July 31, 2006

WHATEVER YOUR VIEWS on the relative justness of the Israeli and Palestinian/Arab causes, I think it’s becoming clear that for Israel, the Lebanese campaign has been a disaster.

Hizbullah is now unequivocally calling the shots in Lebanese domestic politics. Nasrallah is king. And after an attack like this, on a place like Qana that has such symbolism to the Lebanese people, it could hardly be otherwise. . . .

The attack has, in effect, blasted away Hizbullah’s domestic political constraints while tightening both the domestic and international ones on Israel. That may not be fair, but these are the conditions Israel has to fight under. It knew those rules going in, and ignored them at its peril.

Though Americans tend to lump them all into “Islamoterrorists”, Hizbullah, Hamas and Al Qaeda are in fact three very different organisations. My perception is that Israel was slowly gaining some traction in Europe (as well as a lot in America), by the perception that it was fighting Islamic terrorists who target civilians.

Unfortunately, in this conflict, Israel responded to a Hizbollah attack on a military target by killing huge numbers of Lebanese civilians. They may be collateral damage, rather than targets, but in the eyes of the world proportionality matters–you don’t nuke a neighbourhood to catch a shoplifter.

The massive response gave Hizbollah, which has restricted its attacks mostly (not entirely) to military targets in recent years, the cover to launch attacks on civilian neighbourhoods as “tit-for-tat”. I am not in any way justifying deliberately targeting civilians, but Israel’s stated aim of using violence to pressure the Lebanese people to reject Hizbollah has eroded the moral edge it normally enjoys over Hamas.

And whether or not Israel has a right to invade Lebanon (a question on which I doubt anyone is open to persuasion), it is hard to imagine a single goal that Israel has achieved by it. Stopping rockets from landing on Haifa? The rockets started after the invasion. Eroding Hizbollah’s power? Open confrontation has made Hizbollah a hero in the Arab world, and driven even Lebanese factions historically opposed to Hizbollah to supporting them. And the tragedy at Qana is being laid, rightly or wrongly, at Israel’s door, making it harder and harder for the US to maintain its support. Diminishing Syrian influence in Lebanon? Syrian power in the area is growing by the day as the fragile Lebanese government struggles to keep order.

This has led many of the journalists I know into elaborate conspiracy theories about what Israel “really” wanted to achieve. This strikes me as a sort of perverse variant of the Elders of Zion wingnuttery, as if the Israelis are so omnipowerful that any apparent difficulties are merely another chess move in their unstoppable plan to dominate the Middle East. Israel is ruled by a government, which is to say, an entity nearly perfectly engineered for generating mistakes. The parsimonious explanation for the quagmire situation in Lebanon is that the Israeli government was expecting very different results from the ones they got.

Update Michael Young thinks Hizbollah has overreached.