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Tuesday, 08 August 2006 02:13

Michael Winship: Israel: Two or Three Things (I Think) I Know about Her

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by Michael Winship

Two years ago, my friend Anne and I were in northern Israel, where, for the last month, Hezbollah missiles have been falling and killing. We'd just had dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the coastal town of Tiberias and were driving back to the kibbutz bed and breakfast at which we were staying for the night.

It was dark and we got lost. Finally, we saw a light on the side of the road. I got out and walked up to the dilapidated guardhouse of what claimed to be -- I am not making this up -- a paintball camp.

I explained our plight to a grizzled old man in a beret. He looked at me with a mixture of contempt and incredulity. You know, he said, you're almost in Lebanon. It's less than half a mile away.

All things considered, it's hard not to be "almost" in Lebanon anywhere in Israel. Unlike the United States, drive three hours in any direction in Israel and chances are, you'll be in the custody of somebody else's army.

It's a pocket-sized country, usually referred to in the press as "approximately the size of New Jersey." And Lebanon is about the size of Connecticut. Amazing that two such relatively small pieces of the planet can be the focus of so much carnage, hate and international consternation.

Trying to make sense of it in the even teenier space of a column such as this would be a fool's errand (hey, pal, I heard that). Nonetheless, watching and reading about the current fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, two or three, random observations occur.

In anticipation of various grinding axes hurled in my general direction, let me preface them by saying Israel's right to exist as a democratic, Jewish state is not in question. But for it to continue as a democracy requires an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and not the proposed, isolated, non-contiguous "cantons," that are more like the apartheid era Bantustans of South Africa.

Nor can Israel continue to enjoy the goodwill of other free nations if it insists on responding to Hezbollah's undeniable terror with such an asymmetric excess of violence. Overkill has caused the death or displacement of innocent civilians and destroyed the infrastructure of Lebanon's messed-up attempt at democracy. And it happened just as that nation was getting back on its feet after a decade and a half of reconstruction.

The damage and pain done to Israel in lives and property and the fact that Hezbollah often hides among the Lebanese population are indisputable. But these realities don't excuse the bombing -- accidental or otherwise -- of so many civilian targets. Israel cannot win this way. It turns enemies into heroes and eats the soul.

Given the legendary superiority of Israeli intelligence, it's surprising how they underestimated the ability of Hezbollah to fight with such ferocity, strength and resilience. One could argue that, lulled into complacency by its equally renowned military strength and the frequent haplessness of the Palestinian resistance, Israel has been blindsided by how well-armed and trained (yes, by Syria and Iran, among others) Hezbollah has proven to be.

Yet an obsessive nationalism contributes to the problem, too. As Henry Kissinger once said after a meeting with Egypt's Anwar Sadat, "We see in Israel a society so traumatized by a generation of war that its leaders are no longer capable of making strategic judgments about their country's survival." Nationalism, former Middle East correspondent John Barry wrote in Newsweek, "has blinded Israel to the long-term consequences of a campaign that is practically guaranteed to fail, no matter what level of military effort the country commits."

They are abetted by our own country's ignorance, misinterpretation and avoidance of the issues. As Israel behaves without restraint, we look the other way and in the name of spreading democracy and fighting terrorism give our tacit approval. We do so at the peril of the entire world.

Some say that if we'd paid more attention and hadn't been so preoccupied with Vietnam in the period following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel wouldn't have been so confident about hanging onto all the territory it seized during its fabled, lightning round of fighting; the source of so much grief.

Now it's happening again, as our obsession with Iraq and the war on terrorism has distracted and blinded us to reality. By lumping all forms of Islamic resistance into one great "Islamo-fascist" threat, making little or no distinction among Hezbollah, Hamas or al Qaeda, we create the very monolith we fear. We succeeded in doing so in Iraq: we're in danger of repeating the mistake in Lebanon.

In his book "America at the Crossroads," erstwhile neoconservative Francis Fukuyama writes, "Before the Iraq war, we were probably at war with no more than a few thousand people around the world who would consider martyring themselves and causing nihilistic damage to the United States. The scale of the problem has grown because we have unleashed a maelstrom."

A popular joke at the time of the '67 war has an Israeli sniper opening fire from a hilly hideout on a large company of Arab soldiers. One by one, the soldiers climb the hill to remove the sniper and one by one they vanish.

Finally, one mortally wounded Arab stumbles down from the brush and gasps to his comrades, "Go back! It's an ambush -- there's two of them!"

This time it's the pair Israel and America that are stumbling into an ambush, one that's largely of their own making and hazardous to the very health of each.