As we go to press, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict stands poised on the brink of a dangerous new escalation. After a month of warfare, Lebanon is already reeling from an Israeli bombing campaign that has killed about 1,000 people, most of them civilians; generated more than 800,000 refugees; and damaged or destroyed bridges, roads, factories, hospitals and an oil-storage facility, resulting in an oil spill that is one of the worst environmental crises in recent Mediterranean history. Hezbollah has fired several thousand rockets into northern Israel, killing about 100, wreaking havoc on major cities and causing tens of thousands of refugees to flee. What began as a border clash has become a war against civilians, on both sides, although the Israeli campaign has been far more destructive of civilian life, in large part because of Israel’s greater power. As the international community struggled to forge a cease-fire resolution, Israel deepened its invasion, threatening an all-out assault on Lebanon’s “strategic civilian infrastructure.” Hezbollah, for its part, warned that if central Beirut is targeted, it would strike back at Tel Aviv with long-range rockets.
The belligerent parties desperately need constructive mediation to halt the fighting, and yet the United States has only inflamed the crisis. After weeks of preventing a cease-fire so as to give Israel more time to press its offensive, Washington pushed a UN draft resolution that would allow Israeli forces to stay in southern Lebanon. The draft in essence calls for the unilateral capitulation of Hezbollah, seeking to impose on the guerrilla force diplomatically what the Israeli military has not been able to achieve after a month of brutal combat. A more sensible resolution has been put forward by Lebanon and seconded by the Arab League. It proposes, in addition to an immediate end to the fighting, sending Lebanese army troops to patrol the south while calling on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon as well as from the disputed Shebaa Farms enclave; demilitarization or at least a withdrawal from the border region of Hezbollah’s armed units; and a prisoner exchange. Neither side would be able to claim full victory with such a resolution, but both would be able to save face.
The fact is, Israel cannot achieve its military or political objectives with continued devastating attacks on the Lebanese infrastructure. The only reasonable option is to put internal constraints on Hezbollah in accord with the longstanding commitment of the international community to have the Lebanese government exercise control over all of Lebanon.
The abdication of responsibility by both the Bush Administration and Congress is destructive and short-sighted, but no surprise to close observers of the Washington scene. As Ari Berman recently pointed out on our website (“AIPAC’s Hold”), the Israel lobby, comprising most prominently the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as well as Christian Zionists, “has made unconditional support for Israel an accepted cost of doing business inside the halls of Congress.” A one-sided resolution supporting Israel’s offensive–essentially crafted by AIPAC–passed overwhelmingly in both houses in the first week of the fighting. The Washington lobbyists are aided on the pundit front by the braying chorus of neoconservative intellectuals (see Eric Alterman, page 10), who generally counter any questioning of Israeli actions or US support for them with the slur of anti-Semitism. These armchair warriors–apparently unchastened by catastrophic failure in Iraq–are now calling for a US war on Syria and Iran.
The dangers posed by a wider war in Lebanon are frightening: For the Lebanese, it could spell the destruction of a fragile civil society and the return of marauding militias. For Israel–which seems not to have learned the lessons of its 1982 invasion, when a war against the PLO and brutal occupation germinated a far more formidable opponent in Hezbollah–the destabilization of Lebanon could in the long run strengthen Hezbollah. Indeed, Israel’s bombing campaign has united Lebanese of all sects as never before–against Israel. For the United States, which is seen by the world as Israel’s co-belligerent, it could bring about renewed conflict with Iraqi Shiites, who have expressed solidarity with Hezbollah. For the wider Arab world, Hezbollah’s martial prowess has rallied the dispossessed, who chafe under corrupt dictatorships which they despise as lackeys of Washington. A wider war could topple some of these “friends” of America.
Now is the time, before events spin out of control, for rational heads to prevail. A few courageous members of Congress–Representative Dennis Kucinich, along with several dozen co-sponsors–called sensibly for an immediate cease-fire, while Senator Chuck Hagel called in general terms for a more even-handed US Mideast policy and a resolution of the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict–the source of so much of the region’s tensions–along the lines of the Arab League’s 2002 Beirut Declaration. Such moves should be encouraged, along with resistance to lobby pressures and the dangerous fantasies of armchair neocon warriors. The United States cannot in good conscience allow Lebanon’s humanitarian crisis to continue. Washington must put aside its usual support-Israel-at-all-costs stance and use its influence to get Israel to call off its offensive and withdraw from Lebanon. The alternative–more warfare, increased instability and rising sectarian hatred–is a dead end for all of us.