Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity

George Schöpflin
7 August 2006

What began as an Israeli reprisal against Hizbollah has become something else - a war on the Arab modernity that was beginning to emerge in Lebanon. This modernity is not just the roads, buildings and other infrastructure seen destroyed by Israeli bombing, but the beginnings of a political modernity that can be defined as accepting the Lebanese as a sovereign people ruled by a consensual government and possessing both political and moral agency.

No Arab state has managed to develop in this direction, and that lack of political modernity has been enormously helpful to Israel, as it prevented its neighbours from claiming the parity of esteem that Israel has enjoyed in the eyes of the western world since its foundation. Indeed, because of holocaust guilt, Israel has in many ways had a tacitly privileged status. In this light, the 2006 war on Lebanon has a different quality from earlier Israeli-Arab wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and the 1992 and 1996 incursions into Lebanon) - it is or has become a war aiming to prevent Lebanon from achieving democratic modernity.

Israel has in addition enjoyed an extraordinary status as the regional hegemon in the middle east, as the sole bearer of modernity and democracy, the sole repository of (western Enlightenment) rationality and thus as the only "normal" state in the region. The international community has largely accepted this claim, despite Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens as having second-class status if not worse. All of these tacit claims, however, have been implicitly challenged by the fitful movement towards democracy in Lebanon and, for what it's worth, Israel is itself doing much to undermine its claim to be a rational, normal state by reason of its disproportionate action in Lebanon, the message of which is that it disdains any political solution.

George Schöpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.

Also by George Schöpflin in openDemocracy:

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

George Schöpflin writes here in a purely personal capacity

An Arab transformation

This rise of an Arab modernity can be seen most vividly in the mounting sophistication of Hizbollah weapons and weapons-handling, the ability to operate high-tech weaponry and the movement's overall organisational capacity. But there is a growing political maturity in Lebanon side by side with Hizbollah's military capability. This is something new in the Israeli-Arab wars.

In previous conflicts, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), possessing the latest armaments that the United States placed at its disposal, had no great difficulty in routing the Arab armies sent against it. This time, it has proved to be no walkover. Israel clearly finds this unexpected and difficult to accept, not least because if the IDF is no longer able to score easy victories over Arab arms, then eventually it will have to think more seriously about a political settlement than hitherto.

Israel has no faith in civil-military relations in the Arab world - Hizbollah operates autonomously of Lebanese government control and is categorised as a terrorist force. The chances of seeing western-type civilian control of Hizbollah, however, diminish to nothing with every Israeli air strike, which is eroding whatever control the Lebanese government may have had over the country. Indeed, the Lebanese government has been the most invisible actor in the crisis, not least because the governance of the Lebanese state has been built around different communities with very far-reaching autonomy, Hizbollah included. That is the only way in which a Lebanese state can work. There is no uniform distribution of authority.

In the Israeli attack there is a clear element of pre-emption, pre-emptive war having been made legitimate by the US in Iraq - though, of course, neither Israel nor the US would extend the right of pre-emption to Hizbollah or any other actor not acceptable to Washington. The overt reason for the pre-emption is Israel's determination that Hizbollah cannot and will not be permitted to have the military capability that might be a match for the IDF, though in this respect Israel has clearly miscalculated. In any case, the Arab world is changing and time is not on Israel's side.

Thirty years ago, Israel's Arab opponents came from traditional backgrounds, were poorly educated, lacked the technological knowledge that Israelis had and were weak in diplomatic and political skills. This has changed, thanks to globalisation, the migration of large numbers of Arabs and their acquisition of skills that were previously a western monopoly. Today there is a cadre of thoughtful, educated Arabs in Lebanon, among the Palestinians and elsewhere. The image of Arabs in Israel as ignorant, unreliable and irrational is seriously out of date.

Also in openDemocracy on Israel, the Palestinians, and modernity:

Eyal Weizman, "The politics of verticality" (eleven-part series, April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, "Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation"
(a three-part series, September 2006)

Stephen Graham, "'Clean territory': urbicide in the West Bank"
(7 August 2002)

A democratic dilemma

Israel's monopoly of modernity in the middle east is slowly but inexorably ending, and with it Israel's exceptional status in the region and the wider world. The irony in this is that among these sophisticated Arabs with the capacity for modernity Israel could have found the negotiating partners needed for a dialogue that could eventually produce Arab-Israel settlement. But Israeli opinion is adamant that the only Arabs available are ignorant and invariably negotiate in bad faith, a view that is shared by a sizeable section of the elite, though far from all. Thus Israel's strategy towards the Palestinians can be read as creating an intense polarisation, with itself at the positive end and the Palestinians firmly at the negative end.

The elimination of Lebanon's infrastructure is further aimed at the destruction of the institutional authority of the Lebanese state. Its government is helpless and finds itself isolated while its territory is targeted by Israel at will. This is seen by Israel as a helpful outcome; after all it was roughly this measure that it visited on the Palestine Authority and could claim thereafter that it had no Palestinian negotiating partner worthy of the name.

Preventing the emergence of something like an Arab modernity and democracy is the conscious or unconscious Israeli strategy, because Israel gains some, not all, of its domestic legitimacy and international standing by being able to claim that it is the sole such state in the middle east. No rivals can be permitted, because then Israel would have to engage with them seriously. The attack on Lebanon, it should be noted, may have genuinely begun as a move to inhibit Hizbollah, but very rapidly evolved into an assault on Lebanon's Christian and Sunni areas, which seems to support the argument that Israel's real target was or became Lebanon's nascent democracy.

Should Lebanon or any other Arab state be tacitly accepted as a legitimate, modern democracy by the world at large, then its claim on the world for moral, political and potentially military support becomes stronger, as well as placing Israel's patrons in Washington in an awkward dilemma - does the US go with its democracy-building rhetoric to support a nascent Arab democracy or does it continue with its policy of backing Israel right or wrong?

In broad historical terms the answer should be obvious - help the emergence of Arab democracy and live with the short-term period of instability that the movement towards democracy involves in the expectation of long-term stability. Europe, above all, has a very strong interest in helping the Arab world to develop its own forms of governance that are at one and the same time modern and democratic, for the Arab world is very much at Europe's doorstep.

An Israeli entrapment

By opting for war, Israel has precluded itself other choices, leaving it in a blind alley, in which it continues to believe that superiority in weapons and training is the sole possible guarantee of its security. Further, war invariably has unintended consequences - it is only exceptionally a source of security. In this instance, the war against Lebanon has left Israel with only the United States as a firm supporter, Europe divided and embarrassed by its inability to act and the Arab world united and radicalised in its detestation of Israel that, more than ever, it sees as an alien and disturbing element in what it considers to be its part of the world.

The Israeli state has sustained itself by, and its society has accepted, the narrative that an ongoing war with the Arab world is governed by a kind of historical inevitability and that violence is the only language that Arabs understand. It is helped in this by the image of violence projected by al-Qaida and the internal war in Iraq, the quality of (some) Arab rhetoric and the use of violence by Hizbollah and (some) Palestinians. What Israel appears to be wholly unprepared to contemplate is a political solution that recognises that change in the Arab world does happen and that some of its Arab opponents can be treated as equals. Until that happens, Israel will be trapped in its blind alley.

Beyond the foregoing, the 2006 attack by Israel against Lebanon has other implications. It evidently takes the 2003 war against Iraq as a precedent. The question is whether other actors will take the same route. There are certainly several potential candidates around.

The Turkish armed forces are seriously alarmed by the emergence of a semi-independent Kurdish entity in Iraq and some of the Turkish military leaders could well be tempted by launching a pre-emptive strike in that direction. If, as expected, Kosovo acquires an independent status and the hardline nationalists are voted into power in Serbia, then a similar attack cannot be excluded. Russia is certainly working to destabilise Georgia, giving active support to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; whether it will go any further is a question worth asking.

Overall, the Israeli attack on Lebanon could be seen as having been launched to buttress Israel's security, but as the attack was rapidly transformed into a war against the Lebanese state, it acquired significance that resonates way beyond the region.

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