Local Papers Chronicle Crises in the Middle East

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By: Suzanne Rosenberg

Last night, while all eyes and ears in the United States were focused on President George W. Bush?s State of the Union Address, most of the Middle East and its newspapers were preoccupied with how to crawl out of the morass which the United States, and a series of local, sectarian and other foreign actions, have set in motion there over last five years.

While President Bush must convince the congress and citizens of America that he is indeed not without a positive course in the region, the rest of the world is squarely confronting an increasing deterioration of the situation in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan and those countries bordering them all, and the local press in all those countries chronicle this daily.

The countries in the region are clearly moving beyond their dependence on the United States with little hope that the U.S can play any sort of positive and constructive role. In the last year, instability has increased even in nations in the Middle East, which we in the West had championed to be pushing ?democratic? frontiers and our ?special allies,? Israel and Lebanon.

Without passing judgment on the actual value of the United States as an ally to both countries, there is no question that since the 34-day conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, neither country has been victorious. Instead, six months since the United Nations was allowed to implement a ceasefire by all combatants and instituted a cessation of hostilities, all parties to the conflict are no more than pyrrhic victors or defeated, depending upon which way one looks at the elements of the conflict.

Lebanon has never been closer to sectarian civil war since its Civil War ended in 1995. Israel has neither recovered its captured nor has it ever suffered as humiliating a military defeat in its relatively brief but proud history. Never has its public and international image been as tarnished, and perhaps most important for this country, never has its political and military leadership been challenged from within, in as significant a manner as it is today.

So, on the same evening President George W. Bush addressed the State of the Union, the English-language newspapers of both Lebanon and Israel reflected the fragility in which these two principals of the conflict and the many on their coat tails, desperately try to steady their course and reassess the elements which shook their countries in August 2006.

The papers in Lebanon and Israel in their news pages and editorial pages reveal and reflect governments, which are mirror images of each other. They are on the verge of parliamentary dissolution and possible chaos. The military campaigns of Hezbollah and Israel during this summer?s Second Lebanese conflict set in motion and sparked renewed contention between already tense factions within each country.

Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, and the Israel Insider all report on the fragile government alliances, which fracture further daily. Repeated headlines in all three papers talk of corruption, ineptitude, and scandal during the Hezbollah/Israeli fighting and most recently led to the resignation only last week of Defense Minister Don Halutz and the appointment today of Gabi Ashkenazi to the vacant post. Ashkenazi is a ground warfare, counterinsurgency specialist whose appointment implicitly acknowledges the defeat and failure of the Halutz air campaign during the last war. Even the Mossad, Israeli Intelligence, acknowledges that during the Lebanese crisis Israel unwittingly increased Assad of Syria?s confidence, as Israel Insider pointed out.

Since the end of the war in September, the front pages of all the Israeli papers have shown repeated criticism from the grass roots of the military leadership itself, soldiers and their families who allege that soldiers lost in this summer?s conflict and especially in the last 48 hours of the war were sacrificed as a result of tactical ineptitude and irresponsibility. Today there’s a new Haaretz report questioning why it took the Israelis two weeks to really move into southern Lebanon.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet have been asked to resign almost daily as well as living under a cloud of ethical and legal suspicion and innuendo. Today?s papers reported the attorney general has recommended that Katzav be formally charged with at least four counts of rape and sexual misconduct. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has promised that he will have a formal response within 24 hours. Even supportive members of his own party are encouraging him to step down.

A military panel reviewing the conduct of this summer?s war shows that the IDF lacked basic facts and supplies before the war, and questions remain about strategy and conduct and most, particularly, responsibility for unexploded land mines and deaths — especially in the last day or two of the war. Even with the resignation of Halutz and perhaps Katzav, many believe that Ohlmert will fight a new election however if the president is forced out this may open the possibility and vulnerability of a government collapse necessitating new elections.

Meanwhile, since the end of the conflict in September, the Lebanese Cabinet of Fuad Siniora has clung to its office by its tendrils and the country has seen still another high-level assassination, that of Pierre Gemayal. Hezbollah has out spent the government in rebuilding the southern Lebanon and in its efforts to win the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. The Al Manah Party and Hezbollah leader Sayeed Nasrullah have vowed to bring down the Siniora government and yesterday led a general strike promising to paralyze the country as the latest actions in its two month opposition sit-in in central Beirut.

Siniora who is backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, and Nasrullah, who is supported by the Shiites in Iran and Syria, are all on a razor?s edge of forcing the country dangerously close to a renewal of civil war in the country. Siniora has refused to step down or acknowledge any Hezbollah parliamentary veto that might bring down the government and plans a trip to France in order to cement promises of substantial financial aid from France.

On Tuesday, the Beirut?s Daily Star stated that ?One Day Was More Than Enough? for the General Strike to do its intended damage. At the end of the day, Nasrullah called off the strike indefinitely but only if he achieves his demands.

For Lebanon indigenous forces appear at times to be as weak as they do in Israel. The differences appear to lay in the reach and effectiveness of outside elements. Perhaps for both countries the best course will be to ignore the United States and focus internally on building new alliances within the region.

Perhaps Siniora will be successful bringing back some ?good ole colonial comfort? in the form of money and assistance from Prime Minister Chiraq and Israel will distance itself from its miscreant elder, the United States, and begin to take some independent action toward back channels toward Syria. Both countries may then be able to take some baby steps toward renewed autonomy, stability — and eventually, each other.

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