Tel Aviv

The current bloody situation in Lebanon and northern Israel did not begin with the July 12 Hezbollah attack across the border; it began with Israeli indifference to the need to stabilize the situation there after the withdrawal of its troops in 2000. Today, with Israel’s new and inexperienced civilian leadership having quickly acceded to the military’s request for the use of overwhelming force, the only hope for an end to the bloodshed and devastation is action on the part of the international players who until now have avoided any serious commitment to regional peace and stability.

When Prime Minister Ehud Barak fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw all Israeli troops from Lebanese soil in May 2000, the United Nations declared that the eighteen-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon was over. In 2004 the Security Council passed Resolution 1559 calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah units in southern Lebanon, the one piece of unfinished business that threatened to destabilize the international border. Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, head of Israel’s National Security Council, presented a program to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that could have resolved all outstanding issues between Israel and Lebanon, but Sharon preferred not to deal with the Lebanese time bomb.

The current conflict began with two IDF operational failures. On June 25 a Palestinian Hamas unit attacked a military outpost on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing one. On July 12 a Hezbollah unit crossed the northern border and killed three Israeli soldiers while capturing two others. If the IDF had prevented those two attacks, the entire bloody sequence of events we have witnessed during the past few weeks might have been averted. Of course, if Hamas and Hezbollah hadn’t carried out the attacks across the internationally recognized borders that everyone wants Israel to withdraw to, we wouldn’t be facing the current, horrifying circumstances, with all the civilian victims on both sides.

Ehud Olmert became prime minister with one declared goal on his political agenda: carrying out a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and to insure that the younger generation would have a peaceful country that would be “fun to live in.” The primary agenda of Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz was to change Israel’s social and economic priorities and to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Neither wanted or planned to face this type of security crisis, and they essentially gave in to the military leadership’s insistence that severe reprisals be ordered to teach Hamas and Hezbollah a lesson, and to change the regional strategic reality. One Israeli commentator called this a “quiet putsch.”

The military operation has the backing of the overwhelming majority of the Israeli people, including most of the mainstream peace movement, as missiles rain down daily on the north and many in the area have been forced to live in shelters or relocate. Even the opposition left-wing Meretz Party declared that “Israel has the right to act, in a way which expresses the values of the state, against anyone who attacks its sovereignty,” while voicing opposition to “disproportionate damage against civilian concentrations and infrastructures in Gaza and Lebanon.” On July 23 5,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs gathered in Tel Aviv for the first major antiwar rally, organized by activist elements within the peace movement, the leadership of the three Arab parties in the Knesset and left-wing Zionists such as former Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni. As voices began to be raised within the Israeli public criticizing the massive use of firepower and the growing number of civilian casualties, the primary call at the rally was for an immediate cease-fire and a return to negotiations.

Two themes underline the current crisis. One is the tendency of the military mind to set policy, both in Israel and in militant Islamic organizations, and the other is the danger of fundamentalism. Islamic fundamentalism, which views the Middle East as a region for Muslims only, threatens to convert the Israeli-Arab conflict into a religious one, with no room for compromise. Jewish fundamentalism, which views the victory in 1967 as miraculous, a first step in some preordained march to salvation, is the driving force behind the post-1967 settlement project in the West Bank, a major obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. And Christian fundamentalism is one of the underpinnings of George W. Bush’s political power and simplistic view of the world, which divides everything and everyone into good and evil, with no apparent room for the subtleties of nonviolent conflict resolution or compromise.

What we need today is an internationally brokered cease-fire, accompanied by political steps to stabilize the situation, which will include the deployment of a credible international force on the Israeli-Lebanese border and the mutual release of prisoners. Then we can return to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, based upon the vision of a two-state solution.