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It’s all over… bar the shooting… August 18, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized.
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So emerging from the wreckage what’s the lay of the landscape?

Borzu Daragahi of The Los Angeles Times mentions on KCRW’s To the Point (15th August) [here] the feeling of betrayal from Lebanese who believe the international community had betrayed them and the Cedar Revolution and their dreams of being the first proper democracy in the region other than Israel. This is a crushing indictment of the US and Britain, and more generally the ‘West’ such as it is. Not to support a secular, democratic leaning state has been an appalling derogation of responsibility. (Incidentally Daragahi also noted that compared to USAF actions during the Iraq war where he had previously reported, the damage from the Israeli aerial bombing campaign was ‘unbelievable’ with ‘whole apartment blocs flattened’ and in no sense pinpointed).

It’s not difficult to identify some crucial problems that arose during the course of the conflict.

Key problem #1: an unwillingness to learn from history. Israel had already taken on Hizbullah in 1993 and 1996 in incursions almost identical to those of the last month or so. They didn’t work then and Warren Christopher had to negotiate a ceasefire with Hizbullah.

Key problem #2: an adventurist administration in Washington willing to allow the Israeli government to act with near impunity during the first two weeks of the conflict.

Key problem #3: an Israeli government desperate to prove it’s military credentials and therefore simultaneously willing to go too far and also unsure and vaccillating in the face of the military pressure to go further.

Key problem #4: an IDF which had burnished it’s reputation decades ago (and reduced more recently to the effective policing of Gaza and the West Bank against opponents unable to mount a serious military threat) facing a motivated and largely professional guerilla force capable of inflicting serious casualties.

Key problem #5: an Israel unable, or unwilling, to understand international public opinion on this issue and making egregious errors of tactics and strategy which only served to undercut what little support it already had. An example, the 48 hour ceasefire granted in order to allow civilians and medical supplies access and egress from the area. At the very least, were Israel thinking rationally such a move would have been made much earlier in the conflict, perhaps at the start. Not because it was necessarily the smartest military move in the short term, but because it was morally right and because it would then allow them to act more decisively later.

Finally, and I keep hearing this, the imbalance between what some perceive as an existential conflict for Israel and yet what in reality was not. Therefore the acres of rhetoric about how the Hizbullah rockets presented a threat (which they did on a real basis to individual Israeli’s but not to the state of Israel) that justified the extreme actions undertaken in Lebanon were simply wrong or self-serving. A million people in shelters is a dismal prospect. But – it’s not as if the adversary was unwilling to cut a deal as demonstrated over the past 48 hours. Nor was, at any point, Israel in a position to degrade Hizbullah to the extent that would render it ineffective. That’s not to say Hizbullah hasn’t been degraded. Clearly it has in some respects, and it will be interesting to see how it’s reputation weathers the next year or so on the ground.

Why do I talk of Israel mainly? Because it is Israel that must carry the bulk of weight of responsibility of the last four weeks, because Israel had different choices at every point and did not take them.

A couple of further points. There is a distressing tendency to paint this in Manichean terms, that Hizbullah (and often Hamas is included in this analysis) is an adversary that cannot be dealt with other than by annihilation. I think this is a serious misjudgement of the situation. Yes Hizbullah is anti-thetical to the State of Israel. That is a given, however the very fact it can be negotiated with to this point demonstrates that it is subject to pressure, opinion and force. Hizbullah is – and I don’t mean to legitimate it in any respect – a response to historical pressures which can be countered. Hizbullah is not entirely detached from the public within which it moves and operates. In other words this is not Al-Quida – beyond any possibility of discourse. In the final analysis Israel must start to engage with those around it who seek it’s destruction, must seek to to alter the perception of it. An interesting point was made in the recent issue of Prospect magazine where it was noted that during the height of the Oslo agreements Israeli and Jewish popularity within the Muslim world reached record levels. Those who make this point appear to believe that hatreds are fixed and unchanging, but that simply ain’t so. Sixty years ago on this continent Franco-German hostility was so deep rooted the prospect of any accommodation, much less the contemporary alliance between the two was unthinkable. Enmities can be overcome. Hatred can be diffused. But it requires work, and let’s be honest to turn around the phrase utilised by the Israeli’s ‘a partner for peace’.
Of course for some (perhaps an individual with the initials OBL skulking in caves along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border) such an outcome was disastrous because they too buy into a Manichean worldview, and any agreement would be subject to attack, but it appears to me that a cautious, step by step engagement by Israel would reap rewards.

How could that start? Perhaps by some sort of assistance to Lebanon. Is that likely? Perhaps not, but how could it hurt? Secondly by serious engagement on the Palestinian issue. The last five years demonstrated the futility of undermining all aspects of Palestinian authority, by degrading even the nascent institutions of a functioning state – as if such a strategy could lead to ‘peace’. The result, as in the Lebanon, keep hitting hard and eventually an adversary will arise that will hit hard back. israel isn’t going anywhere, and that’s fine, but the opposite is also true. Lebanon, Syria, Iran and most importantly the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either. And if I was in Tel Aviv, and had any thoughts of expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank as some of the most revanchist (and admittedly marginalised) elements of the Israeli political spectrum do, I’d think again. Lebanon showed that the world won’t wear it.

Otherwise what’s the alternative? Fortress Israel, surrounded by those who would seek to destroy it, permanently on a war footing, watching impotently as the last vestiges of world support ebb away from it. That would be a tragedy.

Even listening to the discussions on the same edition of KCRW’s To the Point some Israeli commentators appeared to completely misunderstand the dynamic of what is going on.

Yossi Klein Halevi who writes for the new Republic is sharply critical of Israel and Olmert for not prosecuting the land war with more vigour. He considers Olmert made two key errors in that he had ‘an almost unprecedented support from Washington’ and a unified public opinion in Israel and the opportunity to send the ‘message that Israel is unpredictable and Israel is strong and resolute…’. But that’s the problem. In the end Israel didn’t have unlimited support from Washington. Quite the opposite, Washington has it’s own concerns in the region now and despite it’s wish to bloody the Iranian nose (by proxy) general regional stability and the pressure of public opinion was going to tell. So an unconstrained land war was never a real option, and Halevi, a sharp and thoughtful commentator, is deluding himself if he thinks so. [As an aside he went on to describe how he lived in Jerusalem close to the West Bank and how he had been ‘subjected’ to his Palestinian neighbours holding fireworks displays for the last thirty days in celebration at ‘Hizbullah’s victory’. Perhaps the real question is just why they would do that and how can the situation be turned around so that an attack on Israel is seen as the last resort of the nihilistic].

By contrast Akiva Eldar of Haaretz noted that Israel had indirectly ‘upgraded Hamas from a political party to a government’ and the same would occur with Hizbullah. And that’s the point. Every action Israel takes is limiting it’s scope for action because by redefining this in existential terms it errs on the side of utilising too great a force against adversaries who could be dealt with more appropriately and alienates support.

My belief is that this is an important point in Israeli/Arab relations because defeat, or more correctly a military stalemate, is something Israel has not experienced before. Stalemate brings it’s own lessons. I genuinely hope they will be assimilated, and not lead to a Likud government closed to the reality of a world which is increasingly turning it’s back on Israel.

But there’s blowback on other issues too. In the US support for the war in Iraq has nose dived and with that there has been a parallel reduction in support for the Republican party, particularly as the party of strong domestic security. This has serious implications for the future as well. Perhaps a future US administration will be just that bit more cautious about handing a blank cheque to Israel, perhaps they will act more along the lines of the US during Suez where it effectively shut down the French, British and Israeli actions.

Perhaps not.

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