A New Middle East

Ehud Olmert
Ehud Olmert; drawing by David Levine


On June 25, members of three militant Palestinian organizations, including the governing Hamas, attacked an Israeli military base, killing two soldiers and seizing a third. On July 12, militants from the Lebanese Hezbollah crossed into Israel, captured two soldiers, and killed three others. When Israeli troops pursued them into Lebanese territory, Hezbollah hit again, killing five more.

Israel reacted similarly in both instances. It rejected any negotiation or prisoner exchange and unleashed large-scale attacks designed to assert its military might, subdue the militant organizations, and erode their rocket-launching capacity. In one case it hoped to accelerate the collapse of Hamas’s government; in the other to force Hezbollah to disarm. At this writing, none of the abducted soldiers have been released. Hamas remains in power and Fatah, which Israelis hoped would replace it, remains in shambles.

The outlook is bleakest on the Lebanese front. Exceeding expectations—or fears—Hezbollah stood fast, firing a steady stream of rockets deep into Israel and forcing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to seek shelter or move south. A fragile truce is in place, but few in Israel consider it satisfactory; fewer still believe that its terms will be fully respected. Hezbollah has made clear that it will not disarm and no one can credibly contradict it. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who claimed that Hezbollah would be destroyed, defined victory in terms that ensured a loss. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, whose stated goal was to withstand the onslaught, characterized success in a way that ruled out defeat. A war waged to reassert Israel’s power of deterrence and to spoil Hezbollah’s image has significantly eroded the former while unintentionally improving the latter.

The political toll in Israel is equally heavy. Bitter recriminations and accusations over the conduct of the Lebanese campaign, its purpose, and its outcome came unusually early, even before the last shot was fired. With rockets having been launched from two regions from which Israel had withdrawn, Prime Minister Olmert’s plan to unilaterally disengage from parts of the West Bank is, to put it mildly, moribund. He has no alternative program to offer. Until now, he has ruled out negotiations with Syria over a peace deal and excluded a dialogue with Hamas unless the movement undergoes an improbable ideological conversion. There is plenty of dissatisfaction in the West Bank and Gaza, but the gamble of Israel and Western nations that cutting off funds for the Palestinian civil service and supplies for the hungry population would lead them to rebel and would force Hamas to change its ways has so far failed. In Lebanon, the best Israel can do is stand aside and hope that Lebanese politicians and public opinion will damage Hezbollah in ways the Jewish state’s military arsenal could not. A war Israel fought without a clearly defined purpose has left the country without any tangible achievement. The summer has not been good for Israel.


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