You don't have to be a fan of Dr Strangelove to recognise that wars can start by accident – that if the tinder is properly laid, a small spark can set off an uncontrollable blaze. First comes the miscalculation, a relatively small aggression that provokes a far larger retaliation. Then the concern not to lose face takes over, the refusal by either side to be seen to be backing down. Before you know it, a skirmish has spiralled into full-scale conflict.
The tinder, and not for the first time, is perfectly in place along Israel's northern border. The actors are familiar. The protagonists are an Israel determined to defend its territory from attack, and the militant Islamic group Hizbollah, based in Lebanon and also a potent force in that country's politics. Aligned behind Hizbollah are its two patrons, Syria and Iran, each concerned to advance its own interests in the most combustible region on earth. Israel and Hizbollah went to war four summers ago, and a lot of people now worry that the old script is poised for a repeat. And what makes it even more worrying is that none of the parties involved seems to want a war.
Israel of course would like nothing better than to eliminate the military threat from Hizbollah once and for all. But it well remembers what happened in 2006. In response to Hizbollah rocket attacks, and then the kidnap of two of its soldiers, it invaded southern Lebanon and bombed Beirut. The war lasted a month, a thousand people died and swathes of Lebanon were laid waste. But not only was the Israeli response judged grossly disproportionate, costing it dear in the court of world opinion, the mere fact that, despite the onslaught, Hizbollah lived to fight another day meant that Israel was deemed the loser. Why run the risk of a similar outcome now? To avoid sending the wrong signals, Israel has scaled back recent military exercises in the north and publicly assured Syria that war is the last thing on its mind.
Nor are its adversaries spoiling for a re-match. Certainly not Lebanon, which stands only to be devastated once again. Probably not Hizbollah either, whatever the boost to its prestige in the Arab world for actually daring to take on overwhelmingly powerful Israel. Syria too would seem to have little interest in letting itself be dragged into a hot war with Israel that it is bound to lose – and at a moment when it is trying to mend fences with the US, Israel's key ally, and re-insert itself into Middle East peace negotiations now flickering back into life with "proximity talks" between Israelis and Palestinians.
And even Iran, for all its belligerent rhetoric, does not look to be spoiling for a real fight. After all, it is doing quite nicely as it is, pushing ahead with its nuclear programme while the West fails to agree on sanctions, and daring Israel and/or the US to attack its nuclear installations, and risk unleashing a regional war in which even the Lebanese front would probably be a sideshow.
But to call the stand-off uneasy is an understatement. Let us hope that the old Roman adage of, "if you want peace, prepare for war" still holds good in the Middle East. Thanks to reported deliveries of Scud missiles as well as nimbler and less detectable M-600 rockets from Syria, Hizbollah is now better armed than in 2006.
Both Israel and the Americans have told Syria to stop, and the US has delayed sending a new ambassador to Damascus to underline its displeasure. But apparently to no avail. The arms flow continues, even though Lebanon says the deliveries are no more real than Saddam Hussein's imaginary WMDs. So the question becomes, how long will Israel put up with it?
And Hizbollah's rearmament is just one possible casus belli. Another is a Hizbollah strike against an Israeli target outside Israel, perhaps in revenge for the 2008 killing of its then military commander Imad Mugniyah, which it blames on Israel. Then of course there is the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. But on one thing Hizbollah and Israel do agree: if war were to come, 2006 would look like a warm-up in comparison. Back then, President Bush (backed by Tony Blair) ignored international calls for a ceasefire for as long as he could, to allow Israel a chance to finish the job, and Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, even described the war as the "birth pangs of the new Middle East". Next time around, "death throes" might be a better choice of phrase.
No one wants a new war – but then no one wanted the First World War in the form it ultimately took. President Obama is now being urged to present his own comprehensive plan for a Middle East settlement. The tension on Israel's northern border is one very good reason why.
Will anyone be Obama's soulmate?
Mention of Barack Obama, and the arrival of David Cameron in the job once held by Tony Blair, prompts a separate thought. For all his global popularity, The Washington Post wondered recently, does the US President have any real mates among other foreign leaders? Gordon Brown wasn't one. Nor, as far as can be judged, are either Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, or China's President Hu for that matter. Despite the cloying show of amity in Washington yesterday, Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai certainly isn't one. Nor is Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu. The closest thing to an Obama confidant, wrote the Post, might be Dimtri Medvedev – which given Russia was America's arch foe in the Cold War, would be quite a turnaround.
These are, of course, early days. Obama's been in office barely 15 months, and he's had more than enough on his plate at home. But the question is not an idle one. Leadership is a desperately lonely business, which only other leaders can fully understand. Most presidents find a soulmate or two. But not yet, it would seem, Obama. Might this be an opening for our Dave?
Adrian Hamilton returns next week
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