July 19, 2006
The most remarkable aspect of the war Israel is fighting now in Lebanon is not who Israel's enemy is, but who its friends are.
The terrorist group Hezbollah crossed Israel's border, killed eight soldiers and captured two others, and followed that attack with volleys of rockets and missiles against Israeli civilians. Israel reacted by bombing Hezbollah armaments and strongholds as well as Lebanese infrastructure that could aid the terrorists in hiding the captured soldiers or sustaining their assaults.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to prosecute a decisive war against Hezbollah has widespread support within his country. Polls show him and Defense Minister Amir Peretz at 78 percent popularity, with 81 percent of the public behind their actions.
"I know it's strange," said a friend of mine from Tel Aviv, "but people are actually in a good mood. They're pulling together. There's a feeling we're actually doing something about these sons of bitches."
It's not unusual that most Americans and President George W. Bush feel the same way -- although the president would probably use even saltier language to express it. What has been unusual has been the support Israel's received outside its borders and beyond Washington.
I'm not even talking about the July 17 Los Angeles Times lead editorial. "Make no mistake about it," the editorial began, "responsibility for the escalating carnage in Lebanon and northern Israel lies with one side, and one side only. And that is Hezbollah, the Islamist militant party, along with its Syrian and Iranian backers. Reasonable minds can differ on the strategic wisdom of the Israeli response, but there can be no doubt about the blame for the mounting death toll on both sides of the border."
That was enough to spin the heads of the pro-Israel community, which has long seen the L.A. Times as overly critical.
The bigger shock came from overseas. Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, also blamed Hezbollah. The Saudis made clear that Hezbollah "adventuring" hurt the people of Palestine and Lebanon and was a naked attempt by Hezbollah's string-pullers in Iran and Syria to assert their power in the Mideast.
And the Arab press and the street agreed with the rulers. "The response on the Arab street has been so disappointing for Hizbullah," The Jerusalem Post reported, " that its leaders are now openly talking about an Arab 'conspiracy' to liquidate the Shiite organization."
In the English-language Arab Times, a 30,000-circulation Kuwaiti daily, editor-in-chief Ahmed Jarallah took a position that could only be called L.A. Times-ian: "Unfortunately we must admit that in such a war the only way to get rid of [Hezbollah and Hamas] is what Israel is doing," he wrote. "The operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of people of Arab countries and the international community."
If you have a minute, it wouldn't hurt to send a letter to that editor to register your agreement. He's at email@example.com. The last bit of good news came from St. Petersburg, where leaders at the G8 Summit issued a statement on the conflict that was far more balanced and fair toward Israel.
"It was the most pro-Israel statement the Europeans have ever issued in the midst of an Arab-Israeli war," UCLA political scientist Steven L. Spiegel told me.
Spiegel cautioned that none of this support amounts to a blank check. Things could still go south -- so to speak -- for Israel. It needs to be mindful of civilian casualties. It can't prosecute a war indefinitely once the major actors like the United States commit to a solution. And though the Saudis have offered to fund the rebuilding of Lebanon, the civilian death toll and images of destruction will linger in the public eye.
"You don't destroy a country as Israel has done to Lebanon and totally get away with it," Spiegel said.
Still, there is in the midst of this war -- I write this on Tuesday -- room for something like optimism.
Well, sort of.
On the one hand, Hezbollah, an outgrowth of radical Shia Islam, has a hatred of Israel that cannot be negotiated. To understand the Palestinians, read the modern history of Israel. To understand Hezbollah, read Christoph Reuter's "My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing" (Princeton, 2002). Reuter quotes the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking after the Lebanon War at a time when he served as Defense Minister:
"I believe that among the many surprises that came out of the war in Lebanon, the most dangerous is that the war let the Shiites come out of the bottle. In 20 years of PLO terrorism, no one PLO terrorist ever made himself into a live bomb. In my opinion, the Shiites have the potential for a kind of terrorism we have not yet experienced."
The prophetic Rabin could not conceive how Israel would fight a foe that would accept its own destruction if that meant Israel's as well.
But Rabin led Israel through wars against pan-Arab secularists who at the time also seemed intractable and unbeatable.
Now -- thanks to this war -- Israel is undoing six years of strategic mistakes it committed by allowing a buildup of Hezbollah weapons and personnel in Southern Lebanon. It won't make that mistake again, or at least any time soon. Any international agreement that follows the fighting will have to interfere with Hezbollah abilities to arm and threaten Israel from the north. And the international community will be even harsher toward Iran's nuclear ambitions, well aware of how this conflict would have progressed had its chief instigator had nuclear warheads.
Hezbollah itself must be reeling from its isolation in the Arab world, and from the display of unity and fortitude within Israel. The organization might, as its leader said, have more surprises in store for Israel, but so far the biggest weapon in this war has been Israel's resilience and determination to fight. As Spiegel said -- optimistically --"You never wake up a sleeping democratic giant."