Michael Berenbaum: Painful Lessons

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Painful Lessons
by Michael Berenbaum

We are now four weeks into the war in Lebanon, five weeks into the crisis in Gaza and it is time to consider what we have learned—if anything.

For Jews on the left, a position where I comfortably situate myself politically and morally, this was a war that should not have happened. For a generation “Land for Peace? was our mantra. If the occupation had ended, if the concessions were deep enough, real enough and the conditions for a Palestinian State viable enough then peace would be forthcoming. Israel has ceded land, painfully and bravely; it was en route to ceding more land, not quickly enough and not boldly enough perhaps, but ceding land nevertheless and in return it received not “Land for Peace? but “Land for War? to borrow Dennis Ross’ apt phrase. Thus, one assumption of the left must be abandoned. There can be no simple equation of “land for peace.?

We could have been in the fifth year of an independent Palestinian State if Yasser Arafat had been willing to make a deal with Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak; instead we are we where we are.

The second illusion is the peace process. The wise editorial writers The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have been pressing the United States not to endanger, not to set back the peace process as if there were a peace process. Headlines on Sunday in both newspapers spoke of peace as if it were synonymous with the cessation of hostilities. No such process appears on the horizon; there is no light – at least not now – at the end of the tunnel.

Some problems cannot be solved, but they can be managed and the goal of all policy, especially US policy, should be management not resolution.

I have long believed that peace was illusory but that divorce was possible and divorce meant what it means in most cases: assets must be divided and the two cannot live in one home and cannot share the same bed. Disengagement or realignment is not for the sake of peace, but for the sake of separation, divorce so that each side can build its life independently of the other to the greatest extent possible. But both sides must consent to the divorce or an outside party must enforce it. Right now, it is indisputable that Hezbollah, Hamas and the Iranians want Israel destroyed, nothing less and perhaps quite more.

Israel was justified in responding to the attacks. It had withdrawn from Lebanon and it was attacked by Lebanon because Hezbollah did what it said it wanted to do and because the International Community did not due what it said it was going to do.

Thus, all the pious calls for a cease-fire are futile. No cease-fire can be achieved until conditions on the ground are such as to permit a cease-fire. Simply put, either Hezbollah is decisively defeated and its situation becomes dire, or Israel discovers that there is no victory to be had and tries for a face-saving formula because it has been unable to achieve its strategic and military goal and must seek a way out politically.

All calls for a cease-fire may end the bloodshed temporarily for a day or an hour but bloodshed will continue. AMCO once had an advertisement: “pay me now or pay me later.? Israeli soldiers, who did not die during the six years since the end of Lebanese occupation, will have to die now.

Critics have argued that Israel’s response is disproportionate as if proportionality is a virtue. Deterrence is a virtue if the other side fears death and makes rational calculations. When one side is sufficiently powerful, those who do not want to die will not attack. Many within Hezbollah may have been testing the new regime giving Ehud Olmert and Amir Perez their “baptism by fire? or they may have misjudged the Israel response.

The only proportion that counts, as Richard Cohen has so correctly noted “zero for zero:? No attacks, no need for response.

Israel’s response has been measured and therefore moral; otherwise you would have had tens of thousands dead and not hundreds; and southern Lebanon would have been leveled into one gigantic parking lot.

The extreme left has been disconcerting, ill-informed and unable to make simple distinctions. One talk radio host, Randi Rhodes, has spoken of “genocide;? there may have been others. She spoke without any idea of the meaning of the term or its codification in international law and by the Convention. One group has targeted the Jews, all the Jews whether soldiers or civilians, men, women and children. One dances when rockets fall and by any standard to legal and moral definition of genocide, it is the Hezbollah and the Iranian president who are threatening genocide, not the Israelis. Thankfully, they cannot impose it. But we should have learned a generation ago to trust threats more than promises.

Those who have been pressing for a cease-fire are myopic, the battle was enjoined, at best it might have been postponed for a time, but not for long.

Israel’s moral critics have not directed their anger at Hezbollah—who use the civilian population as a shield and taunts the Israelis for their morality, for their unwillingness to shed the blood of the women and children of Lebanon. I wonder what other powers would have been as restrained when rockets attack their civilians and threaten their cities.

I am old enough to remember the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States threatened nuclear conflict and imposed a blockade because of potential missiles 90 miles from our shore. No one questioned the morality of such a position.

But Israel’s military action is not beyond criticism on military if not moral terms.

The Air Force was ill-prepared to face this new type of enemy. It promised too much and it could not deliver. It was improperly equipped for this task. It took three weeks into the battle to have ground forces engaged and they are restrained by the knowledge that once genuine progress is made, pressures to halt that progress will be impossible to resist. And if Israel cannot prevail, it has to go back to the drawing board and learn to fight this type of war, which is the war of the future. It should have been prepared for this war; apparently it was not. And in the Middle East, appearances count.

However competent, Israeli intelligence—pinpoint bombing works only when Israeli intelligence is skilled and precise—must be faulted because it seems to have been surprised by the full arsenal of the Hezbollah. The military is to be faulted for not war gaming this scenario, which was predictable, especially after Iraq. Ariel Sharon is to blame because the situation in Lebanon was allowed to develop on his watch; perhaps more than any Israeli leader, he could not have engaged Lebanon because of the of his role in the 1982 War—so the situation festered.

But a government cannot respond to attacks purely in anger. It must have a strategy that is achievable militarily and politically. Israel’s strategy, political and military, appears improvised. It should have been otherwise.

Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago gave it the capacity to respond to the political dimensions of the war in a way that it would not have had, had it still been the occupying power. It strengthened Israel politically. The same is true in Gaza. And Israel’s avowed willingness for further disengagement prior to the current battle is the source of its national unity and of the support of Jews worldwide. This conflict has united, not divided, the Jewish people as at no time since 1982, at least for now.

Disengagement is dead, at least unilateral disengagement. But so too is the right’s dream of a greater Israel and domination of a hostile population. The demographic time bomb that made Israel’s center and center right favor disengagement to protect a Jewish democratic state remains. So a fourth way must be found, one not yet articulated.

If not conquest, if not withdrawal and if not disengagement and realignment, then what is the way forward?

To my friends on the right who have been telling me that we told you so, this too must be a disillusioning time. Israel is in this predicament because of American weakness, because the United States has been bogged down in Iraq in a war that was begun with faulty intelligence, pursued with inadequate planning and with an inadequate commitment of US troops or an inadequate sacrifice from the American people, fought for unrealizable goals and one that can now be characterized as a fiasco headed for disaster. It does not bode well for the confrontation that lies ahead with Iran, which has been the main beneficiary from the war in Iraq and the turmoil in Lebanon. And after five years of disengaged support from George W. Bush, Israel is less secure rather than more secure.

Israel lives in two worlds: a globalized world in which it has prospered, in which Warren Buffet invests $4 billion in its industries and Donald Trump builds his $300 million towers; and its local neighborhood, where the cost of doing business is that from time to time, you must demonstrate—for none to doubt—that you are willing to kill and willing to be killed to protect what is yours. That is more difficult for those who live in a culture that venerates life, that celebrates life and that abhors death. But such is the price for survival with neighbors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who teach their children to love death.

Would that it were otherwise.

The war against Israel is an ongoing war that will have moments of relative tranquility and moments of open, all out clashes. There is no resolution at this time to the Middle East War but it must be actively managed.

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