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Jewish Journal

Is Lebanon Israel’s Iraq?

The war against Hezbollah could leave the Jewish state even more isolated and insecure

by Jack Miles

August 3, 2006 | 8:00 pm


How is Israel's security served by the creation of a failed state on its northern border? This is the question that has fallen like a dark shadow across the landscape of stunningly unanimous Israeli, Jewish, and American support for Israel's ongoing attack on Lebanon. Has Israel truly attacked Lebanon, or has it merely attacked Hezbollah as a terrorist organization operating from within Lebanon? On July 23, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed to answer that question for the benefit of his cabinet: "We have no war with the Lebanese people, and we have no intention to harm their quality of life."

On the same day, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that the Israel's activity would be limited and was intended to complement "broad international activity to complete the process" of subduing Hezbollah and restoring security along Israel's northern border.

Ten days earlier, however, as Olmert was launching Israel's invasion, he had spoken very differently.

"I want to make it clear," he said. "This morning's events were not a terrorist attack, but the action of a sovereign state that attacked Israel for no reason and without provocation. The Lebanese government, of which Hezbullah is a member, is trying to undermine regional stability. Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions."

His targeting Lebanon as a whole rather than only Hezbollah was echoed by Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who said on the same day: "Everything is simple: there are no longer any safe places in Lebanon."

Whatever the intent of Israel's attack, its effect has been catastrophic for Lebanon as a whole. Entire neighborhoods of the capital have been reduced to rubble. (Imagine the Upper West Side of New York demolished as a "Zionist stronghold.") The national airport has been put out of service. Three of every four bridges -- more than 50 in all -- have been destroyed. Power plants have been blown up. Key roads have been rendered impassable. The beaches have been fouled. Telephone and media transmission centers have been put out of service. More than one out of every six Lebanese has been rendered homeless.

As Prime Minister Fouad Siniora summarized it, "Israel in a matter of five days took Beirut and the whole country 50 years backward."

Could Lebanon have spared itself this Israeli onslaught by "cracking down" on Hezbollah activity in its southern region? It could have tried, but the price of the attempt would have been a civil war in which Hezbollah might well have been the victor. As the most powerful political and military voice of Lebanon's Shiite population --at 45 percent, its largest minority -- Hezbollah commands not just two seats in the Lebanese cabinet and 14 in the legislature but also outside logistical support from Syria and Iran. The regular Lebanese army enjoys no such support and, to complicate things, includes many Shiites in its ranks. Hezbollah, a virtually insuperable opponent even for the massively armed Israel Defense Forces, might have made short work of the ill-equipped Lebanese army.

And even supposing no outright Hezbollah victory, the return of civil war in Lebanon -- Sunnis and Christians in a tense alliance on one side, Shiites on the other, with endlessly shifting tribal coalitions in between -- would have been the return of the very conditions that enabled the Palestine Liberation Organization to operate with impunity from Lebanese soil and prompted the first Israeli invasion a generation ago. In mid-2006, just a year past the "Cedar Revolution" by which Syria was unexpectedly expelled, Lebanon under Siniora has been called the second most democratic state in the region, but it is a weak democracy. Olmert's invasion may now be turning it into a failed democracy, Israel's Iraq.

A failed democracy in Lebanon will serve the interests of Syria much as the failed democracy in Iraq is serving the interests of Iran. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki maintains the diplomatic niceties when dealing with Washington, but Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, speaker of the Iraqi parliament, may be a better clue to the mood of his country.

"The U.S. occupation is butcher's work under the slogan of democracy and human rights and justice," al-Mashhadani said on July 22 as Israel was escalating its assault on Lebanon. "Leave us to solve our problems. We don't need an agenda from outside."

Similarly, though Siniora expressed more sorrow than anger as he diplomatically declined the peace proposal of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, spoke for much and perhaps most of devastated Lebanon when he served blunt and bitter notice to Rice that her mediation was unwelcome.

Lebanon is on the verge of becoming Israel's Iraq in another regard as well. Like the Bush Administration, the Olmert Administration has taken major unilateral military action without exhausting lesser and/or nonmilitary alternatives, confident that in the aftermath it will have created if not an overwhelming success, then at least a problem that the international community will have no alternative but to help solve. As Michael Oren, the head of a center-right research institute in Israel put it to the New York Times:

"In a way, we're playing an old Palestine Liberation Organization game to precipitate regional instability and then try to bring in international intervention. We fought against it in the past, but Israel now realizes it can't do things alone. And Israel feels here it has a friend in America and some greater understanding in Europe."

But as the Bush Administration has discovered to its sorrow in Iraq, when you disdain world opinion in launching a war, you cannot count on world support in winning the peace. The United States itself has served notice that its troops, otherwise engaged, will not be made available for the pacification of Southern Lebanon. NATO has declined. As for the other international actors capable of contributing to the needed "robust" force, Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea recently wrote: "The Germans recommended France; the French recommended Egypt; and so on. It is doubtful whether there is a single country in the West currently volunteering to lay down its soldiers on Hezbollah's fence."

If and when Israel concludes that it has no alternative but to do that job itself through a reluctant second occupation of Southern Lebanon, will it succeed even then in stopping Hezbollah rockets? Israel has had the freest of free hands in Gaza, but on July 24, when 90 rockets were launched from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel, 20 were launched from Gaza, including eight from an area under Israeli attack at that very moment. And even if American aid is eventually forthcoming for a Lebanese civil war against Hezbollah, what are the prospects that this war can be managed to a conclusion that serves Israeli security? How successful have the Americans been in managing internecine conflict in Iraq to their own best interests? When the war is being fought with slingshots, Goliath may not be the ally of choice.

Despite late, anxious hints from some Israeli quarters that the Lebanese campaign could end very badly, the Israeli military will to fight on to some semblance of victory seems still firmly in place. The bombing of Beirut has resumed as I write. Reserves have been called up. Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, who heads Israel's northern command, told the Los Angeles Times as the war began: "This should end in victory. And to me, victory is that Hezbollah is not only no longer on the contact line but also [does] not remain an organization with rocket, missile or other capabilities. This is the required achievement, and this will be victory."

The American public is overwhelmingly behind this approach. According to a recent Gallup poll, American sympathy with Israel is at its highest level since the Gulf War in 1991. The Senate, without dissent, has passed a resolution condemning Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran and urging Bush to "continue fully supporting Israel."

A comparable measure in the House passed by a vote of 410 to 12. A pro-Israeli rally in Los Angeles included Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa among its speakers.

American public opinion agrees -- massively, it would seem -- that Israel can only defend itself against Hezbollah by attacking Lebanon as a whole. An editorial in The New Republic scarcely overstates the American consensus when it says, "Hezbollah, of course, is not a government, but it is a part of a government.... Lebanon has exchanged a PLO mini-state within its borders for a Hezbollah mini-state within its borders."

And having done that, Lebanon must pay the price, the editorial concludes. But for how long? Israel may have already set its neighbor 50 years back, but 50 years might not be enough. Adam foresees an offensive that could last for weeks,but a mood of morning-after might yet arrive in official Israel. The costs are higher, the enemy stronger, and the long-term strategy -- forcing Lebanon into action against Hezbollah -- riskier than anticipated.

Personally, and leaving aside all moral considerations of piquakh nefesh or proportionality in war, I find myself with the same sick feeling I had confronting Jewish and American unanimity in 1967. I had spent the 1966-1967 academic year as a special student at the Hebrew University; but as a Christian, I had crossed twice into the then-Jordanian West Bank-once at Christmas and again at Easter. I had met Palestinians, and the intensity of their alienation, grief, and rage dwarfed that of African Americans who had provided what was to that date my most intense encounter with such feelings. I was intensely identified with the Israeli side, especially after the war broke out, knowing that as an American I would be as bad off as any Jew if Israel lost.

I wept when I heard the voice of Moshe Dayan in a delayed broadcast praying at the Western Wall: Baruch attah adonay melekh ha'olam shehehiyyanu veqiyyemanu vehegi'anu lazman hazeh. But I could not, absolutely could not, share the euphoria that then followed. First of all, the death of so many Jews and Palestinians was something I could not put out of my mind. I thought, for example, of a guard at one of the gates of the Old City who had taken me in, rain-drenched from the kind of sudden storm that can hit Jerusalem in December, dried me out and plied me with thick, sweet tea, neither of us able to understand a word the other was saying. Surely that man had died in the first wave of the Israeli attack. More than that, though, the thought that haunted me was: There are not enough Jews in Israel to handle this. My American Jewish friends, for all their devotion to Israel, were almost all headed back to the United States. The coming Israeli occupation of the West Bank (and never mind the Gaza Strip) struck me as certain to be the country's curse rather than its blessing. Israel was going to be the victim of its own military success.

In a similar way, I cannot participate in the unanimity that even now links American Jews, Israeli Jews and American public opinion regarding the Israeli attack on Lebanon. In part, I am blocked emotionally by the thought of Lebanese and Lebanese Americans whom I have met and liked -- in one case even loved -- whose friends and relatives are being ushered through what Siniora has called "the gates of hell."

More than that, however, what disturbs me is that Israel may be doomed once again to be the victim of its success. It has taken this action with the isolated backing of a Bush Administration that, as Israel has known it, may be a thing of the past as soon as next November. Israel is terribly alone, more alone than it knows, as it struggles to extricate itself from this botz, this quagmire of its own bold making. The inability or unwillingness of the United States, not to speak of the rest of the developed world, to offer more than fulsome lip service ought to transfix any serious lover of Zion. With tragic recklessness, Israel gave itself an impossible assignment, and so far no one is prepared to rescue it if and when it fails.

Do I believe that Israel should simply stand and suffer when it is attacked? Of course not. But intense diplomacy could have been tried before Lebanon as a whole was attacked. Diplomacy worked before. Warren Christopher, intervening with Syria, succeeded in silencing Hezbollah rockets in 1993. Again, in 1996, an American-engineered multilateral agreement of just the sort now being sought brought about ten years of relative quiet. If diplomacy of that sort failed, then when Gilad Shalit was abducted in Gaza, Israel could have bombed the offices of Ismail Haniya, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and arrested, say, a third of his cabinet.

"You want your government back? Give us our soldier back," it could have said. That would have been the ultimatum. When eight of its soldiers were killed and two arrested by Hezbollah, Israel could have bombed the residence of its chieftan, Hassan Nasrallah, warning that it was prepared to institute, across the Lebanese border, the same policy of targeted assassination that has crippled (even if it cannot kill) Palestinian terrorism in the territories. For good measure, it could have sonic-boomed the residence of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Hezbollah's quartermaster. That would have been a second powerful ultimatum.

Israel, of course, did just what I have suggested after both of these recent incidents. My question is why such fierce actions should now be regarded as mere trifles rather than as measures easily forceful enough to remind the enemy that Israel cannot be defeated while serving notice to the rest of the world that a grievous regional problem remains unresolved. Why were such measures not enough at least to start with? Why was it necessary to broaden the war overnight to include Lebanon as a whole? The price may be high, for now that this has happened, and with no major power willing to take prostrate Lebanon off Israel's hands, does Israel dare to leave?

It grieves me to say it, but with Palestinian self-government in shambles and Lebanon a failed state in the making, the Jews of Israel are in or near default custody -- indefinite default custody -- of two hostile Arab peoples whose combined population exceeds the entire population of Israel, Arab Israelis included. This is more than Israel can handle. There may still be time to turn back, but I fear that years from now, the summer of 2006, the summer when Israel did this to itself -- will be remembered with anguish and with paralyzing regret.

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