Over the past two decades, Israel has slowly and painfully learned a whole degree course of lessons from its adventures in Lebanon. Last week, it graduated, with disputed honors, when it withdrew its last tank, cannon and armored personnel carrier from its turbulent northern neighbor.
In the 1980s, Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir learned that Israel could not impose a government on a Lebanese people riven and scarred by civil war. The struggle for power between Muslims and Christians, Druze and Shi'ites, left and right, had its own dynamic, more open to Syrian than Israeli influence. Israel could drive the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Beirut, but it could not stamp its will on the Lebanese.
Israel learned, too, that in the Levant all alliances are built on sand. The Christian Maronites, with whom Zionist strategists from the 1940s onwards had schemed to create a counterweight to Arab and Muslim nationalism, used Israel more than Israel used them. When their friendship was tested, after the 1982 Israeli invasion and the assassination of their leader, Bashir Jemayel, they turned their backs - and began, however reluctantly, to come to terms with the fact that they were no longer even a fictitious majority in their homeland.
In the 1990s, Israel learned that a largely conscript army, fighting in a closed arena with the eyes and cameras of the world monitoring every move, could not defeat a highly motivated, well-equipped, well-connected guerrilla force operating within a sympathetic civilian environment.
Syria or Iraq, waging war in similar circumstances, might have devastated entire towns and villages, slaughtering thousands of their residents. Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein have done it, and in their own backyards too. But Israel, as a democracy that cares about its image and cannot afford international isolation, could not bomb Southern Lebanon into the stone age.
The constraints were not only external. In 1982, ordered to shell Beirut, Colonel Eli Geva resigned his commission in the middle of a war. Geva, the high-flying son of a reserve general, explained that he could see children through his binoculars.
The Lebanon invasion was Israel's first "war of choice." For the first time, the slogan, "There is no alternative" rang hollow. The troops were there because their government had sent them. It was not a war of survival. Dissent was legitimate. Geva faced no court martial. He was not ostracized as a traitor. He was allowed to take off his uniform and go home.
In the same way, the garrison that stayed in the 400-square-mile southern "security zone" after Israel withdrew in 1985 from the rest of Lebanon was there as a matter of policy. Shimon Peres's national-unity government calculated that such a buffer was the best way to defend the towns and villages of Israel's northern border against hostile Lebanese or Palestinian factions. Until Ehud Barak's election a year ago, successive governments of left and right concurred.
It was not unpatriotic to challenge that assessment - or to ask why 25 soldiers should die every year fighting Hezbollah with one hand tied behind their backs. With increasing stridency - and popular support - parents demanded answers. It was not necessarily, as some right-wing commentators argued, a decline in commitment to the Zionist dream. It was a strategic debate, colored by authentic emotion. As the national poet, Yehuda Amichai, put it, "We Have No Unknown Soldiers."
Barak caught the mood of the late '90s. As a former chief of staff and much-decorated commando, he could promise to withdraw by the end of his first year in office without seeming to surrender. The voters bought it, and 45 days ahead of schedule, Barak brought the boys home.
Hezbollah exulted in its victory. At first, Israelis cringed with humiliation. They fretted over the plight of their surrogate South Lebanese Army. Its soldiers, who had fought alongside Israel for quarter of a century, either defected or fled with their families into northern Israel.
But within days, Israelis gave the prime minister and the army credit for an orderly evacuation. The army pulled out swiftly and at night, without suffering a single casualty. It took out its weapons and its equipment. In its own eyes at least, it left because it wanted to. Like the British after Dunkirk, Israelis started celebrating the evacuation as an inverted victory.
The guns fell silent. Residents of the border communities rejoiced that they could hear the birds singing. An opinion poll showed 75 percent of Israelis backing the withdrawal and 54 percent satisfied with Barak's handling of it.
"He promised and he delivered," the political analyst Hemi Shalev commented in the tabloid Ma'ariv. "The withdrawal did not take place according to plan, and nobody knows how it will end. But one cannot take away from Barak the fateful moment when he assumed responsibility and made a decision."
No one deludes themselves, however, that the evacuation is anything more than the end of a chapter in the book of Israel-Lebanon. As Shalev conceded, "The end result has not yet been tested." The early signs were promising, but Israel is raising rather than lowering its guard.
The old inhibitions about hitting civilians or involving the Syrians, who have up to 35,000 troops stationed in eastern Lebanon, are fading. If Israel is attacked, even by irregular forces, it will feel free to strike back with all its considerable might. Barak and his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz, have publicly warned Beirut and Damascus that it will hold them responsible and treat them as fair game.
So far, the message seems to have been received and understood. Syria is reported to have cautioned Hezbollah against translating its triumph into provocation. Lebanon has started moving armed police into the south and is cooperating with the United Nations, which is deploying more peacekeepers along the border. Hezbollah, which has political as well as military aspirations, has encouraged thousands of refugees who fled the battle zone years ago to return home, not exactly a prelude to renewing the war.
"We have stopped being scared of the Syrians," Shimon Peres said last week. "The chances of the north being attacked are slight, because the Syrians, as well as Hezbollah, have a lot to lose now."All the same, it is recognized in Israel that one spark could reignite the powder keg. To quote Hemi Shalev again, "Barak will need luck by the truckload to get over the next few days unscathed, when any madman in Hezbollah - and there are currently hundreds milling around the border - can open fire on an Israeli community and drag the entire area into a dangerous escalation."
Madmen apart, it is the Lebanese politicians who hold the key. After the 1985 Israeli withdrawal, the government disarmed most of the rival militias and deployed its army everywhere but the south. If it wants stability now, it will have to assert its sovereignty there too. And Syria will have to relinquish southern Lebanon as a lever for Israeli concessions on the Golan Heights.The danger is that Assad will lose hope of regaining the plateau through negotiation and send Hezbollah or dissident Palestinian guerrillas back into action, with all that that may entail.
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