The New, Confident Israel: ‘The Big Shots Support Us’

TEL AVIV, Israel, July 18—The café shift manager snickered at the suggestion that his business had been affected by the threat of Hezbollah rockets spreading southward toward Tel Aviv.

“On account of the security situation?” he said. “This is Tel Aviv. People here don’t care if they live or die …. In any case, there’s a bomb shelter down below.’’

The new vulnerability to rocket attacks and the realization that Hezbollah took the Israel Defense Forces for suckers by snatching two soldiers on their own turf has disturbed Israelis profoundly. But for now, that’s being offset by one important consolation: For the first time in recent memory, Israelis believe the international community is on their side.

How else to explain the quiet consent of the world leaders (read: the U.S., Europe, Russia and the U.N.) to Israel’s punishing attacks on Hezbollah, whose collateral damage includes more than 200 dead Lebanese in less than a week?

“The big shots are supporting us,’’ said Sami Shauli, who owns a hardware store in Tel Aviv. “They know that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.’’

Unlike the last time that Israel was threatened by missiles—Saddam’s Scuds in the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars—Mr. Shauli hasn’t seen a surge in demand for the plastic sheeting and tape used to seal off rooms against a chemical or biological attack. If rockets start falling on Tel Aviv, Israelis will purchase plane tickets instead. But Mr. Shauli sounded optimistic that it won’t come to that. That’s because the hardware salesman believes that in this war, Israel has a blank check from the U.S. and Europe to chase down Hezbollah’s rockets.

“Every time, they’ve stopped us. They stopped us after the Six-Day War. They stopped us after the Yom Kippur War,’’ he said. “Now, no one is stopping us. That’s because we’re doing their work.’’

TO BE SURE, ISRAEL HAS LOST too many hundred-something-to-three votes at the U.N. to expect a Security Council resolution affirming the country’s right to self-defense or condemning Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons. But the communiqué of the Group of 8 indeed laid the blame for the current crisis squarely at the doorstep of the Hamas-Hezbollah tag team, and the powwow of international big shots effectively called for the defanging of the infamous Lebanese militia.

And Israelis took note—especially the P.R. folks at the foreign ministry.

“We want to see this conflict used to bring about a diplomatic solution in accordance with the relevant U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 (the one calling on all Lebanese militias to give up their arms),’’ said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “What is important to remember is that Israel’s goal is identical to those of the international community.’’

The same sentiment could be heard repeated everywhere—in the diplo-jive of foreign officers, and amongst shopkeepers and politicos.

While Yuval Steinitz, a prominent security hawk from the right-wing Likud Party who chaired the Israeli parliament’s foreign-affairs and defense committee until earlier this year, criticized the government for ignoring the festering problem of rocket attacks from Gaza and southern Lebanon, he acknowledged that Israel had nevertheless accumulated some international capital from that restraint.

“This time,’’ he said, “there is understanding in the world—mainly in the Western world—that the axis of evil is operating against Israel through Hezbollah, and Israel must defend itself.”

George Bush’s “axis of evil” isn’t the only metaphor adapted by the Israelis to demonize Hezbollah. The Iranian-sponsored organization is being compared to Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is mentioned as a long-lost twin of Osama bin Laden. Israelis realize that the battle with Hezbollah has recast their fight from a local one against the albatross of its occupation of Palestinian lands to a confrontation with global Islamic terror. “Hezbollah is hated in the world more than Hamas,’’ wrote Dan Margalit, a commentator for the Ma’ariv newspaper.

Over years of conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis have become accustomed to being typecast in the role of neighborhood bully in the eyes of the international community. For a long time, Israelis have complained of getting unfair coverage in the international media and pointed fingers at themselves for lame spin-doctoring.

Turns out that nothing works better than a unilateral withdrawal to an internationally recognized border (a doctrine now in disrepute thanks to the recent kidnappings) to bring into relief the often-blurry lines of responsibility for the much-bemoaned “cycle of violence’’ in the Middle East.

“There is a clear bad and good,’’ said Dan Meridor, a former justice minister. “There is a clear understanding that what happened, happened without provocation. There is no territorial claim. Israel is not occupying the border. It was clear that Israel had every right to restore its deterrence. And if this is not enough to ensure quiet, will there ever be peace in the Middle East?”

IN FIVE WARS AND TWO PALESTINIAN UPRISINGS, Israelis have always fancied the fighting as “the final war.” Time and again, events have proven otherwise. Ask Israelis what war in their own history most closely resembles the current slugfest with Hezbollah and you’ll get different answers.

The rocket attacks are reminiscent of the Scuds lobbed by Iraq in 1991 that were aimed at fracturing the alliance to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But this time, Israel is retaliating. Some say Israel is returning to the 1982 Lebanon War, but as of Tuesday no significant ground troops had moved across the border. Others compare the debacle of the kidnappings to Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack on Israeli forces at the beginning of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Then there are even comparisons to the 1948 War of Independence, when much of the country was exposed to attacks from the air (though many object that Hezbollah doesn’t pose an existential threat to Israel).

“This is much worse than the Gulf War,’’ said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute. “I don’t think the home front has been under this level of outside attacks since 1948.”

Typically, Israelis have been reluctant to share responsibility for their security with others. And yet there have been few complaints against the U.S. peacekeepers in the Sinai, deployed after the peace treaty with Egypt. As Ya’akov Gavis took a break in between customers at his electronics store to watch footage of what was being reported as a downed Israeli plane over Lebanon, he considered the suggestion of an international force in Lebanon.

“It’s not simple,’’ he said. “We can’t do it ourselves. We need help from the world.”

Joshua Mitnick is a Tel Aviv–based freelance journalist.