Lebanon II: The Wider Picture


The ramifications of Israel’s second Lebanon War should be gauged against the background of the dramatic events that the region has undergone in the last three years: the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Hamas electoral victory, and changes in Israel’s political economy. These events, in turn, should be viewed against the political vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union. The vacuum has been filled in two very different ways: 1) by the neo-liberal conceptions of the global capitalist regime, and 2) by Islamic fundamentalism.

The Organization for Democratic Action (ODA-Da’am) opposed the war in Lebanon. We held the Israeli government responsible for it, despite the rash provocation by Hezbollah. We were guided, as always, by the interests of the working class, which was victimized on both sides of the border. Our position stood in contrast to the jingoism that prevailed in both Arab and Israeli societies.

ODA also has a firm position with regard to Islamic extremism. Historically, this brand of Islam established itself by fighting Communism in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Its later attacks on America confirmed how reckless it can be. The success it has had among the Muslim masses has been due to their abysmal poverty, as well as their subjection to regimes that have no regard for human rights.

Why the war broke out

In his first interview after the firing stopped, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that if he had known that Israel would respond with full-scale war on Lebanon, he wouldn’t have captured the soldiers. How could he have been so mistaken in his estimate of the international mood as well as internal Israeli politics?

One factor was Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Different sides explain this in different ways. Hezbollah presents the event as a historical victory over Israel, unprecedented in Arab history. Our own view is different. We hold that Israel decided to pull out of Lebanon because it wanted to deprive Syria of any pretext for remaining there. A tacit agreement, dating from 1976, had enabled Israel and Syria both to wield power on Lebanese soil. Israel’s withdrawal would remove all justification for the Syrian presence. Moreover,Hezbollah had come into being for the purpose of driving Israel out; success would deprive it of its reason for being. Hezbollah’s disappearance, in turn, would deprive Damascus of its major goad for pressuring Israel into negotiations over the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed victory of May 2000 did not pan out politically. A bourgeois capitalist leadership came to power in Lebanon. Composed of Christians and Sunni Muslims, it was headed by Rafik Hariri. This group understood the opportunities offered by Israel’s withdrawal, namely, the chance to get rid of the Syrians and Hezbollah too. In September 2004, urged on by Washington and Paris (with Israel in the wings), the UN Security Council did its part: it passed Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of all remaining foreign forces from Lebanon, the disbanding of all militias, the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south, and a free electoral process. The next month, Hariri resigned from government, creating a new party that would seek independence from Syria. In February 2005 he was assassinated.

The murder of Hariri backfired, provoking demonstrations and external pressures that forced Syria’s withdrawal in April. The Rafik Hariri Martyr List won 72 of the 128 available seats in the spring parliamentary elections.

If we take a longer view, we see that Israel’s withdrawal of May 2000 allowed the real debate in Lebanon to emerge. It broke the consensus within which Hezbollah had thrived. On one side, the bourgeoisie wanted to return to normality after decades of civil war and occupation. On the other stood Hezbollah, representing the south and the poor, determined to keep fighting Israel. The differences were of class (rich Beirut versus the poverty-stricken south), of ethnicity (Shiites versus Sunnis) and culture (the liberal style of the West versus the religious style of Iran).

Six years after the Israeli withdrawal, Hezbollah still lived in the flush of victory. Its attack of July 12, 2006, which resulted in the deaths of eight soldiers and the capture of two, was a typical example ofoverreaching, Middle East style. We have seen this kind of thing before. Recall Iraq in 1990. Its war with Iran had cost it dearly in lives, while draining it economically. After eking out his narrow, expensive victory, Saddam discovered that the other Arab states, especially those of the Gulf, had turned their backs on him. Yet hadn’t he fought for them too against Shiite fundamentalism? In frustration he invaded Kuwait, providing a pretext for the first Gulf War. Like Nasrallah in 2006, he failed to read the political map.

The region is replete with examples of overreaching. In Afghanistan the mujahidin beat the Soviets, which led to the mistake of attacking America more than a decade later. They were defeated there by a vengeful US President, who overreached, in turn, by invading Iraq. He toppled Saddam, but where is he now? Sinking, together with American influence, in the black Middle Eastern mud.

Or Hamas: by doing too well at the polls it lost the means to govern, and now there is threat of civil war. With victories like these, one wonders, who needs defeats? And so we return to Hezbollah, its putative victory over Israel in May 2000 and the consequent blindness in July 2006. It claims to have won the recent war, but there is something pathetic in the celebrations. This much is certain: no matter how well it fared on the battlefield, it lost in the halls of diplomacy. Despite Israel’s feeling of defeat at not having stopped the Katyushas or achieved a decisive victory, the fact is that before July 12, Hezbollah was firmly ensconced in south Lebanon, and today the Lebanese army has taken over there with a beefed-up UN force behind it.

Saddam’s fall and the Lebanon War

The American war on Iraq contributed to the outbreak of war in Lebanon, for the following reason. The ousting of Saddam Hussein crippled Iraq, which had been the only strong Arab regime and the sole bulwark against Iran. As a result, Iran became a regional power. Indeed, the Iranians had seen the opportunity coming. Despite their anti-American banter, they had taken care not to interfere with Bush’s invasion.

Iran aims to extend its influence over the Iraqi areas on its border, such as Najaf and Karbala, which have great religious importance to the Shiites. In addition, the Shiite parties have won control of Iraq’s parliament, reversing the situation under Saddam. This parliamentary inroad has added to Iran’s influence at the expense of the Arab countries that remain beneath Sunni domination.

In 2005, just after Lebanon’s anti-Syrian wing won power, an extremely dangerous turn occurred in Iran with the presidential victory of conservative hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The reasons were largely internal, having to do with a failing economy. Ahmadinejad made extremist speeches, channelling mass anger toward Israel and the US (despite the tacit cooperation with the latter in Iraq).

These changes in Iran are causing much discomfort among Arab regimes. Ever since the Khomeini revolution of 1979, Iran has been claiming a monopoly over political Islam. It pushed Nasrallah into confrontation not only with Israel but also with other Lebanese factions. Syria, for its part, is always ready to fire up the Lebanese situation and dangle Hezbollah as a bargaining chip before Israel’s face. There was no one, in short, to keep Hezbollah from making the mistake that has cost Lebanon so dear.

What does Israel want?

Israel too suffered from short-sightedness. In leaving Lebanon six years ago, it left the Syrian issue open. A treaty with Syria would have included, as part of the price for Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a clause eliminating Syrian support for Hezbollah. Instead Israel chose to keep the Golan and to focus on the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, Hezbollah was able to build its position in the south, amassing rockets and influence.

Israel was not in the least prepared for the recent war. Lebanon was not on its agenda. Its government, only two months old, was wrestling against a new consensus, which viewed the unilateral disengagement from Gaza as a mistake that had complicated the conflict.

That disengagement should be viewed within the broader context of America’s Iraq war. In 2003, at the height of the second Intifada, Israel adopted Washington’s view that Saddam’s fall would lead to a new Middle East. These hopes faded as US forces got mired in Iraq. Democratization proved unrealistic. The then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, decided on a change of course. He would disengage unilaterally, spiting his former right-wing allies.

Soon after the pullout from Gaza, however, it became clear that the new approach had failed. In thePalestinian parliamentary elections, which took place five months later, Hamas won a clear victory. Israel refused to cooperate with the new government. Supported by the international community, it imposed an economic blockade on the Palestinian Authority (as if Palestinians were not miserable enough). The PA, torn between the moderate approach of President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the hard-line approach of the Hamas government, lost control of the street. Suicide bombings were replaced by the firing of rockets on Israeli cities.

Throughout the summer, bloody street confrontations between Hamas and Fatah boded civil war. Seeking to avoid this, PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh joined President Abbas in signing the so-called Prisoners’ Document, which calls for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, reform of the PLO, creation of a national unity government, negotiations with Israel, and an end to attacks within Israel (but none to attacks within the Territories). The document was meant to make co-existence possible between the President, who wants negotiations with Israel, and the Hamas government, which wants to keep the right of resistance.

Hamas’s attack into Israel on June 25, 2006, which resulted in the deaths of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third, Gilad Shalit, delivered a mortal blow to the effort toward negotiations. The attack was ordered by Khaled Mashal, who heads the Hamas Political Section and is based in Damascus. Mashal opposes the moderate current represented by PM Haniyeh. He refuses all cooperation with Abbas and rejects concessions designed to remove the international economic blockade.

In the eyes of Israelis, the Hamas action crossed all red lines. After the withdrawal from Gaza, they thought, the Palestinians had no justification for attack. The Hamas action strengthened the shift in Israeli public opinion away from support for unilateral withdrawal.

It was against this background that Hezbollah attacked on July 12. Nasrallah wanted prisoners in order to gain the liberation of Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese guerilla jailed since 1979. Beyond that, he wanted to raise the prestige and the popularity of Hezbollah as a force for the liberation of Palestine. Coming on top of Hamas’s attack, the Hezbollah action was more than the Israeli regime could bear. Now that war had been thrust upon it, it set out to accomplish two basic objectives. One was to enhance deterrence; it displayed its air power before the Arab regimes, and they, we may assume, were deterred (as though they needed the demonstration!). The second objective was to improve the results of the withdrawal carried out in May 2000 by pushing Hezbollah northward, enabling the Lebanese army to deploy its forces in the south. In this too, we have seen, it succeeded.

Israel did not seek to conquer Lebanon. It sees Hezbollah as an internal Lebanese problem to be treated by the UN, and especially by the US and France. Where Iran is concerned, moreover, Israel understands its limits. It has concluded that this danger can only by met by Washington and the West.

An opening toward European involvement

Israel conducted the war by air attacks and diplomacy. Nasrallah, in his fervor, liked to boast that he needed no backing from the Arab states or the international community. By taking this position, he allowed Israel a free hand to exploit the international arena.

In its previous wars, Israel had looked with suspicion on all international involvement except America’s. This time, however, it saw other nations, and especially the European Union, as potential allies. It even received veiled support against the Shiite militia from major Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, from the Lebanese government under Fouad Siniora and from PA President Abbas.

One of the key tasks of the war, as Israel saw it, was to preserve this international support. The immediate goal was to push Hezbollah away from the border, but the longer-range one was to get a Security Council resolution that would strengthen the Lebanese government and enable it to take control of the south. Accordingly, Israel conducted the war in frequent consultation with Beirut, using Washington and Paris as go-betweens.

Israel and the Lebanese government were of one mind concerning the arrangement to be passed. The general lines were already established by the end of the war’s first week. However, neither Israel nor Hezbollahwas willing then to stop fighting. Hezbollah wanted to lure the Israeli infantry into the south, where it could give it a taste of hand-to-hand fighting on the home court. Israel, for its part, wanted to force Hezbollah out by air power alone. A cease-fire was also delayed because of pressure from Washington, which wanted to give Israel time for military achievements. The outcome was the lethal bombing of south Lebanon, whose inhabitants fled north, while Hezbollah rockets poured down on northern Israel, whose wealthier inhabitants fled south.

The delay brought only destruction and death. There was no change in the general lines of the earlier agreement. Hezbollah distorts the truth when it claims that diplomacy did not force it into concessions. UN Security Resolution 1701 is an intermediate solution that leaves Hezbollah armed but distances it from Israel.

Why did Israel change its position concerning European involvement? One factor is the weakening of America as a global and regional power. Overextended in Iraq, Washington today needs the Security Council in order to deal with the Iranian question. It is forced to cooperate with France in Lebanon. Secondly, Israel found itself fighting on two fronts simultaneously, the Palestinian and the Lebanese. This compelled it to moderate its position, allowing Europe a role.

The new opening toward Europe will carry a political price. Israel will have to give up unilateralism. ThePalestinian issue, as well as the Golan, will again appear on the negotiating table. Europe will push Israel toward concessions, although, at the moment, the government fears internal opposition.

A post-Zionist society

Zionist ideology has given way to post-Zionism, that is, the striving for a life of middle-class ease and security.

One sees this, above all, in the military. Israel’s Chief of Staff has always been selected with an eye to the front where the government expected its next confrontation. As long as Egypt was the main threat, it chose a commander from the southern front, an expert in tank warfare. In 1982, when the expected front shifted to Lebanon, it always chose a northern commander from the paratroopers.

The recent selection of Dan Halutz, commander of the air force, expressed a new vision of the future battlefield. Israel figured that its northern front would stay calm, thanks to its withdrawal from Lebanon and to Syria’s outdated army. The forecast was that we stand before a period of cold wars. All Israel needed, its leaders believed, was a powerful deterrent, to be supplied entirely by the air force.

The military budget reflected this position. The scope of neglect toward the ground troops became clear when newly mobilized reservists discovered that vital equipment was missing. A major part of the army’s budget had gone instead to the purchase of defensive systems based on new technologies, especially for the air force.

Another large chunk of the budget goes to pay the salaries of senior officers, especially those in administration or technology. At a time when the free market winks seductively at them, the state sees no choice but to compete by offering improved conditions for retirement, scholarship grants and hefty salaries. The cult of Mammon has replaced that of Zion.

The war exposed the reserves, the army’s backbone, in all their weakness. Erstwhile reserve officers are today the heroes of the new economics. They manage high-tech companies, restaurant chains and banks. They find it difficult to stop for war.

In the past, when labor was organized, the ordinary reservist had no difficulty in leaving his job to serve the state, which would compensate both him and his factory. Today the public companies are gone, replaced by multinationals. The wage earner can’t afford to miss a day, lest a replacement be found from another country. Israeli society is no longer suited to maintain a reserve army encompassing the whole population. We are far from the vision of its first leader, David Ben Gurion: a welfare state, founded on values of mutual cooperation, with a people’s army and a Jewish economy to guarantee Jewish independence.

The 1993 Oslo Agreement signaled a growing realization in Israel that the direct Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza impedes economic development. It isolates Israel from the world, while making it unsafe to live in. Israel’s existence cannot be secured by territorial conquests and military spending, but rather by economic and technological supremacy.

We may trace the beginning of this attitudinal shift to the economic restructuring that began in 1985, when the public sector (in the form of the government and the Histadrut) was supplanted by the free market. A few wealthy Israeli families became major factors in the economic and the political arenas. The new economics led to an ideological turnabout, reflected in the establishment of Kadima, the first political party to win election as a neonate.

Zionism had weathered all sorts of difficulties, thanks to a basic solidarity among Jewish Israelis. The economic restructuring put an end to this solidarity. It also put an end to the notion of equality among Jews, whose tangible expression had been military service. Equality had amounted to a social contract, guaranteeing every Jewish citizen the right to employment, health insurance, housing, education and a pension in old age. The notion fell victim to the free market. The Jewish citizen became, on average, poorer, with less education for her children, dwindling health services and no clear rights. In a word, Israeli society has split into classes. Post-Zionist Israel no longer serves its Jewish population as a whole, rather only its well-to-do.

The Israeli middle class has merged into the free market. This class is centered in Tel Aviv, remote from the poor of the Negev or Galilee, who have become as invisible as Arabs. It is reluctant to send its children to war. Increasing numbers avoid the army. There is no longer a stigma in not having served. They will go on to college and cushy jobs, joining their parents in the upper crust. This change of commitment is apparent when we look at battlefield losses. In the first Lebanon War (1982), half the fatalities were secular Ashkenazis (Jews of European descent). In the war of 2006, their proportion dwindled to a quarter, while that of Mizrahis (Jews of Middle Eastern and African descent), Soviet immigrants and Ethiopian immigrants rose. (Haaretz August 27.)

The bourgeoisie do not feel obligated to invest in Israel. Generous tax breaks on their behalf have led to a drastic reduction in service and welfare budgets. Large public companies have been sold to foreign capitalists with no connection to Zionism. The moment profits lag, they won’t hesitate to go elsewhere.

The ruling families take part in the leakage of capital. Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and especially the US have become major venues for their investments. Israel is home to these families still, but their financial home is the global market.

The social division was exposed in all its brutality during the recent war, when the poor of Galilee were abandoned to their fate.

Post-war Israel

Israel suffers not only from socio-economic gaps but also from a deep political rift. There is the extreme right wing represented by the settlers. There are poor Mizrahi Jews who accept the fundamentalist line of Shas. There are Soviet immigrants who take a right-wing secular line, represented by Avigdor Lieberman. Over against these stand the Arabs, isolated and marginalized, most of whom rooted for Hezbollah in the war. The Israeli middle class, whose vote decides elections, shifts its support between Likud and Labor, though sometimes veering toward a new offshoot like Shinui or lately Kadima.

Given such division, it is hard for any government to survive full term. If the Knesset has not been dissolved and new elections called, this is only because there is no real alternative to the present coalition. In the wake of the war, indeed, a movement has arisen demanding the government’s resignation. It draws its members from the Right and the Left, but for this very reason it can offer no alternative. The movement accepts the consensus that the war was justified but protests against the way it was conducted. Nothing is said about the government’s neglect of the home front. Rather, this is a movement of the Disappointed, who wanted to see Israel destroy Hezbollah.

The middle class, on whom the government depends, suffered no real damage from the war. The Israeli economy continued to grind on as before, and the Tel Aviv stock market continued to rise. In the war’s first days, even while rockets rained down on Galilee, Israeli projects were sold to foreign investors for hundreds of millions.

The distinctive thing about Israel is its place between the developed West and the poor Islamic countries. Holland and France include contentious Muslim minorities, but a sea separates them from the Arab world. Israel, on the contrary, is in that world. It thrust itself in. It is the minority. Hence we find a great contradiction: here is a capitalist country, post-Zionist, adopting the American way of life with American values, but in the same breath it must support a huge army to defend itself from the poor among whom it lives. Intended as a safe haven, Israel has made itself the most dangerous place on earth for Jews. By the structural change in its economy, it has forfeited the social solidarity that once formed the basis of its security.

The chronic political crisis in Israel is created and fueled by two big gaps, and the current leadership has no idea how to span them. One is the internal gap between poor unorganized workers and the upper classes. The other is the external gap between Israel as a wealthy regional power and the impoverished, underdeveloped Arab world.

ODA condemned the Israeli aggression in the recent war, although we were not swept up in the general Arab admiration for Hezbollah. Our position has its source in a Marxist outlook. We ask, first of all, what relation does the war have to the worker? We judged that Israel’s unilateral policy, which seeks to preserve an upper hand both here and in Lebanon, enflames the region time and again. On the other hand, we understand that resistance movements like Hezbollah or Hamas will not change the balance of forces. By their extremism, they only bring destruction on their peoples.

We stand before a long campaign, which depends largely on the progress of the working class and its unions throughout the world. We are part of this class. We build our power by learning from its experience, but we are also affected by its weakness. The problems of unemployment and poverty, and the lack of minimal labor rights, are not just Israeli or Arab phenomena. They are international. That is why the political and social solutions to present problems must take shape on a global scale.

Our program is a socialist one. It depends on the power of the unions and the workers’ parties. It calls for a radical change in priorities as a precondition for building a progressive and democratic society, free from oppression.

CHALLENGE is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. This article first appeared in Challenge #100 and is reprinted with permission.

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