Lebanese quagmire

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

The way Israel positions itself in the world political order is not a prescription for peace in the region.

South of the Border, Down Tel Aviv Way

AS I write, it is 15 days since the fighting began in southern Lebanon, and Israelis are getting worried. Contrary to expectation, the Hizbollah is putting up a sturdy resistance - this is no gang of terrorists lurking in a neutral area, but a well-entrenched, highly motivated fighting force functioning in its natural environment. Not only is northern Israel, including the industrial zones around Haifa and the bucolic towns in the hills of Galilee, coming under a persistent barrage of rockets, the Israeli armed forces are losing men and materiel. While Lebanon is being massively devastated, Israel is beginning to feel the attrition of "refugees" from the north swarming southwards, leaving some areas looking like ghost towns, and now an increasingly shrill, not to say hysterical, tone is creeping into the statements of government officials.

Some members of the Cabinet have begun to grumble that the Israeli armed forces are too gentle. "We have to take the gloves off," one unnamed Cabinet Minister was quoted on Israel radio. "The kind of caution we show when fighting in the West Bank is out of place in Lebanon. [Palestinian listeners must have been surprised to hear that they have been treated with kid gloves!] After all the leaflets we dropped urging the inhabitants to leave, we can assume that whoever remains in the villages and towns of southern Lebanon are Hizbollah, and they should simply be flattened..." Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has decreed that for every Hizbollah rocket that lands in Israel, 10 multi-storey buildings must be levelled in Shia south Beirut, and the mood is growing sulphurous with vengeance and rage.

Did the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister of Defence Amir Peretz expect to get embroiled so deeply when they launched a retaliation against the guerillas who had captured two Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers and destroyed a tank? Hizbollah - "the party of God" - is a political party representing the Shia population in southern Lebanon, with a legitimate presence in the Lebanese Parliament. It is also a fighting force, which enjoys the support of both Syria and Iran. What was its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, thinking of when he launched the surprise attack on an Israeli military outpost near the border? Did he expect a full-scale war that would devastate not only southern Lebanon but much of the country's infrastructure and large parts of Beirut? Or did he think that holding two Israeli soldiers hostage would enable him to obtain the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, as well as support the Hamas fighters in Gaza who had captured one Israeli soldier and were asking to exchange him for some of their numerous prisoners in Israeli jails? Whatever Nasrallah's reasoning, the fighting rapidly took on the character of an all-out war, and though Israel claims to have killed many of Hizbollah's leaders in the town of Bint Jbeil, it seems no nearer to capturing or killing Nasrallah than it was two weeks ago.

And there is an odd thing - in Judaism, redeeming captives is held to be one of the highest religious duties, higher even than providing for the widows and orphans. Yet calls to exchange the captives were dismissed out of hand by the Israelis and played down in the news reports. As country after country scrambled to evacuate their nationals from bombarded Lebanon, and international organisations called for an immediate ceasefire, the world's only super-power flatly rejected such calls and/or prisoner exchange. "Israel must be given a chance to complete the job," say its supporters in Washington, echoing the skilful pro-Zionist organisations and their numerous helpers. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who paid a flying visit to the region, dismissed calls for an immediate ceasefire in favour of a nebulous "sustainable solution". How that is to be achieved, we have yet to be told. Already Lebanon, a tiny country of three and a half million inhabitants, has suffered damage estimated at over $2 billion. Any "sustainable solution" will have to take this into account, though it is not likely to be either Israel or the U.S.

But while Israel's government and the military brass spit fire and brimstone - some generals, such as Yossi Peled, former commander of the northern sector, arguing that this is "an existential war" for Israel, which it must win at whatever cost - other voices are already being heard. Not only leftist mavericks, such as veteran Israeli parliamentarian and journalist Uri Avnery, but some well-known columnists and even retired generals are expressing reservations about the slide into the Lebanon quagmire. There are bitter memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon - led by Ariel Sharon - and its long sequel, which ended only in the final withdrawal in 2000. There are also the first hints of recriminations, charging that the military had acted rashly in assuming that some aerial bombardment would do the trick, and were unprepared for a ground war or for the defence of northern Israel. Meron Benvenisti - scholar, former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and commentator - put it in the leading Hebrew daily Haaretz (July 26):

"No one can predict when the reversal will come, when all the experts will begin competing for first place in revealing the failures of the war: mistaken strategy, political dilettantism and shooting from the hip; the weakness disguised as courageous determination; the illusions, arrogance and boasting; the addiction to an impulse of revenge; the cruelty and the lack of moral inhibitions. But the manipulators and the self-declared heroes should not delude themselves, nor should the naive, or those who are drunk with patriotism, or those who consider themselves experts - the moment will arrive more quickly than they imagine and within a short while everyone will be hiding behind the pose of `we told you so' when they know which way the wind is blowing..... Very soon everything will return to what it was before - apart from those who sacrificed their lives and those who were killed in the shellings and bombings. And the major loser will be the people of Israel who, by an unmeasured reaction to a provocation, established their position as a foreign element in the region, as the neighbourhood bully, the object of impotent hatred". (emphasis added)

Others point out that if Israel withdraws from the battlefield without having successfully destroyed the Hizbollah's array of outposts and bunkers and, even more importantly, without having captured or killed Sheikh Nasrallah, it will appear to have been defeated. Nasrallah, they say, will be seen as the Arab world's greatest leader since Nasser - having ejected Israel from southern Lebanon not once but twice, and having sent Israeli citizens scurrying for shelter, something only Saddam Hussein succeeded in doing, though almost symbolically, in 1991.

The Sunday Times correspondent in Israel, Uzi Mahnaimi, an Israeli with good contacts in the military establishment, has a broader angle on the present developments. According to him, should Israel decide to attack Iran's nuclear installations - as many analysts expect to happen sooner or later - it will be much easier to do so without having Iranian allies, or auxiliaries, next door - namely, the Hizbollah in south Lebanon. But if that is the case, could not the Iranian leaders have foreseen that poking a finger in Israel's eye - as their protege Nasrallah did in attacking the Israeli outpost, killing eight soldiers and capturing two - would set off precisely the massive attack that is now taking place? In fact, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now joined the international chorus calling for a ceasefire.

Another obvious risk, mentioned by some commentators, is that a minor incident could ignite a flare-up between Israel and Syria, which would be very difficult to defuse, given that there is no "crisis management mechanism" between the two states, as there are with Jordan and Egypt. Syria is considerably stronger than Hizbollah, let alone the Lebanese army or the Palestinian militants. Though not nearly as powerful as Israel, it would be a much more formidable enemy, and a hot war between the two could set off a far wider conflict in the region. Presumably with this risk in mind, Amir Peretz reiterated publicly on July 27 that Israel seeks no quarrel with Syria.

Yet some Israeli commentators wonder uneasily if this is not Washington's purpose - achieve "regime change" in Damascus via Israel's air force - and that this is why it has signalled to Israel not to wind up the battle "too soon". At an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv on June 22, some signs said, "We don't want to be Bush's puppets!" To which some Americans would say - as did Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their famous paper on "The Israel Lobby" in the U.S. - that in reality, Washington is fighting Israel's wars.

Most significantly, Ephraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad - Israel's international intelligence agency - has pointed out that instead of going all out to destroy the Hizbollah - and in the process devastate our democratic, un-fanatical, next-door neighbour Lebanon - Israel should have seized the opportunity to open a channel of communication with Hizbollah's patron, Iran. It is, after all, a major power in the region - geographically, economically and militarily. Israel cannot possibly have an interest in going to war with it, mullahs or no mullahs. But it seems that such voices of sanity and forward thinking are doomed not to be heard when the troops are in the field and air-raid sirens are shrieking. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence are two civilians, not former generals, and seem more inclined to listen to the Chief of Staff than to elderly intelligence experts.

So did Menachem Begin, when he was Prime Minister in 1982, listen to his Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon, who promised to solve the problem of Palestinian resistance (or terror, if you like) by invading Lebanon and uprooting the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). After an awful lot of blood was shed, Beirut was devastated, hundreds of Palestinian refugees were slaughtered by Israel's allies, the Maronite militias, in Sabra and Chatilla, the PLO was indeed out of Lebanon - only to come in through the front door following the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.

A few years ago the Czech writer Milan Kundera, having been awarded the Jerusalem Prize, said that Israel was an outpost of European civilisation in the Near East. Some Israelis liked the image, others sensed that it was a loaded compliment. During the Cold War, Israel presented itself as a bulwark against communism and Soviet expansion; following the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), it became a bulwark against international terrorism; now it is a forward outpost in the "Clash of Civilisations", between something called "Judeo-Christianity" (itself a post-Second World War innovation) versus fanatical Islam. This is not a prescription for a peaceful future.

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