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James Zogby

James Zogby

Posted: July 21, 2006 09:59 PM

Willful Fantasies and Reality in Today's Mideast Conflict


Reading US, Israeli and Arab commentaries and analyses of the current conflicts raging in the Middle East is a disturbing exercise.

Israelis are reading off of the same script they wrote decades ago. In 1982, for example, they convinced themselves that by using overwhelming force they would, as General Eitan put it, once and for all "crush the head and break the fingers" of the Palestinian resistance and then turn establish a relationship with a pacified Lebanon. Their long and brutal assault on Lebanon, however, yielded a very different outcome.

After 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinian deaths and the massive destruction of Lebanon, up to and including West Beirut, the PLO was forced to leave the country. But the story was far from over.

The Lebanese President elected under the cloud of this war did sign a peace agreement with Israel. But then in rapid succession: this Lebanese President was assassinated; Lebanese militia, with the support of Israel, massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra & Shatila refugee camps; world-wide revulsion forced Israel to redeploy to the area of the south of Lebanon they had occupied since 1978; and the Lebanese civil war continued to rage for another 8 years.

There were other unintended consequences resulting from this 1982 "war to end terror". Palestinian resistance to Israel's occupation moved "inside" to the West Bank and Gaza where after 5 years it erupted in a full blown "Intifada." Bitter Lebanese hostility to Israel's invasion and occupation coalesced into a more lethal resistance, Hezbollah. And the US, which had given Israel the green light to invade Lebanon in the first place, and then provided military cover to facilitate Israel's redeployment south, now became a target of terror. Hundreds of Americans died in Hezbollah attacks at the US Embassy and marine barracks and several innocent US civilians were held as hostages for years (until they were freed as part of the Iran-Contra debacle).

Given this history, I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear Israelis describe their current campaign in Lebanon using the same language they used 24 years ago. It failed then, with tragic consequences. And, because it ignores stubborn realities, it will fail again.

Similarly, it is disturbing to read some Arab commentaries on the current crisis, coughing up old fanciful themes. Some make bizarre boasts of Hezbollah's strength and valor which, they claim, has exposed Israel's weaknesses. Hezbollah, we are told, has restored Arab honor and demonstrated that Israelis can be defeated.

But we've heard all this before, and to what end? It is, at best, bizarre, and at worst pathetic, to compare reckless adventurism with heroics. The overwhelming numbers of Lebanese and Palestinians killed and the massive destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure -- not to speak of the ruins left in Gaza and the West Bank -- should point to a different reality. There is no honor and there should be no pride or satisfaction in these outcomes.

Given Israel's asymmetrical power edge and its unrestrained use of that power, provocations only result in terrible losses of life and property.

The US political discourse is no better. Once again, pressure to uncritically support Israel has trumped right reason.

While some conservatives and Democrats have learned lessons from past Israeli-Arab conflicts and from the recent US experiences in Iraq, the Administration and most members of Congress have fallen in line, uttering banalities like, "Israel has a right to defend itself" (even, if that means killing hundreds of civilians and destroying Lebanon in the process), or "let Israel finish the job it started" (as if the deaths and devastation resulting from this war will have no consequences in Lebanon and the broader Middle East).

A symptom of this warped mind-set is the now widely-shared and dangerous notion that has equated calls for ceasefire with weakness. In a rare display of agreement, both the White House and the Washington Post promoted this view last week. In response to a question from Helen Thomas as to why the President opposed calls for a ceasefire, White House spokesperson Tony Snow rudely thanked Ms. Thomas for what he characterized as her "Hezbollah view." Likewise, the Post editorialized that call for a ceasefire would only "reward the aggressors."

In this environment, it has been difficult to promote reasoned discourse and promote political solutions. Calls from the Maronite Catholic Patriarch to end the hostilities, or Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora who challenged the West to express outrage over the damage being done to Lebanon and the Lebanese, have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

Even more tragic has been the total blackout of any news coming out of Gaza regarding the suffering of Palestinians now enduring their fifth week of Israeli assault.

As I have said before, no good will come of this. Absent international pressure to pursue a political solution within Lebanon and Palestine and between Lebanese, Palestinians, and Israelis, the devastation of the past month will, as in the aftermath of 1982, morph into a new and potentially more lethal extremism.

The prerequisite to beginning such a political process is, of course, a ceasefire. But with the US blocking such an effort, and still believing that good will come from Israel's "cleansing war," the tragic dance of death continues.