June 1, 2000
It's just before Memorial Day, and Alan Baker, chief legal adviser of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, is leaving New York in surprisingly good spirits. He's spent the better part of two weeks at the United Nations, negotiating the details of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Things went just swimmingly, he says.
He acknowledges a visitor's look of disbelief with the barest hint of a grin. Yes, it was a week of shocking television images: Israeli troops hightailing it across the border, Hezbollah terrorists dancing in the streets, Israel's northern communities cowering in bomb shelters. But, Baker's dry British half-grin suggests, there's more to life than what you see on television.
"The point is," Baker says, "we wanted to leave Lebanon, and we did. And not one Israeli soldier was killed or wounded in the withdrawal."
Israel wasn't chased out of Lebanon. After 18 years of trying to police a "security zone" in South Lebanon, "we came to the conclusion that Israel could defend itself better from within Israel than by sending out patrols which would themselves become targets."
And since Israel was leaving anyway, "we decided to withdraw within [the] framework of the U.N. resolution, so that our action has the validity of international law. That places the responsibility [for what happens next] on the U.N., not Israel."
Baker was at the U.N. last month to flesh out the details: mapping out the precise border, setting ground rules for dealing with terrorism, certifying that Israel is actually complying with the U.N. resolution. "They accepted our position on nearly every issue," he says.
Again that look of disbelief and the wry half-grin. American Jews aren't used to hearing nice things from Israelis about the UN.Then again, Israelis aren't used to having nice things to say about it.
Alan Baker seems accustomed to those skeptical looks. British-born, transplanted to Israel after law school in 1969, he's spent his adult life working as a lawyer for the Israeli army and the Foreign Ministry. In effect, he's been the main practitioner of international law in a country that tends to see international law as a fancy name for anti-Semitic kangaroo court.
In the past 15 years Baker has participated in every important Israeli-Arab negotiation, including the signed peace with Jordan, the stalled talks with Syria and the on-again, off-again negotiation with the Palestinians. He knows better than most that things aren't always the way they look on television.To the average television viewer, the withdrawal from Lebanon hardly seemed planned. Baker admits Israel had hoped for something different. "Our assumption was that the U.N. would come in with the Lebanese police and the whole thing would be done in an orderly fashion."
But Lebanon wouldn't cooperate, because its Syrian overlords wouldn't let it. The U.N. couldn't lead the way - partly because its member states are scared to commit soldiers after Sierra Leone, partly because a Republican senator from New Hampshire, Judd Gregg, is personally blocking the U.N.'s peacekeeping budget.
Amid the confusion, Israel was caught off-guard when its proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army, suddenly collapsed like a house of cards in mid-May. Hezbollah quickly filled the vacuum. Israel then jettisoned withdrawal plans A and B and switched to plan C: Get the heck out, fast.The troops' quick exit, with Hezbollah gunmen running behind waving rifles, has sparked euphoria in some Arab circles. Lebanese sheiks and their Iranian backers call it a victory for "armed struggle." Hezbollah supporters wave placards reading "Today Lebanon, Tomorrow Palestine." The same slogan shows up at Hamas rallies in the West Bank. Yassir Arafat is reportedly under pressure now to stiffen his stance toward Israel.
Baker says the analogy is false. Israel never wanted to be in Lebanon. The only question was how to leave. The Palestinian territories are part of the historic land of Israel. Most Israelis are willing to compromise over that land, but only in return for real peace and security.
There's another difference. The Palestinians need a deal as badly as Israel does, Baker says. They've set themselves a September deadline to declare an independent state. If they do it without Israel's consent, it will consist of dozens of little islands, each surrounded by Israeli troops.
"They say their goal is for Israel to be the first country to recognize them and the first to exchange embassies with them," Baker says. "And they know they need to compromise."
The Lebanese, by contrast, can't negotiate anything unless Syria lets them. They didn't even send representatives to the May map-drawing session at the U.N.
Having Hezbollah militiamen patrolling the border is not the average Israeli's idea of improved defenses. Still, Baker notes, "apart from celebrating and firing into the air, they've done nothing." How long they'll stay quiet is anybody's guess.
Skeptics may roll their eyes, but Israeli policymakers think they're better off out of Lebanon. They've seized the initiative, thrown their foes off balance, won rare applause from the U.N., the European Union and even some Arab newspapers. Israel's own population, weary of the casualties, is ecstatic.In fact, Israeli diplomats say, the only worrisome reaction they've gotten is from American Jews, who have barely seemed to notice. Usually, when Israel experiences a historic transition of this magnitude, its consulates are flooded with inquiries from Jews eager to help or just to reach out. This time there's been almost nothing.
Some Jewish organizations have sent donations to help Israel's northern residents or its displaced Lebanese allies. But the initiative is all from the top. At the grass roots, Jews simply aren't responding. "They don't seem to care," says one U.S.-based Israeli diplomat.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Israel seems so distant from most American Jews' daily lives these days. Lebanon is especially distant, because it doesn't resonate with familiar American Jewish themes like human rights or biblical patrimony. It's a pure Israeli issue. American Jews don't know what to do with that.
The problem will only get worse in the months ahead, as Israel reaches agreements with the Palestinians and perhaps Syria. Israel's affairs are increasingly leaving the realm of moral vision and entering the pragmatic world of give and take. It's a language that's foreign to American Judaism."We've entered the negotiations with the Palestinians with the understanding that we're not discussing who was responsible for creating which problem," says Baker. "We raise what we want, they raise what they want, and we negotiate." It's just business, he says, with the slightest grin.
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal