Israel Report

May 2001         



A War After Peace

the Editors - The New Republic
April 30, 2001

Is there war in the Middle East? Not in the most deadly sense, no; but otherwise, yes. The "Al-Aqsa intifada," the latest Palestinian paroxysm of self-destruction, has moved from stones to rifles to mortars. The night sky around Jerusalem is regularly punctuated by the deadly glowing dots of heavy gunfire. The Syrians, who dominate Lebanon with 35,000 troops, are permitting Hezbollah to strike at Israel, and Hezbollah is eagerly accepting their permission. (Will there be martyrs for Shabaa Farms, too?) And the government of Ariel Sharon has chosen to hold the attackers responsible for their attacks.

The Israeli responses to attacks upon Israel in the north and in the south have been designed to establish the principle that no bad deed will go unpunished, not least in the hope that all but the most deranged enemies of the Jewish state will think twice about aggression against it. Surely a policy of zero tolerance toward mortar shells flying across international borders into one's own country is not terribly hard to understand. (And just as surely there are those who refuse to understand it: the European Union condemned Israel for the use of excessive force in Gaza and Lebanon, in accordance with its old evenhanded view that the Israelis must rise above everything and the Palestinians must rise above nothing. But what, pray, is a Syrian radar station doing in the Bekaa Valley anyway?) So far the Bush administration appears not to have let its anxieties get the better of its sympathies, and has appeared to understand that Israel cannot idly absorb the shells and the bombs--that if the Israeli response emboldens Israel's enemies, the absence of an Israeli response emboldens them more. To be sure, Colin Powell last week discovered in the Israel Defense Forces an army to which his doctrine of overwhelming force seems not to apply; but Israel was right to pull out of Gaza, American demands or not. Sharon's annexation in northern Gaza was a mistake, because it would have made Israeli unreason into the issue, when the issue is Palestinian unreason, which has been more or less plain since Yasir Arafat chose a riot over a state last summer. The trick for Israel is to employ its physical strength without squandering its political strength.

The important thing, as the responses and the responses to the responses continue, is not to lose sight of the larger historical picture. It is worth remembering, for example, that the shelling of Israel in recent weeks has originated in places from which the Israeli army has completely withdrawn. After Israel retaliated for the attacks from Lebanon by striking the power that controls Lebanon, the Egyptian foreign minister thundered hat the action "renders meaningless Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon." This is backward. The Hezbollah attack was what demonstrated that the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was meaningless--for Hezbollah, that is, and for Bashar al-Assad. And this has been the pattern also on the Palestinian front. (It is, alas, a front.) There, too, Israeli flexibility has been met with a renewal of violence.

The conflict is becoming more comprehensive by the week. But it did not have to be this way. Last summer--we will repeat the tale until we are hoarse, because it is still the truth, and because it is still startling--Israel offered (arguably too generously) to withdraw to the boundaries of 1949-1967 so that a Palestinian state could be proclaimed, with its capital in Jerusalem and its flag over the Haram al-Sharif. Israel offered, in other words, to be a partner in the realization of the Palestinians' fondest dream, and also in their relief from the misery of their refugee camps. But the Palestinians said no, and sent their children into the streets. The war that we are now witnessing is a war that the Palestinians and their regional allies have explicitly preferred to peace.

And all the pretty songs about peace--in The New York Times this week Yossi Beilin sang another one, about how "they are here, we are here, neither of us chose the other as a neighbor, and neither is going anywhere"--cannot alter this fantastically sobering fact. With the exception of its doves who have eyes but do not see, Israel is now a country disabused, a society of realists. Just as a siege seemed to be ending, a siege began. Life is once again a sentence of self-defense. A war before peace is much easier to fight than a war after peace, because one can carry hope into the struggle; but for Israel this feels like a war after peace.


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