Israel at a Loss

Journalist: When the war started, you said that Nasrallah would remember the name of Amir Peretz for years to come.

Peretz: Who’s Amir Peretz?

The mock interview, above, reflects how the Israeli minister of defence spoke at the outset of the war. Peretz epitomises the crisis inside the Israeli Labour Party. When he accepted the defence portfolio he fell into what he described as Olmert’s trap, to make him into a caricature of a minister cowed by powerful generals. When Peretz tried to dispel the image by uttering macho-sounding threats he succeeded only in making himself a more pliable tool in the generals’ hands.

Peretz’s presence in government helped ensure the absence of any real opposition in Israel to the war. Even the “Zionist left” joined the pro-war “consensus”. Yussi Belin called for a strike against Syria at the beginning of hostilities. It was only in the final week, with news of the circumstances on the front and the climbing death toll, that the Zionist left woke up to realise the operation had resulted in a wholesale harvest of lives. It was then that it declared its opposition to the ground offensive.

Peretz’s presence in the government helped furnish a gloss of respectability at the international level. Now the Lebanese have every right to regard Peretz as responsible for the carnage and destruction in their country just as Sharon was responsible for the mass murder at Sabra and Chatila.

Peretz’s election as Labour leader already revealed a crisis in the party. Peretz would not ordinarily have qualified as a leader of this party. He succeeded only because he campaigned on a social platform after Barak had bankrupted the party politically. After Peretz became minister of defence that social agenda, too, fell victim to this mad war, with the result that Labour can offer nothing to distinguish it from Kadima. Evidently Peretz has woken up to the reality that Labour now is little more than an appendage of Kadima, suddenly issuing statements calling for the need to resume negotiations with Syria. Olmert quickly gagged him. There can be no talk of negotiating with a country Washington deems part of the “Axis of Evil”.

The Israeli press mobilised public opinion behind the war effort, including Ha’aretz, Yediot Aharanot and Maarev, dailies that see themselves as representing Israel’s central secularist trend. The war was an opportunity to assert themselves and their Western identity. The enemy Israel faced in this war were the “forces of Islamist fascism”.

Because the Israeli occupation of Lebanon ended in 2000, these newspapers not only regard Israel as the victim of an unjustified attack but the war as just. It is the war they had been looking for: Israel fighting alongside the forces of good against the forces of evil, on the side of the West against the East, no longer an occupying power but a partner alongside “moderate Arabs”. The latter were among the most enthusiastic advocates of the war. For them, too, it was a chance to prove how Westernised, secularised and how unlike fundamentalists they were. Inside Israel prominent writers and journalists declared their support openly, but they were gravely disappointed. Israel failed to take advantage of the “historic moment” that the West, the US and a segment of Arab “moderates” had given it.

We didn’t need Seymour Hersh’s article in The New Yorker to determine this was an American war. In fact, I’m inclined to believe he tended too heavily towards the conspiratorial. What seemed reasonable and logical in his article I had already pointed out during the first week of the war. The rest was speculation. America’s war against Iran and Syria would presumably take down the resistance along the way and America’s war in Lebanon itself would do away with obstacles keeping Lebanon outside the American fold. But the American agenda coincided with an Israeli mission that had been kept pending, concerning the missile arsenal that Hizbullah had accumulated beneath Israel’s nose. If Olmert and Peretz took a closer look they’d find it no accident that their predecessors were instrumental in keeping this mission pending despite warnings from military officials. The American agenda also coincided with Israel’s desire to flex its military muscle! following Gaza’s rebellion against the prison created by unilateral disengagement, and with the personal agendas of politicians convinced their time had come.

Olmert’s speeches since the cessation of hostilities have avoided as bald a statement as “we have won”. This is important, not least because some Arab neo-liberals and neo-conservatives believe Hizbullah has effectively handed Lebanon over to Israel. Olmert may speak of “achievements,” but they have been secured not on the battlefield but in the US-controlled Security Council. Were it not for Resolution 1701 Israel would have failed in all its war aims. To get a resolution passed is one thing, apply it something else entirely. It is easy to draft and vote on a resolution in the Security Council. How it is put into effect, though, depends on the balances of forces and conditions on the ground.

More significantly, the word peace has been absent from Olmert’s post-war rhetoric. It is a rare day when an Israeli prime minister delivers a speech or meets the public without a heavy sprinkling of “Shalom’s” and “peace’s”. Perhaps he felt the word would diminish the impression of resolve he wanted to project. So he replaced the usual peace-scented air freshener with tribal war paint and proclaimed that he would continue his policy of confrontation, that Israel would repeat the offensive if necessary and — as if fearful some might have taken inspiration from the experience — insisted the offensive should serve as a lesson to others. As for the resistance’s threats to hunt and kill Israeli forces still in Lebanon, they were the roars of a wounded animal that might still be harmful if driven by its wounds to reckless adventurism. Perhaps the idea was to conjure up Operation Thunderbolt, the raid on Entebbe airport, which the Israelis had design! ed and knew better than Idi Amin. In all events the Israelis need to project an image. They need to shove the Lebanese resistance and its leadership into the most-wanted terrorist corner while they grace the elegant diplomatic salons of the war on terror.

Israel has no diplomatic proposals or alternatives to offer. Its policy of unilateral dictates was not so much a policy as a shutting of the door to diplomacy and negotiations. The only political party alternative on offer in Israel at the moment is the rightwing demagoguery coming from Netanyahu and Liebermann, who are railing about the government’s mismanagement of its opportunity to destroy Hizbullah.

In the meantime Israel, as self-appointed inspector of the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 will while away time speaking about how it isn’t being applied properly. Some Arabs, who initially regarded the resolution as an achievement, will try to help it out by badmouthing the resolution when they accuse Israel of not abiding by it. But Israel has nothing to offer the Arabs.

Even the Syrian president, who became the butt of everyone’s rancour, especially those who couldn’t criticise Hizbullah’s secretary-general outright, managed a word in favour of peace. But not Olmert, who couldn’t mention peace in connection with Syria because Syria is now a subject he cannot broach without the White House go-ahead. In the days of Bush Senior and Shamir the US had to drag Israel to the negotiating table with Syria; today, the age of Bush Junior, it is Israel that must get the US to see the need to negotiate with Syria.

Closer to home the Israelis will vent their frustration on the West Bank and Gaza. Their imaginary war against the defenceless occupied territories may have helped them refine the art of repression but in the process they forgot the skills of warfare. They were deceived by the arrogance of their tanks, which as they swept into Ramallah swerved to crush every car parked on the side of the road. They were duped by the three tanks that bombarded entire residential districts in Gaza.

Israel is not exulting in victory; it is putting a brave face on failure. Behind the scenes everyone in the coalition is sharpening their knives for the conflict between themselves, between the government and opposition, between parliament and the army. In the process they recite a common refrain: If we had known this would be the result we wouldn’t have gone to war.

They are going to draw military lessons from this confrontation. They’ll pour their efforts into detailed analyses of the operation. An official investigation will produce two reports, one public and the other confidential, as was the case following the 1973 War and the Sabra and Chatila massacres. They will study how the decision to go to war was taken and they will question why it took so long to launch the ground offensive after that decision was taken.

They will also take the occasion to ponder resuscitating the concept of exporting war to other people’s land. A prime tenet of the Israeli military since the 1950s, the concept is based on the strategy of absorbing an initial blow and then pushing the battle front across the border deep into enemy territory. One of its more notorious corollaries is the notion of preemptive war, as played out in 1967 and which, more recently, had such White House realists as Cheney and Rumsfeld extolling Israel as a strategic asset, instead of a strategic burden. Be that as it may, there is no recreating the original Israeli vanguard, the farmer/fighter at the time of the founding of the state who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Israel’s present day reserve army with its hybrid Western consumerist/Third World culture and whose members were tossed like logs into the battlefield in the final days of the confrontation without sufficient preparation and for the sol! e purpose of enhancing the positions of the military and political elites.

They will also discuss how to reestablish Israel’s deterrent capacity and the possibility that other standing armies in the region might adopt the strategy of guerilla warfare. What they won’t discuss is Barak’s and Sharon’s failures and their responsibility for having brought this situation about because of their unilateral dictates. Nor will they take a look at their racist attitudes towards Arabs or reassess the primary assumptions underlying their hostility towards the peoples of the region. Failure will remain a result of tactical shortcomings, and even this assessment will get lost in the morass of political backbiting and party politics.

They’ll discuss whether or not to resume negotiations, failing to realise that the number of those in the Arab world who want to negotiate with them has dwindled considerably.

Israel had one specific war aim, which was to revive the mainstay of its security creed, its deterrent power. Not only has this not been revived, it has been further eroded. If the war made anything clear it is that Israel’s dependency on its air force may wreak appalling destruction (and therefore deter societies), but it fails to deter a resistance force that has entrenched itself deep beneath the ground. This resistance, by contrast, has demonstrated not only its ability to hold its own on the ground but to revive society’s confidence in itself.

General Halutz obviously took as his model for the invasion the 72-day long NATO aerial bombardment of Serbia and the intensive aerial bombardment of Iraq by American forces. In both these cases the targets were dictatorships whose people would not, or could not, sustain the costs of holding out in defence of their governments.

Israel’s second declared war aim wavered between debilitating Hizbullah and driving Hizbullah forces away from the border with Israel. This converged with Washington’s political aims and, ultimately, could only be made possible by a Security Council resolution. A war hadn’t been needed after all, because the US could have pushed through this resolution without one, just as it and France had produced Resolution 1559.

As for America’s political aims for Lebanon, the domestic conflict had not been resolved but merely transferred to the Lebanese-Israeli border. When Israel failed to resolve it the Security Council resolution tossed it back to Lebanon for another round. However, in view of the entirely new conditions that now prevail one cannot escape the conclusion that Israel has failed to accomplish its war aims. That constitutes a victory for the resistance.

The resistance had not anticipated the war; nor, for that matter, had Israel. However, the resistance had anticipated how Israel would handle a war and prepared itself accordingly. Israel, on the other hand, had no idea of the resistance’s strength and was taken by surprise by the resistance’s combat performance, in spite of the fact that Israel had had the offensive advantage. Such considerations are important in determining the success or failure of military leaders under given circumstances.

Hizbullah’s real victory resides in its grassroots base. Just as some envy Lebanese society for its resistance movement, that movement should also be envied for its society. Specifically, I refer to the society of southern Lebanon, Dahiya and Bakaa — that unique historical, cultural, political, literary, aesthetic blend of tobacco farmers and resistance fighters, neighbours to Palestine and Syria, on the dividing line between the acceptance and rejection of the Sykes-Picot agreement, mountain dwellers and coastal peoples from northern Galilee and southern Lebanon, theologians of the underprivileged and oppressed, advocates of ethnic-free Arabism and Lebanese authenticity and believers in communism, nationalism, pan-Arab nationalism, religious devotion and denominational pluralism, all within a small stretch of land each patch of which has its own name, its own story to tell and its own sense of identity.

Once the ceasefire went into effect the people of the south did not wait a single moment more than they had to in the public gardens and schools of Beirut. As soon as they could they headed back to their towns and villages to shoo away the Israeli army. That’s the people of Lebanon for you: tougher than rock and gentler than a mother cradling her child. They are the people making the great march southward, even before the bridges are rebuilt and the roads repaired, because they are the country’s roads and bridges.

AZMI BISHARA writes for Al-Ahram, where this essay originally appeared.