Monday, July 24, 2006

Bob Herbert: Israel's Friend

It’s too late now, but Israel could have used a friend in the early stages of its war with Hezbollah — a friend who could have tugged at its sleeve and said: “O.K. We understand. But enough.”
That friend should have been the United States.

It is not difficult to understand both Israel’s obligation to lash back at the unprovoked attacks of Hezbollah, and the longstanding rage and frustration that have led the Israelis to attempt to obliterate, once and for all, this unrelenting terrorist threat.

Israelis are always targets for terror — whether they are minding their own business in their homes, or shopping at the mall, or taking a bus to work, or celebrating the wedding of loved ones.

(A quick example from a seemingly endless list: An Israeli security guard prevented a Palestinian suicide bomber from entering a mall in the seaside town of Netanya last December. The bomber detonated his explosives anyway, killing himself, the guard and four others.)

But the unnecessary slaughter of innocents, whether by Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, American forces in Iraq or the Israeli defense forces, is always wrong, and should never be tolerated.

So civilized people cannot in good conscience stand by and silently watch as hundreds of innocents are killed and thousands more threatened by the spasm of destruction unleashed by Israel in Lebanon.

Going after Hezbollah is one thing. The murderous rocket attacks into Israel must be stopped. But the wanton killing of innocent civilians, including babies and children, who had no connection at all to Hezbollah is something else.

The United States should have whispered into Israel’s ear, the message being: “The carnage has to cease. We’ll find a better way.”

Instead, the Bush crowd nodded in acquiescence as Israel plowed headlong into a situation that can’t possibly end any other way than badly. Lebanon, which had been one of the few bright spots in the Middle East, is now a mess.

Even if Hezbollah is brought to its knees, the circumstances will ensure that there will be legions of newly radicalized young men anxious to take up arms and step into the vacuum.

(When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, its strongest resistance enemy was the Palestinian guerrilla group Fatah. When it withdrew 18 years later, it left behind a stronger, more extreme guerrilla movement in Hezbollah, a force that didn’t exist at the time of the invasion.)

Joseph Cirincione, an expert on national security matters (and a supporter of Israel) at the Center for American Progress in Washington, said last week:

“There is no question that Hezbollah provoked this current crisis, and that it was right for Israel to respond, even if that meant crossing the Lebanon border to strike back at those who had attacked it. But this operation has gone too far. It’s striking back at those who had nothing to do with Hezbollah.”

As a true friend of Israel, the task of the United States is to work as strenuously as possible to find real solutions to Israel’s security. The first step in that process, as far as the current crisis is concerned, would logically have been to try and broker a cease-fire.

But the compulsive muscle-flexers in the Bush crowd were contemptuous of that idea. Always hot for war, and astonishingly indifferent to its consequences, they egged Israel on.

That was not the behavior of a friend.

Neither Israel nor the United States can kill enough Muslims to win the struggle against terror. What Israel needs are stable, moderate governments in the region. (This is one of the reasons why it made no sense to cripple the Lebanese government.)

What the United States needs is as much serious diplomatic engagement on all fronts as possible, and an end to the Bush administration’s insane addiction to war — ever more war — as the answer to the world’s ills.

The U.S. especially needs to be deeply involved in the effort to establish peace between Israel and its neighbors.

There is no grand solution to the centuries-old problems of the Middle East. As with the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, you try to keep things as cool as possible, step by sometimes agonizing step.

It may not be pretty, and it will surely be frustrating. But if the conflict, however aggravating, can be kept cold, as opposed to hot, you’re ahead of the game.

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