Sunday, August 06, 2006

israel and hezbollah: toward a cease-fire

There comes a time in any war where it ceases to be abstract and becomes real . . . and also ugly. For me the time came today with news of twelve or more dead at Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz in the northeast corner of Israel where I worked as a volunteer in 1978 and which I visited most recently with my family three years ago. The kibbutzim on the border have tended to view themselves as a sort of eye in the storm, watching planes and missiles fly by to more densely populated places, a bravado which may in part account for the extraordinary casualties (there was an apparently an air raid siren that was ignored before the rockets hit). No more.

Depending upon who you listen to, the war is either headed for a cease-fire or is going to expand shortly; or perhaps both, if the cease-fire proves an interim before a still larger conflict. I am personally skeptical of the cease-fire, since at least one side (the Lebanese) doesn't really accept its terms, and both sides seem to feel they have something to gain from continuing the fight. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see the U.S. and Europe (read France) agree on something, and if they stick to this newfound unity one expects they will have their way soooner or later.

As I noted in my last post, the war has caused an outpouring of criticism regarding Israel's military and political performance, not to mention attacks from those who were not notably sympathetic to Israel in the first place. I continue to think the military criticism is overstated, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But the political damage may be worse than imagined, and requires serious and immediate attention.

The military criticism is based on the assumption that Israel could have or should have dealt with Hezbollah more rapidly than it did, and that failure to do so indicates a deterioriation in Israel's "deterrent" capability. The problem with this criticism is that--like the Israeli Government itself--it understates the strength of Hezbollah and the difficulties Israel faces in fighting it. Hezbollah presents a unique combination of highly motivated forces, fighting in a defensive posture on familiar terrain, but armed with reasonably up-to-date weapons including rockets, missiles, and antitank weapons. It was never going to be easy to dislodge such a force, any more than it was easy to displace the Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah or (for that matter) the Japanese on Iwo Jima, where the Americans enjoyed an equivalent advantage in firepower and didn't have to worry much about civilian casualties. That the U.S. effectively imposed both (i) a time limitation and (ii) a limitation on civilian casualties made it that much harder. Nor are these problems unprecedented: there is always a learning curve in dealing with new weapons and strategies, and Israel will eventually figure out the katyusha and antitank problems much as it figured out the problem of Soviet surface-to-air missiles in the 1970s. No doubt the I.D.F. should have considered some of these problems earlier: but generals always fight the last war, and the learning curve here appears to have been faster than in many previous cases.

I have not mentioned the moral aspect of Israel's air campaign, which presents a serious issue, although I will note that the governing assumption--that Hezbollah uses civilian homes, trucks, etc. to hide and transport military equipmemnt--is unquestionably true; take a look at any of the pro-Hezbollah websites if you don't believe it.

While the military criticisms strike me as overstated, the political damage should not be underestimated. In part this is a short-term matter, the inexperience and insecurity of the Olmert Government having manifested itself repeatedly through the crisis. My instinct is that the Government, and the Kadimah party, will not survive the crisis, and one or both of the traditionally dominant parties will return to power before very long.

But there are also longer-term dangers. For want of better terminology, I will call them the internal problem, the external problem, and the Americn problem. None of the three are necessarily fatal; but all are dangerous, and need to be dealt with soon.

The internal problem relates to Israeli society and its preparation for war. Put bluntly, Israel has gotten just a little bit too complacent in the past one or two decades. One sees this most directly in the deterioration of the miluim (reserves) system, which many Israelis ignore, and (perhaps) in the failure to prepare shelters and safe rooms more effectively. But there are deeper internal divisions, reflecting a society that no longer believes in its socialist past but has yet to find another convincing ideology to replace it. The open contempt that many secular Israelis feel for their religious countrymen is one part of this; the failure to include Israeli Arabs, and poor Jews, is another. These problems do not directly impact military performance, but they have a long-term corrosive effect, and their existence tends to embolden enemies who see them as a sign of decline (Nasrallah has cited Israeli newspaper reports even from his underground hideout). Anyone who doubts the effect of internal divisions on Jewish security should take a look at the Bible.

Related to this internal problem is a matter of external policy. Israelis have become enamored in recent years of the notion of a "divorce" from the Middle East, that the country can put up a wall--physical and psychological--and pretend to be living in Western Europe while the rest of the region sinks around them. A veritable dictionary of reflexive verbs are used to describe this process: hitnatkut (disengagement), hitkansut (contraction), and others yet to be named. As a short-term tactic, these may well make sense, but as a long-term strategy they border on the delusional: the rockets, which can fly over or around such barriers, make the point about as dramatically as possible. The Israeli right has been forced of late to abandon its fantasy, of a "Greater Israel" ruling over docile Arabs in a recreation of ancient glory. The Israeli left may now have to do the same.

Finally there is the question of America and (more specifically) of the Israeli role in the American war on Islamic extremists. The Israeli-American relationship is usually perceived as an American problem, with Israel creating a supposed drag on American policy in the Arab and Islamic worlds. But there are costs on the other side, too. Israel is a country of seven million people with a standing army of less than 200,000 soldiers. In a war with its Arab neighbors it can more than hold its own. In a war with the Islamic world--Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, increasingly vocal Islamic minorities in Europe and the United States--it must sooner or later be overwhelmed. The transformation of the Israeli-Arab into a Jewish-Islamic conflict, of which this war represents a small first step, is thus a development to be regarded with caution. Those who see Israel as the vanguard of an anti-Islam crusade need to take a deep breath, and think of the consequences for Israel when and if the Americans lose interest.

I don't mean to end on a negative note. There are many encouraging signs in this conflict, including the strength of American and even some European support (who ever thought a British, let alone a German, prime minister would defend Israel in a key moment); the amazing diversity of Israeli society (the casualties have come from every imaginable Jewish community and many Arab ones; one was born in Pennsylvania); the steadfastness of the home front; and numerous other factors. The casualties, although terrible for the stricken families, have in the aggregate been fewer than one day of the 1973 or even 1967 wars. The point is not to panic, but to heed the lessons while there is still time. In the Bible the prophets warn the people repeatedly to change their ways: to heal social divisions; to live a spiritual rather than a merely material life; to put faith in God rather than foreign alliances. When they listen things eventually work out. When they don't it's not pretty.


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