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A united, worried Israel

Eric Silver
20 July 2006

In summer 1982, more than 100,000 Israelis gathered in a Tel Aviv square to demand an end to the first Lebanon war. Dissenters picketed the Jerusalem residence of the then prime minister Menachem Begin with placards, updated daily, starkly reminding him of the Israeli (let alone the Lebanese) death toll. Politicians and journalists were flooded with anti-war phone calls and letters.

Eli Geva, a high-flying armoured brigade commander, resigned his commission rather than obey an order to shell Beirut. "For the first time in Israel's unfortunately rich history of conflict", wrote Hirsh Goodman, the Jerusalem Post's military correspondent, "there was an almost total breakdown of trust between those giving orders and those being asked to put their own lives and the lives of their men on the line."

Twenty-four years later, with the Israeli air force bombing Beirut around the clock and artillery pounding southern Lebanon, signs of protest are few and far between. Most are limited to the pacifist fringe. The mainstream Peace Now movement and indefatigable human-rights monitoring groups remain focused on West Bank settlement expansion and the separation wall.

Half a dozen women, urging the government to "talk not fight", mounted a vigil outside the Haifa railway maintenance depot where eight workers were killed by a Hizbollah rocket on 16 July. A reserve sergeant, ironically from the Negev town of Sderot which is targeted almost daily with Qassam rockets from the Gaza strip, refused to report for service on the West Bank. Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc led by the 82-year-old journalist Uri Avnery, failed to mobilise the masses.

Eric Silver is a journalist who has covered Israel for three decades, among others for the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Jewish Chronicle. He is the author of a biography of Menachem Begin, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1984.

Also by Eric Silver in openDemocracy:

"Israel's political map is redrawn"
(25 November 2005)

An opinion poll published on 18 July in the popular daily Yediot Aharonot reflected overwhelming support for this new Lebanon war. A full 86% said the operation against Hizbollah was "the right thing to do". Only 14% thought it was a mistake. Asked what Israel should do next, 58% said it should go on fighting until Hizbollah was wiped out, 23% that it should fight until the Shi'a militia was pushed back from the border, and 17% wanted a ceasefire and negotiations.

A war of consensus

This is a war of consensus. So far. The two soldiers, Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, abducted by Hizbollah on 12 July are a symbolic rather than the fundamental casus belli. Above all, this is a war of deterrence. Israelis, across the political spectrum, feel that they cannot afford to appear weak and irresolute. They are aware of living in a harsh and hostile region. Too many enemies are waiting to pounce. Hizbollah, like Hamas before it, misread the map. Despite appearances, Israel has not been entirely seduced by the yuppie hedonism of Tel Aviv.

Ehud Olmert's Churchillian rhetoric struck a chord. "No more", the prime minister said in a televised address to the Knesset (parliament). "Israel will not be held hostage – not by terror gangs or by a terrorist authority or by any sovereign state." The nation, which had always suspected him to be a political operator rather than a statesman, hailed him as a leader. It was ready for the military option.

Israelis were disenchanted. They had tried compromise and it hadn't worked. The army withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000 (to a border certified by United Nations cartographers) and disengaged from the Gaza strip in August 2005. Hizbollah and Hamas celebrated the evacuations as victories. They believed their own propaganda. Violence paid. So, they launched rockets, they seized soldiers and, most fatally perhaps, they taunted.

Palestinian and Lebanese provocations were a first major test for the new Israeli government, still barely three months in office. Both Olmert and his defence minister, Amir Peretz, were civilians following in the footsteps of generals. Two weeks into the war, they have withstood the challenge.

In 1982, Ariel Sharon as defence minister and Rafael Eitan as army chief-of-staff deceived Menachem Begin, constantly expanding the war aims without cabinet approval. This time, Olmert and Peretz have kept a tight grip on the military. The political echelon is setting the objectives. And it is keeping the public – as well as the local and foreign media – informed.

There is little of the secrecy of the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, when the government and the army waited three days before admitting that Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez canal, or of the "closed military zone" mentality of the Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah in April 2002. The openness encourages trust.

Israelis are also comforted by the dearth – again, so far – of international outrage at the bombing of Beirut. The world, which seems to understand that the middle east is not all black and white, victims and victimisers, is giving them time. The United Nations Security Council is not rushing to impose a ceasefire. The president of the United States and the prime minister of Great Britain sound as if Olmert has written their scripts.

Pro-western Arab rulers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have openly criticised Hizbollah's adventurism. The Arab media are ambivalent. Ahmed al-Jarallah, the editor of the Kuwait-based Arab Times, accused Iran and Syria of turning Lebanon and Palestine into battlegrounds at the expense of their own people. "They are fighting the international community, especially the United States, in Lebanon and Palestine", he commented on 16 July. "Nobody is benefiting from this conflict, except Tehran and Damascus, which are using this issue to solve their problems with the international community without any care for the blood that is being shed in Lebanon and Palestine."

In Israel, dissenting voices are starting to make themselves heard. Uri Avnery argued on the Gush Shalom website that it was foolish to expect that causing so much devastation would prompt the Lebanese population to compel their government to liquidate Hizbollah.

"Hizbollah is the authentic representative of the Shi'a community, which makes up 40% of the Lebanese population", he wrote on 18 July. "Together with the other Muslims, they are the majority in the country. The idea that the weakling Lebanese government – which in any case includes Hizbollah – would be able to liquidate the organisation is ludicrous."

"The Israeli government demands that the Lebanese army be deployed along the border. This reveals total ignorance. The Shi'a occupy important positions in the Lebanese army, and there is no chance at all that it would start a fratricidal war against them."

Yonatan Gefen, a popular songwriter, accused the politicians and the generals of having no strategy for ending the war. "Because it is completely clear", he wrote in the tabloid daily Ma'ariv on 19 July, "that in the end we are going to have to reach a political arrangement with a little help from the enlightened world, it seems to me that the sooner we declare a ceasefire and negotiations for the return of the captives and for pushing Hizbollah back from our northern border, the more human life we will save. That is something that, in my opinion, is a million times more important than restoring the Israel Defence Forces' power of deterrence and restoring our national pride."

As the war drags on, and if Israeli casualties mount and the army fails to deliver the desired victory, such criticism could yet move from the margins into the mainstream.

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