Bitter Times… July 29, 2006Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Middle East, Palestine.
As we move into the third week of the Israeli-Hizbullah, or should that be Israeli-Lebanon conflict, for those who consider themselves sympathetic to Israel and to a viable two-state solution for Israel/Palestine it has to be admitted that the current events are massively disappointing. In fact the past six years or so have been massively disappointing. I’ve avoided posting about this up until now because to be honest there is a sort of tragic futility to the entire situation.
But a number of thoughts strike me about the events there. Firstly there is the issue of sovereignty. Then there is the issue of proportionality. Thirdly there is the issue of outcomes. Finally there is the issue of intervention.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Sovereignty, which in some respects is also synonymous with security. Israel asserts it’s right to maintain the integrity of it’s sovereignty from Hezbullah attack. That’s seems entirely reasonable. Lebanon, clearly has an equal sovereign right, although the argument appears to be that this is diluted because a) It is unable to impose it’s will upon Hezbullah militarily and b) it allows Hezbullah representatives to sit within government. That seems tricky. Bringing extenuating circumstances to the debate is always dubious, but one has to note that Lebanon has had a dismal history and due to the sectarian nature of the state (I mean that in a descriptive rather than a perjorative sense) there has been a necessity to establish power-sharing government. This is before we even get to the nature of Hizbullah which while it clearly operates as a terrorist group in some respects also has features of a standing army. So we have competing rights. The right of Israel to safeguard her territory, and the equal right of the Lebanon to safeguard her territory. Israel believes it’s right to self-defence trumps the Lebanese argument to self-defense which is to some degree questionable.
Proportionality, which develops from sovereignty. The trigger event for the crisis was the attack on an Israeli unit which left five soldiers dead and two kidnapped and taken, presumably, to the Lebanon. What was the most obvious response to such an outrage? Well, a number of scenarios suggest themselves. The targeting of Hezbullah units on the border. The targetting of Hezbullah camps elsewhere. These would be reasonably proportionate, in the sense that they would send a clear message and the weight of the response would be greater than the initial event. Instead we have seen a wildly disproportionate response where the IDF and IAF has attacked far beyond Hezbullah controlled areas and attacked Lebanese infrastructure, which has taken a remarkable degree of skill on the part of Israeli government and military spokespeople to paint as legitimate military targets. Again this feeds into the sense that the Israeli, and US, concept of proportionality is wildly different from that of most other nations. The attack on a UN position is simply inexplicable. Even were one to accept the, frankly self-serving statements from those spokespeople, even any sympathetic observer would question the wisdom of such a wildly unbalanced response and ponder the long-term result of it.
Which leads us to outcomes. Let’s start with the primary incident, the Hezbullah incursion. What was the desired outcome? Obviously to up the ante and/or use the soldiers as a bargaining chip. Perhaps to kick off a shooting war on a large scale. And what did Israel do, it started upping and it didn’t stop. Indeed it’s upping is now off the scale in general terms. The outcomes desired on the Israeli side? Well presumably the return of the two soldiers, yet it’s difficult to believe that the actions of the past two weeks could be anything other than counterproductive on that score. Which is where proportion comes in since arguably after a certain point the likelihood of the two soldiers remaining alive would be low. Although Hezbullah have held soldiers captive for lengthy periods of time. A further outcome would be the – natural – wish to inflict the greatest possible harm on Hizbullah during this period. That’s more achievable. Yet, as with Hamas, Hizbullah (possibly a more intransigient adversary) isn’t a Baader-Meinhof, or even Al-Quaida, groups which have no particularly strong organic linkage to the societies within which they operate and this is where the talk of this being a part of the global ‘war on terror’ break down. Hizbullah is an organisation which has strong organic roots in Lebanese society. But the nature of those roots, and the nature of Lebanese society are such that it is impossible to pull them out without effectively destroying the society. And the current destruction of the infrastructure is an incredibly dangerous, and to my mind essentially immoral, strategy. Again, I’m not saying that the initial event demanded no response. What I’m saying is that Israel had a duty to position that response in a logical and proportionate manner. And of course if we’re talking about Hizbullah we’re talking about Syria and Iran. Syria seems difficult to read. Much of the time it appears to want to be loved by the west, or at least noticed. Iran, by contrast, seems to want respect. Hizbullah as a proxy for the two, which it is and it isn’t insofar as it has it’s own agenda and dynamic, allows them to power project in a way they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Yet neither Syria nor Israel wish to engage in direct confrontation as an interesting report on KCRW’s excellent To the Point podcast 27/07/2006 available [here] indicates.
And so we arrive at intervention. Who would intervene? Why would they intervene? When would they intervene?
The answers are precious few, there are no good reasons (from the point of view of states being asked to), and they won’t for as long as they can afford not to. It pains me to say this, but as an example of the bankruptcy of current US foreign policy in the region and beyond this could hardly be more stark. The current government of the Lebanon was one of the few bright spots in the Middle East, and was in some respects sponsored by the US. The US is being asked by Israel to provide troops, but one wonders whether the Pentagon feels it necessary to place yet more soldiers in the line of fire of Islamists, particularly Islamists with short to medium range surface to surface rockets. The current noises from the US and the UK calling for an intervention force prior to a ceasefire strikes me as a bizarre message to send out to the world and Blairs role in this is worse again and entirely contradictory to his approach to other conflict resolution issues.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Israel. Many years ago I was in Israel and I was impressed by the place and the people(s). I was also very impressed by how small it is as a geographic entity. The concept of it being ‘pushed into the sea’ was not without foundation in the past. Even today one suspects that a strong enough conventional force might well do the job. On the other hand, and particularly since it acquired nuclear weapons it is difficult to see what circumstances would lead to such an outcome.
What disturbs me about Israel at the moment is the way in which it appears wedded to massive retaliations. Therefore operations aren’t simply organised to a specific military goal, but rather to have an exemplar effect. We’ve seen this in Gaza, we’ve seen it in the West Bank and now we’re seeing this in Lebanon.
And it doesn’t work. On the micro level the inability of technological armies to easily counter low level guerilla warfare, as demonstrated in Iraq, is being played out again in Southern Lebanon. There is an unhinged quality to this, in so far as it is clear no existential threat exists to the state of Israel – not in a world where even EU criticism of the current events is muted and US support is steadfast. But that’s the trap. US support is steadfast now because the US suffered 9/11 and therefore itself began to push back the boundaries of what was acceptable in international relations. This has given Israel an example it has been, unfortunately, all too willing to emulate. I don’t want to slide into anti-US rhetoric, I largely supported the overthrow of Saddam, but it’s difficult to see that as anything approaching a good in the current situation. The reports from Iraq are appalling, US prestige has taken a body-blow, their resources are woefully overstretched. The situation is near disastrous.
I think it is a dreadful error on the part of Israel to align itself too closely to the US either in word or deed. Bush will be gone within two years. it is difficult to see the US military remaining in any serious form in Iraq after that. Short of a further successful Al-Quada attack on the US it is unlikely that there will be an appetite for further adventurism on the part of the political elites in Washington. In the world which may exist in five, ten or twenty years the level of support Israel currently enjoys from Washington may be a thing of the past.
That’s why I think it’s vital that those who do care about the continued existence of Israel as an even nominally liberal and democratic state have a duty to express just why the current strategies employed by that state are appallingly counterproductive for it and for the security of the region. Inevitably, sooner or later Israel will have to come to terms with those around it and those closest to it. The events of the last two and half weeks have not brought that prospect any closer.