The day after the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah went into effect, I paid a visit to Yana Knopova, coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace. Knopova lives in Haifa, where some of the rockets fired by Hezbollah during the fighting fell, and was among the tiny minority of Israelis who opposed the war from the start, arguing that it would achieve nothing save to make Israel more hated throughout the region and would cost many innocent lives. By the time we met, Israelis across the political spectrum were criticizing the war, the two soldiers whose kidnapping had sparked the conflict were still in Hezbollah’s custody and columnists on the left and right were calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down. Knopova felt vindicated. “I feel in this war we have succeeded,” she said. “The things we were saying at the beginning, now everybody is saying them.”
But the sense of vindication may prove short-lived. Although it remains to be seen whether the cease-fire will last and what its long-term consequences will be, it looks increasingly as though the war’s political beneficiaries in Israel will be on the right, among the people least willing to accept one of the central lessons it has underscored: that there are limits to military power. The bombing campaign that some in Washington evidently hoped would serve as a model for an eventual US attack on Iran, as Seymour Hersh recently reported in The New Yorker, instead brought to mind America’s experience in Iraq, with Israeli troops suffering unexpectedly heavy losses and getting bogged down in a quagmire that could have lasted months.
Yet in spite of this, many Israelis seem to continue to believe Hezbollah could have been defeated militarily. The problem was not the war itself, one hears people complain, but the way it was fought, in particular the fact that government officials dithered before deploying ground troops and didn’t allow the Israel Defense Forces to hammer the enemy hard enough. The military mismanagement–Israeli troops lacking basic supplies like food and water, orders being altered in mid-operation–was indeed considerable. There is a widespread fear in Israel, not without reason, that the country’s vaunted deterrent capacity has been irreparably harmed. But the idea that a full-scale ground assault would have made things different is a fantasy. Israel has, after all, tried such a thing before, when it invaded Lebanon in 1982. Then, too, the goal was to wipe out a hostile “state within a state” (the PLO). The result was eighteen years of military occupation and the emergence of a Shiite resistance movement (Hezbollah) backed by Iran that eventually kicked the intruders out.
A second reason the war’s legacy may strengthen the hand of Israeli hard-liners rests in the cloud it has placed over the slogan long championed by the Israeli left: “land for peace.” This is Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s gift to the Israeli right: to heighten the already widespread suspicion among Israelis that withdrawing from occupied territory (as Israel did in Lebanon six years ago) will only embolden the country’s enemies, particularly the growing array of Islamist forces who do not recognize its right to exist. Fears on this score are not confined to Likud supporters. In Tel Aviv one morning, I had breakfast with a woman who has taken her sons to antiwar demonstrations and who favors an immediate end to the occupation. She told me she feels less and less certain that doing so will bring lasting peace, since a conflict that once seemed to be about land is increasingly being framed by the region’s opposition movements in apocalyptic religious terms.
On the other hand, as she and others on the Israeli left point out, Israel did not withdraw from either Lebanon or Gaza with a peace treaty in hand. It did so unilaterally, under the misguided assumption that instead of talking to its enemies it can simply set the terms and conditions itself. Thus was Gaza evacuated (even as it remains under constant military siege), but in a manner that left Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas humiliated, since he played no role in the process. Thus was a disengagement plan drawn up for the West Bank–without any dialogue or input from the Palestinians.
What Israel has forgotten, Gideon Levy, a columnist for the daily Ha’aretz, told me, is that peace doesn’t come from forcing your terms on others. It comes from negotiating agreements, not with people you trust and like (you don’t need treaties with them) but with those you don’t. Are there risks to such an approach? Of course: There’s no guarantee that returning the Golan Heights to Syria or withdrawing from the West Bank will prevent Israel from facing future attacks. But what is the alternative? To prolong an occupation that lacks international legitimacy and makes it difficult even for moderate Arab regimes to carry on normal relations with Israel? To pretend the country’s interests are served by refusing to talk to the leaders of other nations in the region? To be America’s proxy in a “war on terror” that increasingly seems to fuel the hatred it is supposed to quell? To forget about peace and simply brace for the next round of war?
There are hints that some of Israel’s leaders are mulling alternatives: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has set up an exploratory committee to examine the possibility of resuming diplomatic dialogue with Syria, for example, which many analysts view as a potential way to isolate Iran and bring stability to both Lebanon and northern Israel (Syria is not only the transshipment nexus for Hezbollah’s arms but clearly uses the group as a proxy to wrest back the Golan). Of course, Israel’s chief ally and financial supporter, the United States, firmly opposes any such idea, dismissing Syria as part of the “axis of evil,” a view that would no doubt be echoed by the future conservative coalition some right-wing commentators are talking excitedly about, to be led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. According to veteran Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar, policy analysts are presenting the country’s leaders with two scenarios: (1) accelerated peace talks with Syria, with the aim of exchanging the Golan and the Shebaa Farms for a comprehensive agreement with Damascus and Beirut; (2) a pre-emptive war with Syria, aimed at smashing the country before its military ties to Iran are further cemented. Neither the current Israeli government nor the most likely right-wing alternative seems capable of carrying out option one, and we all know which approach the hard-liners in Washington favor. Given this, Eldar grimly warns, “Keep the shelters [in the north] clean.” They may soon be full of people again.