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Experts Discuss Middle East Crisis


As the situation in the Middle East escalates, two distinguished Middle East experts share their thoughts. Henry Siegman, senior fellow and director of the U.S.-Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, while the situations in Lebanon and Gaza may appear similar, the issues are fundamentally different. Speaking with host Kent Klein of VOA News Now’s Encounter program, Mr. Siegman says he doubts that either Hamas or Hezbollah carefully planned or coordinated their actions when they crossed into Israel and seized Israeli soldiers.

But Robert Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, says he believes both attacks were carefully planned and premeditated. For example, he says, the tunnel from Gaza into Israel took months to build. Professor Lieber notes that the head of Hezbollah has made remarks, suggesting “sympathy and a degree of fraternity” with Hamas. Furthermore, he thinks that Hezbollah had a “green light” from Syria and Iran.

Mr. Siegman says, in the case of Gaza, although the tunnel may have been dug months ago, the Palestinian militants were seeking revenge for actions by Israelis on the beaches of Gaza and for civilian casualties. Professor Lieber says Israel’s government wants nothing more than to separate itself from the Palestinians, and hopes for a “viable peace partner, which tragically the Israelis have never really had.” He says, since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza 11 months ago, various militant groups there have continued to launch a “shower of short-range missiles into Israel proper.” On the contrary, Mr. Siegman responds: Israel has not had a partner for peace “for the simple reason that it doesn’t want a partner for peace.” And he notes that the point of the Gaza withdrawl for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, according to his closest advisor, was to "put the peace process and the idea of Palestinian statehood, quote, 'in formaldehyde.'" Mr. Siegman says the emphasis then was not on withdrawal, but on “unilateralism,” and it continues to be the “main force” in the government of Ehud Olmert.

With regard to Syria and Iran, Henry Siegman agrees with Robert Lieber that they are “deeply involved” in both the Hamas and the Hezbollah situations. Professor Lieber says these are dangerous situations because Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran represent “radical Islamism” and reject “modernity,” including political liberty and the rights of minorities. Given the negative perceptions of the United States in the region since the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Siegman suggests that Washington lacks the leverage to deal effectively with the current situation. But he says, although America has a great deal of leverage with Israel, it is a “leverage it chooses not to use.”

Robert Lieber, author of The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century, argues that, if the United States, the key European countries, Russia, China and key players in the Arab world were to agree on how to proceed – leverage might be effectively applied to Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. But Henry Siegman says, Washington’s embrace of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has weakened him with his own people. Nonetheless, Professor Lieber says, the difficult Palestinian situation requires an American “diplomatic initiative,” and Washington also needs to try to strengthen the Lebanese government and to put more pressure on Syria to restrain Hezbollah. Mr. Siegman calls the prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “dim.”

For full audio of Encounter click here

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