The government of Israel appears to suffer from the same mental and moral dysfunctions that afflict the Bush administration: an urge to wage war without any plausible objectives, any viable plan for disengagement, or any rational assessment of costs and benefits. Israel’s second invasion of Lebanon, only weeks old and with considerably more justification, is already beginning to resemble the American invasion of Iraq.
Just as American policymakers badly miscalculated what would be required to occupy and stabilize Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, so Israel appears to have underestimated what kind of resistance its forces would encounter in driving Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. The Americans failed to anticipate the ruinous effects of the war and occupation on our international reputation and national interest. The Israelis somehow failed to recall the terrible stain on their national image left by their last incursion.
There is no American strategy for the Middle East. There is only crisis management, performed incompetently, and slogans about “democracy” and “evil” and “terrorism.” From somewhere inside this intellectual vacuum, the voice of President George W. Bush assures us that things are getting better in Iraq.
There seems to be no Israeli strategy, either. There is only a military reaction to the provocations of Hezbollah and Hamas, with disappointing and sometimes disastrous results. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claims that his campaign is winning, that the murders of civilians and U.N. observers will somehow prove to be worthwhile. The stature of the terrorists grows, and the war has succeeded in discrediting moderate Arabs and silencing the Hamas leaders in Gaza who were ready to start talking instead of killing.
Israel’s bloody response to the seizure of three soldiers has united its enemies and divided its friends. Atrocities committed by the Israel Defense Forces in Qana and elsewhere have appalled Western opinion and enraged Arabs and Muslims in countries that share Israel’s hostility to radical Islam. The people of Lebanon, who have never fought Israel and were trying to rebuild their country, have been turned into furious enemies of the Jewish state.
At the same time, the Sunni fanatics of Al Qaeda are finding common cause with their enemies, the Shiite fanatics of Hezbollah. For these organizations, the continuing violence is a moral victory, because every day of killing proves that there can be no negotiated peace.
But what does Israel expect to accomplish by bombing civilians in Lebanon? What kind of victory does Mr. Olmert hope to win by delaying a ceasefire? Whatever he may once have hoped to achieve, the Israeli leader is now quickly reducing expectations. He knows that after three weeks of bloody conflict, Hezbollah still has thousands of missiles ready to fire into northern Israel. He cannot predict that Hezbollah will be extirpated or even defeated, only that they have suffered and that things will be “different” than before.
And he will be held responsible, in the eyes of the world and his own countrymen, for a policy that could only lead to war crimes. The Israeli war plan turned hundreds of thousands of civilians into refugees, bombing their homes and villages whether they had left them or not, and then blaming them for being “terrorists” if they failed to escape. That kind of conduct will place the Israelis on the same moral plane as their attackers, where they should never be.
What has made this bad situation worse—and promises to inflict incalculable damage long into the future—is the feckless encouragement of Israel’s disproportionate response by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her obtuse boss. Having neglected Israel and Palestine for years, their parody of diplomacy has achieved nothing so far, except to discredit the United States.
It will be many years before our government can play any useful role as an interlocutor between the Israelis and the Arabs, with whom they must eventually make peace. Indeed, the American refusal to insist on an immediate ceasefire has made us look weak and immoral, as if we are controlled by a small and isolated ally. We could scarcely afford still another self-inflicted blow to our reputation.
It may be too obvious to mention, but the lost lives of women, children and soldiers on both sides—not to mention the physical destruction in Israel and Lebanon—has long since outweighed the incidents that instigated this war. If the three Israeli soldiers are still alive when a ceasefire finally comes, then the negotiations over their fate that should have commenced weeks ago will begin.
The problems that existed before hundreds of civilians were killed will still have to be addressed. The world will still have to find ways to police the border between Israel and Lebanon, to encourage the Palestinians toward peace instead of jihad, and to pull Syria away from Iran. These mad and murderous weeks have only made it all harder.