LONDON — This time Israel has surely gone too far.
Of course this small and courageous nation has a perfect right to defend itself against unprovoked attack, and to do so with the utmost vigor. Of course the murderous Hezbollah faction in southern Lebanon must be flushed out, as the leaders of Israel keep insisting, supported strongly by both U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.
Furthermore, it is impossible not to admire the endless resilience and determination of the Israeli people, who have carved out a modern and dynamic nation from the unpromising soil of the land — to which they believe fervently they have an ancient right — have made the desert bloom, and have seen off countless enemies with decisive ferocity.
But in deciding this time to respond to Hezbollah’s kidnappings and unending missile attacks not just by bombing and assaulting Hezbollah strongholds, but by treating the whole of Lebanon — its fragile government and its people — as the enemy that must be destroyed, the Israelis have made a dreadful error, an error so bad that this time it could lead to their own destruction.
Most of the Lebanese hate the Hezbollah organization as much as the Israelis. They have lived in agonizing fear of this monster within their own heartland, a would-be state within a state, longing to be rid out of it, trying patiently to woo away the more moderate elements and to build some sort of dialogue with its leaders. They have gone to the lengths of bringing Hezbollah figures into the Lebanese government as they have tried to build a new national unity after the happy ejection of their bullying neighbors, the Syrians, 18 months ago.
Even now, many Lebanese, as they shelter from Israeli bombs and struggle to find food and basic services amid the smashed infrastructure of their country, want to see Hezbollah finally destroyed. They reject the idea of any ceasefire that would leave Hezbollah leaders in place. They know that this would lead not just to Hezbollah’s survival, but to its triumph in finally devouring Lebanon and turning it into a fanatical Islamic satrapy of Iran and the Syrians.
Like a badly wounded individual with a smashed limb, the Lebanese are reluctantly ready to allow amputation to prevent the gangrene of Hezbollah from killing them.
Yet it is these brave people whom the Israelis have given themselves the green light to go ahead and pulverize. They seem to have become utterly blinded in their fury to the prospect of collapse by the struggling Lebanese government — the only other democracy in the region — and to the opening up of a lethal vacuum on their northern border.
Into that vacuum will flow first civil war, of the kind that paralyzed Lebanon back in the 1980s. Next will come Iranian and Syrian influence, and with military personnel, missiles, tanks and all the other instruments of renewed aggression following behind. A new extreme Islamic state will then emerge from the corpse of gentle Lebanon right on the Mediterranean shore.
Israel will then have succeeded in destroying a good neighbor and friend, and creating on its border an even deadlier force than the existing Hezbollah. And it will have done so unnecessarily. Another huge step will have been taken by the forces of Islam in achieving the declared and common objectives of al-Qaida, of the Iranian leaders, of the Hamas government in Palestine, and of countless other Arab fanatical groups — which is to drive “the West,” in which they include Israel, out of the Middle East forever.
What the Israelis ought to have done, when their soldiers were first kidnapped and the missiles first fell on their towns, was to befriend the Lebanese government and to work with it in every possible way — open and covert — to isolate and target the Hezbollah leaders in their hideouts. What the international community should have done is to have stopped wringing its hands and uttering platitudes about the slaughter of Lebanese women and children, while cheering the Israelis on.
Instead it should have backed Lebanese efforts to the full and insisted on the closest cooperation with Israel — and in due course with international forces as well if they can be found — in rooting out Hezbollah and establishing a thriving Lebanese state as a bulwark against Islamic fanaticism and a protective neighbor for Israel.
The American decision, while of course mouthing sympathy for all those, both Lebanese and Israeli, who have been murdered, to give open support to Israel, to approve its over-the-top strategy of virtual Lebanese annihilation, and to ship fresh weapons to Israel so that it can carry on bombing, is surely the final crashing misjudgment of Bush’s foreign policy. And Blair’s decision to go along with all this, including approval for America weapons-carrying cargo planes to be refueled at British airports, will surely hasten his own departure.
But for the rest of us — whether in Europe, in America or in Japan — who want Israel to survive, who want Lebanon to hold together, who want Palestine to emerge and prosper, and all the violent anti-Western factions to be contained (and in due course to turn on each other), the Mideast tragedy will continue to unfold, maybe slowly but now with new inevitability. No matter who appears to win out of the immediate violence, in fact extremism will have won and darker forces will come out on top. And for that we will all pay an even greater price.
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