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The War No One Wanted

Ben Efrat is the General Secretary of the Organization for Democratic Action. He delivered this lecture on July 26, 2006, fifteen days into the war, at Bamat Etgar in Tel Aviv.


HIS WAR DOES not yet have a name. I would call it the war no one wanted.

I’ll start with Hezbollah, which says it was surprised by the fact that Israel went to war against it. It had only meant to perform a little local action that would compel Israel into a prisoner exchange.

Israel too was surprised. This war, in fact, is a labyrinth that everyone wants to get out of. Each side is fighting today, essentially, for the best escape. Meanwhile, though, they behave as if they had all the time in the world.

The Americans are giving Israel time. Because of their war in Iraq, they suffer from lack of political credibility. They need an Israeli accomplishment here. Squeezing ourselves into Bush’s brain, we may imagine a thought like this: “If Israel manages to trounce Hezbollah so that the result looks like a victory against terrorism, this will show the American public that there isn’t any reason why I can’t do it in Iraq.”

And another strange thing. For the first time in half a century of Middle East wars, the UN Security Council has waited two weeks without interfering. This is
the same Council that was created to prevent or resolve such conflicts.

Yet despite the fact that Israel did not choose this war, we can’t chalk it down to mere accident. The foundations may be sought in two basic aspects of Israeli policy: deterrence and dictation.

Deterrence is a prerequisite of unilateralism. What is it, after all, that enables me to withdraw to a border (as in Lebanon and Gaza) – or to draw a border (as in the West Bank and the Golan Heights) – without negotiating a treaty? Answer: to possess so much credible power of destruction and willingness to use it that the other side won’t oppose what I do. But deterrence is an elusive thing. The moment someone surprises me, as Hezbollah did on July 12, they show that they were not deterred. Israel overreacted, and now it cannot afford to stop unless it restores that ever elusive power. That’s no easy task when your foe consists of candidates for martyrdom. What deters a nation-state does not deter a fundamentalist militia. You kill me – so what?

As for dictation, if we recall the Lebanon War of 1982, Israel invaded in order to dictate the nature of the Lebanese regime. In the end it managed to restore the Maronite hegemony for a couple of years (until the Syrians entered). Then it withdrew to a so-called security zone. In May 2000, it finally decided that its presence in Lebanon was no longer worthwhile, for several reasons. One was the cost, in energy and lives, of fighting Hezbollah guerrillas. But another major reason was that Israel had changed its conception of the world – politically, socially and economically. Economic interests had taken priority. With these in mind, Israel handed the keys of southern Lebanon to Hezbollah. For it was clear that, given the balance of forces, Hezbollah – and not the Lebanese government – would be the one to take over the areas Israel abandoned.

In withdrawing from Lebanon, Israel willy-nilly split the country in two. In the south, the Shiites established de facto autonomy, with their political, military and administrative center in southern Beirut. The other Lebanon – western, secular and capitalistic – was spread among the remaining quarters of Beirut and the coastal cities. These became centers of tourism, investment and real estate. An alliance of sorts took shape between Christians and Sunni Muslims. To Hezbollah they said, in effect: “We don’t mind what you do in the south, you can choke on it for all we care. We just want to conduct business in our areas.”

That was the new status quo in Lebanon, a status quo of Israel’s making, for no one else was as responsible. Israel tolerated Hezbollah’s presence on the border. If it had thought this a problem, it could have delayed its withdrawal. But no, it ceded control to Hezbollah. Why? Well, what would have been the alternative? There would have been only one alternative: to withdraw in coordination with the Lebanese government. That would have required negotiations with Lebanon, and these would have required an agreement with Syria. But Damascus would have insisted on return of the Golan Heights.

Before May 2000, in fact, Israel and Syria had been close to a treaty. The gap came down to the northeast shore of the Lake of Galilee. The Israelis couldn’t bring themselves to give up that shoreline. Likewise, when they left Lebanon, they had to hold onto the Shaaba Farms, a small area in dispute between Lebanon and Syria. And likewise once again, when they returned the Lebanese prisoners in exchange for Elhanan Tennenbaum, they refused to include Samir Kuntar, whom they’ve held since 1979. Israel never totally closes an issue. It always leaves some thing undone, and then we get another war.

The main beneficiary of Israel’s withdrawal in May 2000 was Hezbollah. It got such a big prize that it had no reason to risk anything that might endanger its gain. It took over the south, did enormous work on military infrastructure, established a state within a state, and administered civil life there with the generous support of Iran. Israel knew that Hezbollah was accumulating weapons and rockets, but it preferred to regard this as an internal Lebanese matter.

To sum up this section: in departing unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000, Israel left open a window into which the present storm has blown.

There was another consequence of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2000, one that gratified it but that I don’t think it could have engineered by itself. On the one hand, as said, the pullout created the vacuum in the south that Hezbollah entered. On the other hand, though, it weakened any justification for the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Internal pressure arose for Syria to withdraw. If Israel was no longer occupying the south, there was no particular reason for Syria to be present “defending” the rest.

Israel’s pullout, in short, changed the internal make-up of Lebanon. In 2004, the Saudi-backed prime minister, Rafik Hariri, decided to seek independence from Syria. Resigning from the government, he created an opposition party. In 2005 he was assassinated. This caused an enormous upheaval. Accused of the deed, Syria withdrew from Lebanon. Then came the elections, and Hariri’s party won.

All this took place quite against the designs of Hezbollah. It wanted Lebanon to cheer it on, hoping for a process of radicalization that would strengthen the standing of both itself and Syria. Quite the opposite happened. Syria withdrew under pressure and Hezbollah was shunted to the parliamentary margins. It began to lose the political assets for which it had sacrificed so much – while westernized Lebanon thrived.

There was also political damage to Syria, which felt – and still feels – cornered and threatened. It has good reason: the Syrian regime is economically weak and unstable.

And finally, Iran. The last elections there brought the militant branch of Shiite Islam to power, but this group can provide no jobs, only ideology. To keep power they cultivate a severely radical position against America and Israel. In this respect, Hezbollah is useful to them, because it’s on the front line with Israel.

Such was the situation when the war broke out. There are theories that Israel planned and desired it. Not so. Israel was completely absorbed in controlling the Kasbah in Nablus and stopping the rockets from Gaza. It was unprepared for war in the north, which is why it’s been taking such hard hits there.

A country that wants to behave unilaterally is a country that creates conflict. In a conflict, the weak side constantly attempts to test the strong, detect the soft spots, and find out what can be done to resist. We know that Israel has technology and enormous destructive power, but we also know that its society, after 58 years of warfare in various forms, is much less willing than it once was to pay a price in lives. Here we find a big difference between the sides. Israel can indeed bomb Lebanon, destroy property and infrastructure, kill hundreds, and turn thousands more into refugees, yet [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah can still declare: “So what? We’re prepared for worse.”

Suppose the tables were turned. Suppose Israel had 300 dead in a week with no end in sight and 600,000 refugees living in the parks of Tel Aviv. The country would not bear it.

Some Israelis from the north have traveled south into safety while others have remained. The line distinguishing these groups is the poverty line. Those who remain are the Arabs, the poor and the elderly. The social gap becomes an immediate matter of life and death. It’s no longer just a question of who can afford medical treatment. It’s who can escape from the rockets.

So look at the change that Israel has undergone since 1948. As late as 1973, I know, reserve generals lived from their pensions. They always had their uniforms and kit bags ready. When mobilized, they hurried to their posts. Today, in contrast, war is not on their agenda. Every reserve general has millions in investments. Some don’t even live here. Ehud Barak, the Prime Minister who carried out the unilateral pullback in May 2000, has disappeared. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak sold his stocks for a fortune. If these people were ordered to battle, they would think first of their investments. But friends, if you’re making decisions that will send people to their deaths, do you diddle with your stock portfolio? *

Israeli society has gone bourgeois. Sure. But it’s not just that. Like many western societies, Israel’s is no longer willing to pay the price of death on the battlefield. Other countries have professional armies, where the lowest, most endangered ranks are filled by the lowest classes. The Israeli home front has been hit so hard because the country isn’t willing to risk losing soldiers at Tyre. There is no other explanation. This is Israel’s soft spot, and it allows Hezbollah a great deal of breathing space.

For what is Hezbollah? It’s the party of those who believe in Allah – that is, the party of the poorest and most deprived, who have little to lose in this life. Who are the Lebanese that least want the war? As in Israel, the millionaires. This is a war in which the poor man discovers his single point of advantage over the rich man, despite all the rich man’s power.

Wars, in the end, are decided by the balance of forces. Hezbollah understands that it cannot vanquish Israel. It can damage Israel’s prestige and economy, but it cannot utterly defeat it. Like Rocky, it can count itself victorious if it finishes on its feet.

Israel, for its part, knows its own limits. It knows Hezbollah has Iran behind it, as well as broad support among the Lebanese Shiites. Israel knows that it lacks the forces today, military or political, to influence Teheran and Damascus. Israel knows that, in consequence, Hezbollah can go on gathering strength for a long time to come.

Somewhere in the middle range between these two understandings, Hezbollah’s and Israel’s, the war will stop. It is hard to define the point where this will happen. Meanwhile, however, several things have been clarified:

1. The Arab world has become more divided. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken anti-Hezbollah positions because of long-term strategic interests in their struggle with Shiite Iran. A tacit alliance has been struck between these Arab states and Israel, one that the latter could hardly have expected.

2. It’s become clear to the Israelis and others that the US, bogged down in Iraq, is no longer the omnipotent superpower that it briefly had appeared to be. That is why Israel today calls for an international force in southern Lebanon led by the Europeans, something it traditionally opposed.

3. Within Lebanon, deeply rooted anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian currents have appeared that refuse to continue in the direction toward which Hezbollah is pulling. They are making it difficult for Hezbollah to wage the war. They constitute the weak underbelly of Nasrallah’s home front.

Hezbollah, in the end, will have to make concessions. It would be willing to make them right now, but Israel isn’t ready to finish. Israel could have finished ten days ago, winning the concession that the Lebanese army, buttressed by international forces, would spread through the south. But Israel feels it’s been damaged and is trying to restore that elusive “power of deterrence.” The more it tries, the more deeply entangled it gets.

That is the general picture. As a political party [the Organization for Democratic Action – ODA or DAAM in Arabic], we at once joined the cry for an immediate end to the war. We find no justification for it. We think that instead of going to war with Hezbollah, Israel ought to have concluded that unilateralism is a nonstarter. This must become a political lesson for future behavior.

When the war does end, we cannot return to business as usual. Israeli society will be in trauma for years. We, for our part, understand that the attempt to achieve deterrence and unilateral control, combined with economic power, inspires, throughout the region, bitterness and religious fanaticism. The rage against Israel is enormous, and it matters little who embodies it, Hezbollah or some other force.

Let there be no doubt: we do not condone what Hezbollah did. We consider Hezbollah to be a negative factor in Arab society. On the other hand, the way in which Israel and America comport themselves in the Middle East harms not only Arab society, but Israeli society too. As long as Israel’s public remains indifferent, letting its government lead it into short-lived magical solutions which then explode – for example, in the form of the Oslo Accords, or lately in the form of unilateral withdrawal – the condition of this country will continue to degenerate. If we do not get a significant change of direction, we may expect another round of violence, one, perhaps, which Israel will not be able to bear. The present war has shown that it cannot cope with its own internal social gaps. Nor can Israel cope politically with the issue of its relationship to the region. It cannot cope with the price that peace would demand. These issues gnaw at the heart of the country.

In the March elections, we sought votes for ODA. Many of the people we approached said later that they almost voted for us. They wavered between our top candidate, Asma Agbarieh, and Labor’s Amir Peretz. Look where Peretz is today, and look where Agbarieh is.

Agbarieh is one of the leaders in our effort to organize Jewish and Palestinian workers along internationalist lines, without regard to religion or ethnic group. Our task is to explain the nature of Israel as a political factor in the region, to explain the character of this war and why it broke out, and to persuade people here and abroad – all those who have not given up their aspirations for peace with justice – to act toward changing Israel’s policy goals.

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