turkey, allowing Israeli aircraft to train in Turkish airspace.

Fearing encirclement by allies of Israel and the US, Syria is unlikely to stand down the 3,000 guerrillas of Hizbollah in south Lebanon. The ability to end the skirmishing in the Israeli occupation is a card so valuable that Damascus will cash it in as part of a final peace agreement with Israel.

Despite the massive destruction inflicted by Grapes of Wrath, Israeli military intelligence admits that the guerrillas have suffered little, and were never likely to do so unless Israel had launched a ground offensive.

It may be that Sharm el-Sheikh created a lethal hubris in Israel and the US. Only this explains why they re-entered the Lebanese political swamp on 11 April, despite their experiences in the 1980s. When Mr Christopher arrived in Damascus on Saturday he spoke of a quick ceasefire. It has not happened. The problem is that the campaign launched by Mr Peres has already failed. The Katyusha rockets that he promised to stop are still falling. But he dare not admit failure because this might lose him the election.

Only the US can now save Mr Peres. Iran, Syria and Hizbollah know that every day Grapes of Wrath continues it damages Israel and the US more than them. They also have cards still to play. Hizbollah has not yet made ground attacks which will cause casualties among Israeli forces. Another Qana massacre is possible. Underestimating the political effect of Grapes of Wrath may turn out to be the worst miscalculation by the US in the Middle East since the American ambassador to Iraq went on holiday a few days before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

The EU endorsement

Luxembourg (AP) - The European Union yesterday endorsed both the French and US plans to end fighting between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon.

"The aim of these efforts must be to obtain, with an immediate halt to hostilities and acts of violence, the elaboration of a lasting agreement between" Israel and the Hizbollah guerrillas, EU ministers said.

They also stuck by their "critical dialogue" with Iran, ignoring US appeals to isolate Tehran.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'