israel and hezbollah: peace or only a time-out?
The latest Mideast war has finished or at least slowed down, with both sides claiming victory, although how convincingly is another story. (Israel wins points for honesty: "we didn't win," proclaimed a headline in its most popular newspaper, which is unlikely to be heard on Al Manar.) For over one hundred Israelis and 1,000 or more Lebanese, the war was over before it ended: the death of Uri Grossman, who died just days after his father, the Israeli author David Grossman, called for a peaceful resolution, provides an especially bitter postcript to an already bitter war.
One will hear a lot of clever pronouncements about the war and its meaning, and not all of them will make sense. Two of the less convincing pronouncements concern (i) Israel's supposed loss of deterrent capability and (ii) the alleged anger of world (and especially Arab) opinion at Israel as a result of IAF bombing attacks. Aside from the fact that these analyses effectively contradict each other--it's hard to retaliate too much and too little at the same time--neither seems convincing on its own terms, and they have the flavor of programmed responses rather than serious thought. The Arab claim of "victory," on the basis of still standing, is particulary odd: by that criteria, the Japanese won World War II, since they too had hundreds of soldiers in the field when the leadership called it quits. The reflexive references to the Israeli or Arab street, mostly by people who don't speak Hebrew or Arabic, are similarly uninspiring.
What then are the war's real lessons? It may be useful to divide the question geographically, beginning with lessons for Israel and proceeding to broader issues. In both cases the implications are plentiful, but more complicated than originally appears.
There is no question that Israel has suffered a shock unmatched by any since the Yom Kippur
War of 1973. As I have previously suggested, this relates less to the military performance, which I think was better than appreciated given the unrealistic expectations and (until the end) indecisive political leadership, than to the increasingly dysfunctional character of the country's political and social institutions. Certainly Olmert must go, but the purge can hardly end there. Numerous items, from the demise of the reserve system to rampant social inequality (apparent most obviously in the neglect of the home front) to the increasingly apparent fantasy of unilateral disengagement can and should be on the table. This is a healty and necessary process, and it is better that it should come now than when it is too late.
For the Arab world--and U.S. policy toward it--the implications are likewise contradictory. At first glance the war, together with developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., appears to strengthen the hand of the rejectionists (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah) and weaken such moderates as remain in the region. Yet the irony is that the strength of Hezbollah--the reason it was able to fight more effectively than (say) the Egyptian or Iraqi armies--relates largely to its democratic roots and attention to its popular base, virtues until recently largely unknown in the area. (Nasrallah, Haniyeh, and Ahmadinejad have all had to compete in serious elections, although they are hardly democratic in their internal procedures.) One can argue, with some force, that this amounts to electoral fascism rather than to genuine democracy, and that Bush's "new Middle East" is likely to finish in a similar manner to Wilson's Fourteen points, i.e., with popular passions unchecked by either traditional restraints or a new, as yet undeveloped tolerance. But it is worth remembering that Wilson was ultimately right, just a generation ahead of his time; and that isolationist policies only exacerbated, rather than restricting, the dangers inherent in his policies.
I mentioned above the parallels to 1973. Then as now a war ended with an inconclusive result, and both sides (but especially Israel) felt cheated out of a more convincing victory. It was the genius of Henry Kissinger to realize that this very ambiguity, if properly channeled, could form the basis for a peace agreement. Thirty-three years is a long time, and Iran is not Egypt; indeed the very democratization of the region makes compromise all the more difficult. But is it unrealistic that something positive might come of the current mess? Recent actions by Hamas, forming a coalition government and calling for a cessation of kassem rocket attacks, together with the at least theoretical willingness of Iran to discuss its nuclear policy, are small but not insignificant positive signs. Israel, once it has weathered its inevitable political crisis, is likely to be open to new approaches, although more unilateral retreats are off the table for the foreseeable future. Bush is leaving office in two years and likely to seek a positive legacy. Condoleeza Rice already has a (modified) Italian name. Could she learn a German accent, too?