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Rockets falling in the sea at the Bat-Galin neighborhood in Haifa not far from one of the main Haifa hospitals near the shore. (Photo: Boaz Kigel) 

Special Dossier: War on Hezbollah.

Mea Culpa?
Is it "time for MJ to "close up shop"?

-- M. J. Rosenberg

Not surprisingly our office receives a great deal of e-mail about the current situation in Lebanon. Almost all are anguished about Israel's future. The shelling of Haifa is something few expected ever to see. 

They are angry that the country was attacked, unprovoked, by terrorists whose only grievance is that Israel exists at all. They are also pained by the loss of innocent lives on both sides and about the difficulty of seeing a clear way out of the nightmare. 

But a few are not so much anguished as triumphant. These are the people who always opposed the negotiating process and fear the outbreak of peace more than the outbreak of war. These are the people who did not celebrate the peace treaties with Egypt or Jordan and certainly not the Israeli-Palestinian agreement of 1993. And Ariel Sharon's Gaza pullout left them unhinged.

The following is the full, unedited text of an e-mail I received the other day that captures the mentality to which I refer. I don't think the author will mind me quoting his missive although I will omit his name:
"MJ, It is time for you to close down shop. 13 years of your peace process has produced an invasion from Hezbollah and bombs falling on Haifa. Israel now has to do everything in its power to end this menace. Don't you dare talk about innocent civilians. The only innocent civilians are in Israel. Peace with any of these people is a dangerous fantasy. There never was a peace process and there never will be. I await your mea culpa."
The most striking aspect of the e-mail is its tone. Innocent civilians on both sides are dying, along with brave young Israeli soldiers, and the writer is enjoying what he views as his hour of vindication. I don't know if he missed the footage of the IDF funerals or of the refugees fleeing Haifa and south Lebanon but he is clearly untouched.

He specifically mentions "innocent Lebanese civilians" but only to mock the idea that such people exist. Imagine. He believes that feeling pain over the deaths of innocent people (all too many children) who are guilty of nothing more than being caught in the crossfire is wrong.

This attitude is sickening. Human beings who can be sanguine about the death or maiming of infants are beyond the pale. I have no doubt that the IDF does try its best to avoid hitting innocents but I also have no doubt that there are many who wish they would not bother. For these people, "they" are all guilty. 

But I am more interested in my correspondent's larger point about the peace process because, unlike his seeming indifference to dead kids, this point is shared by many people.

It is that the unprovoked Hezbollah attack (and everything that has since ensued) was the result of the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" rather than by the failure of both sides to adhere to its terms and carry it to completion.

It's a strange argument particularly because the Oslo process had nothing at all to do with Lebanon. Nor was Prime Minister Barak's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon connected to Oslo. He left Lebanon not to appease the Palestinians but because the IDF had lost over a thousand men there. The cost of maintaining a presence in Lebanon was simply too high.

But, for argument's sake, let's follow my correspondent's point that somehow the peace process caused the current violence. (It was actually the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon after the 1982 invasion that triggered the creation of Hezbollah.) 

The peace process was not destined to fail and I think it would have succeeded if Yitzhak Rabin had not been assassinated. In 1997, President Bill Clinton told me that he believed that Yigal Amir was that rare assassin whose act of murder succeeded in achieving its goals. He said that neither Lincoln's nor Kennedy's murderers achieved the reversal of their respective policies.

According to Clinton, the murder of Rabin and the ascension of Binyamin Netanyahu dealt a terrible blow to the chances of achieving peace. He saw Rabin as the indispensable man, a thesis that was proven right when in 2000 Yasir Arafat walked away from a deal he might have found a way to accept if his "partner" still lived. But by then, almost five years after Rabin's death, both sides were ducking their commitments. Neither side had any trust in the other and, despite America's best efforts, the gaps between them could not be bridged.

But that does not mean the peace process was fatally flawed from the get-go any more than Israel's failure to achieve the goal of security in the past half dozen wars means that the war strategy was fatally flawed. No one ever throws up their hands to announce that "war just doesn't work" when a war fails to achieve its goals (as most do not). But when attempts at peacemaking fail, there is a rush to the exits. "That's it. Negotiations are pointless" is the refrain.

How ridiculous.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Al Smith, who was governor of New York in the 1920's. He said that "the only cure to the ills of democracy is more democracy."

The same is true of diplomacy.

It is in this context that the distinctions between Hezbollah and the Palestinians are significant. Diplomacy is the process of reconciling conflicting claims. It presumes that there is some justice on both sides and that skilled mediation can devise a solution acceptable to both.

That is the case with the Palestinians and Israel. The Palestinians have a legitimate claim to a contiguous state, a claim that the entire world --- including the United States and Israel --- recognizes. The Israelis have a legitimate claim to security, a right to an ironclad commitment that Palestinians will not utilize land Israel relinquishes as a staging ground for attacks on Israel proper.

The Hezbollah-Israeli conflict is strikingly different. Hezbollah has no legitimate claim against Israel. However, Israel's claim on Hezbollah is indeed legitimate. It wants nothing from Hezbollah except that it stop launching attacks against it. At this point we do not know if that goal will be achieved militarily or by some combination of military means and international involvement.

But one thing is certain. The Hezbollah situation does not weaken the case for negotiations with Palestinians. On the contrary, it strengthens it.

Israel's reluctance to fully engage Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations led almost directly to the electoral victory of Hamas. (Imagine, Ariel Sharon actually released Palestinian prisoners to Hezbollah rather than to Abbas, an act that strengthened Hezbollah as much as it weakened the Palestinian President). Failing to engage Abbas now and to help him form a working coalition from across the Palestinian spectrum could lead, almost surely will lead, to Hezbollah-like terrorists taking over the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas is bad enough; but there are worse out there simply because there are relative moderates within Hamas (the people who favor long-term ceasefires) while Hezbollah's policy toward Israel is eradication, pure and simple.

One Senate aide put it to me like this. "If I were Israeli, I'd cut a deal with the Palestinians now. I'd tell them that in return for the release of Shalit and an end of the Kassam attacks, Israel will stop attacking Gaza and start serious talks with Abbas about a long-term end of hostilities. That would cut the legs out from under Hezbollah. It would allow Israel to devote all its energy to eliminating the threat from the north. The last thing Israel needs is for Palestinian Sunnis and Lebanese Shiites to form a common front. It should split them before it happens and cut a deal now. The Egyptians are working to produce a Palestinian popular front that would deal with Israel. Israel needs to be encouraging that."

That makes sense. The world sympathizes with Israel's determination to eradicate Hezbollah. Even the Arab League has tempered its criticism of Israel. 

Why not exploit the moment? What harm would it do?

My e-mail correspondent demands that I apologize for supporting diplomatic efforts to end the conflict with the Palestinians. That is not going to happen. 

The reason is simple. The alternative to diplomacy is to permit the situation in the West Bank and Gaza to devolve into another south Lebanon. Anyone who accepts that as an option, or as somehow inevitable, is no friend of Israel?s, the Palestinians, or anyone else for that matter.

Reprinted courtesy of the Israel Policy Forum.

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