Israel and the Lebanon War
Israel shoots itself in the foot in LebanonJuly 2006
The position I'm coming from is summed up in a quote from the philosopher Bertrand Russell: "War is not about who is right, it's about who is left". Very profound, and it relates to warfare being a breakdown of relationship by other means.
Trouble is, in our world, conflict has become too habitual - my own country, Britain, has played a disproportionate part in that. War is an expression of limited and powerful interests: it's rare that ordinary people and their genuine needs and feelings are really represented - they just suffer, lose and die, on all sides, in uniform or out of it.
You probably accept this in general but, in our day, it needs re-stating repeatedly as a baseline to start from. Especially today, because global issues facing us are becoming much bigger than the national interest of nations, and warfare is becoming obsolete as a way of solving problems. The evolving agenda of this century is about interrelatedness, living together 'in the same boat' - and if we don't, the boat sinks. Some interests - those in power and those who depend on them - try to keep things the same, a 20th Century agenda.
In the 21st Century it is highly likely that the dominant influence of the West will be levelled downwards, and the influence of the 'Majority World' is likely to rise, and it is already doing so. But the biggest issues are global. This is a tectonic shift.
Now we get to the current conflict involving your country (Israel). It concerns folks like me, because Israel is not isolated in a bubble - it is part of the world. Israel is also a microcosm or nexus-point, so what happens there affects the world greatly, whether it's in a harmful or a healing direction. I do not agree with those in Europe who tend to take sides in this conflict - it's all sides that need understanding and supporting. The polarisation and projection of viewpoints and realities in conflicts makes such a balancing act very difficult. But it is necessary since, in the fullness of time, the whole story, not just one side's story, is most relevant. What is left is what ultimately matters, not what is seen by different sides to be right.
For me, there is no question that Israel should continue to exist and thrive. I have close contact with much of the thinking that goes on in the Muslim world, and the majority of Muslims are indeed closer to a Western viewpoint than they are to extremists and takfiri (radical anti-Western) elements. A majority of Muslims would accept or support the principle of recognising Israel and making fair deals with it, as long as the terms are fair and doable.
The key issue is the willingness to talk, negotiate and go through a bridge-building process. That is, the majority of Israel's neighbours, including Palestinians in the streets, are (or at least, were) in favour of reaching agreement with Israel and moving on from here - or they were moving that way. Because they are tired of all that has happened before. And war-weariness is the greatest of peacemakers.
But the trouble is, when Israel is seen from outside to be aggressive and 'disproportionate' in its superior firepower, and unjust against Palestinians, opinion ranges against Israel, rightly or wrongly, and regardless of what Israelis claim. Israel is not doing well in the battle for hearts and minds. It might or might not win the current battle, but at present it is unlikely win the war. This is ominous.
Israel undermines itself
I won't argue about the rightness or wrongness of the commonly-debated issues and details in this conflict. What concerns me instead is that I believe Israel is acting against its own best interests, on many fronts. Here's an incomplete list:
1. Loss of international support for and acquiescence to Israel, on the basis of its current behaviour. Many implicit supporters of Israel, including former visitors, some international Jews, and others, have felt themselves morally pushed by Israeli actions to stop supporting Israel or acquiescing in its actions. This is dangerous for Israel.
2. Israel has taken on a tricky enemy, Hezbollah, a very well organised, trained army - they're not just terrorists. Hezbollah is not at present losing this battle, as Israel hoped. Even if Israel knocks out Hezbollah's current operational capability, this will not stop the problem in the longterm. Hezbollah as a social movement is here to stay - Isreal needs to act to pacify it, not to make it more militant. They have the persistence and commitment of the Vietcong, with or without Iranian support. Paradoxically, though the Communists won the Vietnam war, within twenty years they had become capitalists.
3. Terrorist proliferation. Then there is the formula '10 - 6 = 25'. There are ten terrorists, six of them are killed by military action, and the result is twenty-five new ones. Israel has activated a galloping virus of ill feeling toward it. Hezbollah doesn't need to recruit new fighters - Israel now does it for them. Amongst troublemakers in Palestine, the problem for Israel is that so many Palestinians are young, so they tend not to learn from the past but instead from current experience. They see what's happening, and their testosterone jerks into action. Older Palestinians have learned that intifada gains them nothing, so they tend toward supporting peace and recognition of Israel, as Abu Mazen wants, but younger Palestinians don't have that experience or position. Israeli action thus accentuates inherent divisions within Muslim societies, giving focus and heat to otherwise latent frustrations, firing up opposition to itself.
4. Extremism. Then there is a risk that Israel's current bold actions can also draw terrorists and troublemakers toward it from elsewhere in the Muslim world, because they see the possibility of enhanced heroic action which might be more productive than in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya or elsewhere - in their way of seeing things. This mad and destructive element is despicable, but it's a real thing which cannot just be stamped out. It has to be smoothed out through 'soft power'. Poverty and lack of opportunity fuel extremism - and the best way to pacify Palestinians is to enable them to have a decent life with a decent future. This takes time - but it's likely to be quicker than another 60 years of conflict.
5. Israel was founded to become a safe place for Jewish people to live. But it has not really created security for itself, after nearly six decades. Other wars end, but this continues. This ongoing insecurity leads to consequences such as reduction of aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel), the quiet emigration of Israelis, a loss of business, visitors and interchange, and loss of a sense of future and hope amongst resident Israelis. This is serious and insidious. The basic happiness of a nation makes it a good place to live and, to restore true national growth and strength, Israel needs to focus on this (as do many countries). During a conflict, everyone locks arms in unity against the enemy, but this does not last longterm when conflict dies down again, and people start looking at the facts of their lives and the welfare of their children. Continued conflict weakens Israelis and Israel's true longterm interests.
6. Israel is a developed country, yet the West has a chronic crisis too: it is nowadays geared to preserving the past more than creating a future. The West has become apathetic, comfortably numb, poorly motivated and directionless, more interested in chocolate, obesity, entertainment and pensions than 'real life'. Meanwhile, across Asia, Africa and Latin America, the future is clearer: people want a definite improvement, no more of the past, and they're working hard for it. The world is changing rapidly. The West doesn't really see this happening - it thinks its cultural and economic hegemony will continue forever.
This wider issue affects Israel greatly, because it is located on the boundary, in the Middle East - and domestically, the 'security fence' marks that boundary. Israel depends on its connections with America and Europe - specifically on US financial, military and political support. It is to some extent a pawn in an American game, just as Lebanon is a pawn in an Iranian game - and this doesn't match the image of Israel as a proudly independent country. Meanwhile USA is heading for troubled times, and it does what it wants, not always wisely (for example, the 'special relationship' between USA and UK has gone very wrong since 2001). Mighty arguments are already afoot in Washington DC over the aims and outcomes of US foreign policy. This heralds an eventual change.
Israel's problem is that American support cannot be relied on longterm, and the current apathy of the international community can change too. This could leave Israel isolated and urgently needing friendly neighbours, with a need to build mutually-assured security, trade and interchange. Longterm, the eventual disarming of Hezbollah is just a beginning, leading to the demilitarisation of the whole Middle East, including Israeli and Iranian nukes. Israel needs to start a befriending process as soon as possible, for its own security and national interest, since it will take time. The current war goes in the opposite direction.
7. The aims of war. Problem is, a key aim of Hezbollah in this war is simply to shock Israelis, to make them feel insecure. It has already succeeded. It has no need to invade the country or destroy large areas, only to destabilise it and introduce doubt into the minds of Israelis. Meanwhile, Israel's military aims seem not really to be working. Weeks of military action to knock out Hezbollah positions has led to a recent increase of Hezbollah rocket assaults, and renewed support from Iran and elsewhere. Even if Hezbollah is disabled, there are no promises for the longterm. Israel's intention of turning Lebanese against Hezbollah has failed: Hezbollah is gaining sympathy and fighters. Before the war, Iran was discussing reducing funding to Hezbollah, since the party was moving toward a more democratic focus, but this funding is now being increased. The military wing of Hezbollah has managed to get its way, and Russian arms dealers are happy to sell Katyushas to them.
8. Reactivity. When London was attacked by suicide bombers last year, nothing much changed - the British just kept on going. We've seen it before (IRA and WW2). A key objective of terrorists, to disrupt normal life and divide society, just didn't work. Not a big incentive to try again. When Hezbollah took two soldiers (who were sitting ducks, sitting in a vulnerable place in two Humvees, without cover), Israel exploded. In other words, Israel has proved that only small actions are needed to send it crazy. This is a strategic vulnerability.
9. Military interests on all sides. In my observation Israel, Palestine and Lebanon were more ready for peace and a settlement than they had been for a long time - or they were slowly moving that way. Confidence-building takes time, and it includes screw-ups. Most people are tired of conflict and want a decent life. This worries military interests - vested and political interests, and those who have had a long military history - since peace is a new paradigm, and it involves re-humanising the enemy, de-polarising extremes, un-projecting from the enemy and giving less energy to military priorities. But there were unresolved issues on all sides.
The new Israeli government was down in popularity, needing a boost, and some elements in the IDF were itching to get going. In Hezbollah the democratic wing was in the ascendancy and the military wing was itching too. Hamas had internal political tensions, it was facing pressures to recognise Israel, and it had great difficulty keeping control of militants in Gaza. On all sides this gave military interests an opportunity to hijack the agenda. It was a confluence of shared interest on three sides. From this perspective, the current conflict is a war of militant-military interests against ordinary people on all sides. The shared interests of ordinary people on all three sides have been successfully hijacked.
10. Last point. Israel's recent military response is consistent with its responses in previous decades. But the policy of bold defence, with assassinations, massive force, punishment strikes and incursions into Palestine and Lebanon cannot be judged to be successful. And: "if you do what you always do, you'll get what you've already got". If Israel's customary strategy had been successful, there would be no war now, and little or no trouble in Gaza, Nablus and south Lebanon. If just one man, Sheikh Yassin, had been alive today, things might now be different.
The evidence of recent decades is sufficient to prove that the 'iron wall' strategy creates at least as many problems as it solves. If Israelis want security and a good, normal life, another strategy is needed.
This involves coming to terms with your neighbours and making friends, working together - the big issues concern water, pollution, climate, demographics. Many people say "Impossible" to the idea of making friends. Well, it takes a few decades, but the English and the Germans prove that it is possible - we are now in the same EU because our interests are similar, and our national differences are encompassed within the union. We squabble occasionally (and the English are useless at football!), but my old dad, 90, who once believed that the only good German was a dead German, found out in the 1980s that his favourite car was a Volkswagen. Things change.
This will happen for Israel, sometime. It is inevitable, whether it takes 20 or 100 years. Israel is in the Middle East, a small country in a big world, and its neighbours are its local community. On every level of society, the state of Israel and the Jewish people face a reorientation from a tragic and traumatic past to a potentially hopeful and reconciled future. This reorientation will not be easy, but in the longterm it is easier than recurring conflict and insecurity. Even Jabotinsky predicted this.
While I understand many Israelis' logic in supporting and justifying the actions of their armed forces and government, I do not believe it will benefit the Israeli people. The oft-repeated assertion that 'there is no other way' limits Israel's possibilities and future. It holds your nation down, perpetuating a growing, creeping feeling that Israel is not safe for Jews or confident in itself, and that Jews are not safe anywhere. It even raises a terrible ghost of possibility that Israel's attitude toward its neighbours becomes the cause of its own downfall - not by invasion or destruction from outside, but by internal spoiling of Israel's potential to achieve what it was founded to achieve.
In reading this, you will certainly find issues you disagree with, and my understanding of the situation might not be right. But the key message here is 'think about your future' and 'make friends with your neighbours'. Any party in any conflict is, whether it likes or accepts it or not, at least 50% responsible - it always takes two to tango, and blaming the other side for starting a conflict resolves nothing.
I suggest it is time for a fundamental change of strategy and approach. There are far more important things to do in the 21st Century. I am critical of my own nation too, and Britain also needs to change strategy and approach. But wars with lots of deaths attract global attention, and you've got it, right now. We goyim will express our views, because the bloodletting makes it our problem as well as yours.
I believe also that, unconsciously, many people around the world sense that the Middle East is potentially a seed-place for a new kind of future society and culture, born out of the ashes of the old. Just as Germany and Japan became economic powerhouses within 30 years of WW2, so can Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq (at least) become cultural powerhouses in the mid-to-late 21st Century. But they can also miss that opportunity, depending on choices made today.
All this is why I believe Israel is right now acting against its own best interests. I accept the kind of reasoning you wrote, Jonathan, to be valid for you, in your situation. But try to stand back a little, to see how it looks from further back, and all round. I am glad I am not where you are and, whatever happens, I sincerely wish you and your country well. If I beg to differ, it's not because I am against you. Strength is a cultural, social and spiritual thing - in the long run, military strength only leaves bomb-craters, monuments to the dead and piles of junk and rubble. Israel has a place in the Middle East. The traditional strength of Jews has for centuries been in business, knowledge, innovation, specialist skills and human gifts, not in military action.