Learning From Israel

Not even a superpower can cure what ails.

By From the November 2002 issue

Feelings of déjà vu run strong here these days. Once again the experts can’t agree on whether Saddam has toys capable of hitting Israel. Nevertheless, the shelters and hospitals are being prepared and the gas masks have been given out. It reminds you of the last months of 1990 and the first two weeks of 1991, when the Americans and British were gathering their armies in case Saddam defied the UN and refused to quit Kuwait. He refused, the Allied bombing started, and a few hours later the Scuds were flying over this city and dropping on Tel Aviv.

There’s an interesting thing about wars, however: while they may seem to repeat themselves, in fact they never do, not exactly. Circumstances, actors, goals change—something intelligent politicians and generals never forget. Now is no exception. When George H.W. Bush waged the last Middle East war, his goal was to remove Saddam from Kuwait; whereas now if there’s a war—and most people here consider it inevitable—George W. Bush’ s goal will be to remove Saddam altogether. For this reason and others, it’s predictable that if war comes it won’t be a replay of the Gulf War—not for the world, not for the Middle East, and not for the Jewish state.

Everybody knows Bush the Younger has bigger plans than his father. So anybody with a long memory is reminded not just of 1991, but 1982. In that year, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and defense chief Ariel Sharon ordered the Israeli Defense Force all the way to Beirut. The circumstances were as follows: Lebanon, a nation-state invented after World War I and the deconstruction of the Ottoman empire, had kept a quiet border with the Zionists until the Palestine Liberation Organization showed up in the '70s. In no time, West Beirut and south Lebanon became Arafat’s Kingdom. It was an enterprise zone and rest stop for terrorists, sponsored by Arab regimes from Libya to Iraq, plus the Red Brigades, the Baader Meinhof Gang, the IRA. Known as the Arab world’s sole democracy, home of its sole halfway genuine university, its sole halfway genuine newspaper, Lebanon collapsed bloodily into enclaves of its various tribes; Maronite and other Christians, Sunni Moslems, Shi’ite Moslems, Druze. Every tribe organized a militia. Thanks to the PLO, it became a “failed state.”

Already in 1978, responding to a massacre in northern Israel by the Lebanon based PLO, the IDF had gone halfway to Beirut. When it left, the PLO returned. The UN had a presence called UNIFIL. It was useless. By 1981, the PLO’s Katyusha rockets had made a ghost town of Kiryat Shemona in the Galilee, forcing Begin and Sharon to agree to a U.S.-brokered ceasefire.

Rather than wait for Arafat to junk the deal when it suited him, Begin and Sharon did it themselves. The occasion was the June 1982 shooting of Israel’s ambassador in London by the Abu Nidal faction of the PLO. Abu Nidal, whose death was reported this year in Baghdad, was under the patronage of Saddam. But unlike 1978, this time Begin and especially Sharon didn’t intend stopping halfway. They meant to expel Arafat, destroy the PLO, and call into being a Lebanese government ready to sign a peace treaty. Lebanon was to be put back together, advantageously for Israel. While Begin spoke of “forty years of peace,” Sharon foresaw a “New Middle East” based on an alliance of minorities—the Jews, Maronite Christians, Iraqi Kurds.

From day one, things didn’t go as planned. Though most Lebanese greeted the invaders as liberators, Palestinians in the refugee camps on the way to Beirut fought back, delaying the IDF. And when the IDF reached the capital, the Maronite Phalange elected to let the Jews do the work, as the operation turned into an unforeseen siege lasting two months and doing Israel much PR damage. Arafat sailed away only when the “crazy” Sharon showed everybody he might destroy what years of civil war hadn’t yet destroyed of West Beirut.

With Arafat gone, and under the barrels of Israeli tanks, a quorum of Lebanon’s parliament chose the Maronite strongman Bashir Gemayel to be president. His term was short—a few weeks later, a bomb planted by Syrian agents killed him. From there it was mainly downhill and out of control. The Phalange took its revenge with a massacre in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, and the international media, blaming Israel, went from disapproval to absolute outrage. Ronald Reagan sent in the Marines to “keep the peace.”

What peace? The only Israeli goals achieved were removing Arafat from the game—temporarily—and seizing quantities of weapons. Otherwise, Lebanon proved a maze, a Pandora’s Box, a quagmire. Sharon had to resign; Begin, depressed, resigned voluntarily. Yet instead of giving Lebanon up as hopeless, instead of declaring victory and getting the IDF out, succeeding governments until Ehud Barak’s in 2000 let the army linger on the wrong side of the border.

A border which as a result became porous to Lebanese heroin. To this day, the grisliest drugs on sale in Tel Aviv come from Lebanon. There were other even more unfavorable results. Happy to see the Jews at first, Lebanon’s Shi’ites created Hizbollah, introducing the world to something new under the sun: the Islamic kamikaze. The killing of 241 U.S. Marines one Sunday morning in 1983 was followed by years of bleeding and diminishing the legendary IDF in the view of the Arab and Moslem worlds. It opened the gate to the first intifada, and in the mid-'90s to the era of civilians blown up by Sunni Palestinian martyrs in the streets, buses, restaurants, and discos of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.         

Hell is paved with good intentions, they say. It might have benefited everyone if Arafat had literally been taken out, instead of being sent packing to Tripoli and then Tunis. And it certainly would have been excellent if peace had been made with a newly peaceful Lebanon. But how naive it sounds! It’s a challenge in 2002 to think how doing nothing in 1982 would have led to a worse outcome. It’s also mistaken to imagine that if the Israeli left had backed the government to the hilt, things would have gone quite differently. Lebanon taught Israel that violently improving the neighborhood is beyond it. Rounding out the lesson, the Oslo” process” has taught Israelis that bestowing on the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization a statelet with half of Jerusalem as its capital won’t get them the peace they yearn for either. Shimon Peres had vowed Oslo would generate a “New Middle East.” Democracy, free trade, holiday weekends, and shopping in romantic, nearby places. In fact—and just as Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, and others warned—it has recreated West Beirut in the West Bank. The last twenty years have blown away many naive hopes.

All this unhappy history comes to mind now as the post-9/11 world debates what to do about Saddam.

“We shall be greeted, I think, in Baghdad and Basra with kites and boomboxes.”

That’s a quote from a man usually the opposite of naive. Fouad Ajami grew up a Shi’ite in Lebanon, close to the Israeli border, moved to the U.S., and became a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins. As a rule he writes knowledgeably, valuably, pessimistically. He’s known to be listened to in official Washington.  It’s reported that persons in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department nurse expectations and have plans as optimistic as his if not more. Some of these persons are thought to belong to the War Now party, some not.

For example, Richard Cheney, a highly intelligent man, has spoken of a “pluralistic, democratic Middle East” after Saddam’s removal. Others are reported to have blueprints for a post-war, long-term occupation of Iraq, with an American general supervising the country as Douglas MacArthur ruled Japan and the Allies did Germany following World War II. War crimes trials will be held. If the occupied Japanese and Germans were cured of their national sicknesses, if they were taught civilization and democracy, so—it is hoped and expected—will the people, or tribes, of Iraq. The further hope is that this will resonate in Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Iran, across not only the Middle East but the length and breadth of the whole, dangerously sick Arab and Moslem worlds.

Kites and boomboxes? No doubt when and if the Yanks materialize, some Iraqis will be delirious. But remember that most of the Lebanese were happy to see the Jews in 1982. The possible complications of a war and occupation are many:

• Soon after troops cross the border, much of the Iraqi army surrenders, as it did in the Gulf War. But some units fight, as the Palestinians fought and slowed the IDF in 1982. How will the U.S. military acquit itself in a war involving real combat? It hasn’t been in such a war since 1975 and hasn’t won one since 1945. And remember that the U.S. Army of 1941-45 wasn’t high-tech, wasn’t all volunteer, wasn’t co-educational.

• Instead of joining in, Iraq’s Kurds sit and watch the American liberators fight.

• A siege of Baghdad develops with units of the Republican Guard and ragtag, ad hoc Islamic factions armed by a desperate Saddam hunkering among civilians, as the PLO did in Beirut. Smart bombs hit residential complexes, with video of the results played instantly around the world on CNN and al-Jazeera.

• Under the noses of U.S. soldiers, Iraqis in liberated areas massacre other Iraqis, settling accounts for a generation of horrors. More uncontrollable media coverage. The U.S. is blamed. Huge demonstrations seventy-two hours later in Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco reminiscent of a monster demonstration in Tel Aviv over the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

•Saddam torches his oil fields, poisoning the air and water, as he did in Kuwait, and rocking the world’s energy markets.

• War, especially war in built-up areas, is confusion. In this confusion, quantities of anthrax, smallpox, nerve gas, and maybe uranium or plutonium, cached by Saddam here, there, and everywhere, go missing.

• Anthrax, smallpox, or nerve gas is dropped on American troops. Or Tel Aviv. The use of tactical nuclear weapons in response by the United States or Israel becomes dramatically less hypothetical.

• With or without the Israelis getting in, the Arab-Moslem “street” rises from Casablanca to Jakarta, while at home Ted Kennedy, Tom Hayden, Brent Scowcroft, Jesse Jackson, Robert Scheer, and Donahue come together with millions of ordinary, younger Americans under the banners, “We Told You So!” and “Stop the War!” And if the war is over in the hoped-for flash? The United States, after all, deploys incredible firepower and technology. But the post-war weeks, months, and years could be just as dicey:

• Saddam is taken alive. Defending him pro bono in a trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity—maybe in The Hague, maybe not—is Ramsey Clark, who subpoenas Bush the Elder to ask questions on how, in 1988, when he was U.S. vice president and Saddam was an American ally, the Kurds in Halabja were gassed.

• Once pounded into submission, the Japanese and Germans were ultra-docile and ready to learn. But these were genuine nations. Not the Lebanese, not the Iraqis. The French after World War I invented Lebanon from a piece of the Ottoman empire. Simultaneously, and from the same just-deceased empire, the British thought up Iraq, roping in Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Turkomans, Assyrian Christians, Jews. Nobody had very much in common with anybody.

Long before Saddam, the cement holding Iraq together was little more than fear of torture, hanging, shooting, disappearance. In a way, Saddam and Iraq were made for each other. Remove that fear, and what are you liable to get after the delirium wanes? A bloody collapse into tribal enclaves or statelets as in Lebanon is a definite possibility. This would greatly stress Iraq’s unnatural borders. NATO member Turkey, with its own restless Kurds, will be super-nervous about the Kurdish statelet. Iran will be interested in Iraq’s Shi’ites. Reeducating, civilizing, democratizing will have to take second place to navigating among the tribes and keeping the oil flowing.

• Post-war, the Americans find them selves having to play divide-and-rule. The old British imperial method of navigation worked under Queen Victoria, but can it work for the U.S. now? Divide-and-rule means favoring one tribe at the expense of another, then switching, then switching again. It didn’t work for the Israelis in Lebanon. Post-war, post-delirium, if not in a matter of weeks, then of months, American soldiers get targeted by suicide bombers from this or that disappointed, resentful Kurdish or Arab, Sunni or Shi’ite, Islamicist or secular group. What then?

• In 2004, with the U.S. caught in the alleyways of Baghdad and Basra, with al-Qaeda still in business and the economy not out of the woods, Al Gore wins the Democratic nomination and takes the White House.

So many and so grim are the possible complications during and after a war that you have to wonder, first, if the antiwar party in America isn’t right, and second, why there isn’t one in Israel.

Few Israelis doubt that a war is coming and ought to come. That’s to be expected from hawks and right-wingers. What surprises foreigners is that doves and left-wingers, too, generally see a war as inevitable, necessary, and just.

Rightists and leftists note that for Bush, the 11th of September was a defining moment. Having put Saddam atop his Axis of Evil, he has no choice except to remove him and the weapons he could use or give to others. UN inspectors? Decades of experience have taught all Israelis mistrust for the UN. Saddam’s weapons—the biological and chemical arms that he has, the nuclear ones he’s trying to get—are pointed at them. Of course, war is risky. But a war now is judged less risky than one tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or the day after Saddam test-fires a nuclear device. And if you think it ‘s wicked for Israelis to pray that the Americans move in their behalf, a right-winger will tell you that sooner or later the enemies of the Jews—Arafat, bin Laden, or Saddam—reveal themselves as enemies of mankind. See Halabja, 9/11, the Bali disco. 

Israeli leftists and doves feel uncomfortable identifying their country or themselves as Jewish. Yet gas masks or no gas masks, they’re also looking forward to a quick, effective invasion. Not that there’s unanimity—”two Jews, three opinions,” as the saying goes. There’s nothing resembling an antiwar party, however, a fact bemoaned by those who do oppose it. A glance at Ha’aretz tells the story.                                               

Ha’aretz is more or less the New York Times of Israel, the voice of the doves, evenhandedly blaming Sharon and Arafat for the wreckage of Oslo. Though it gives space to naysayers, overall Ha’aretz thinks the United States will and should attack Iraq. Listen to the paper’s defense writer, Reuven Pedatzur: Just because the Bush administration views the world “from the perspective of a cowboy…doesn’t mean it is wrong about everything.” It’s right about Saddam, who “truly constitutes a threat to the free world.”

Mostly implicit, sometimes explicit, is the hopeful belief that, after disposing of Saddam, the United States will twist the arm of the man Arafat made prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon. Father of the Lebanon venture, Sharon was unelectable before Arafat said “no” to Bill Clinton and Barak at Camp David and greenlighted Intifada II. Since being elected, and especially since a massacre of Israelis by a suicide bomber on Passover eve six months ago, Sharon has been doing what any prime minister would do: rip apart the Palestinian Authority and the gangs it harbors. Fight terror, but don’t hurt non-combatants, and keep open the door to compromise—that’s Ha’aretz’s line. Sharon, this thinking goes, won’t compromise, no matter what he says, and so the hope is that—like G. H. W. Bush, who twisted Yitzhak Shamir’s arm following the Gulf War, driving him from office—George W. Bush can do the same to “Arik.”

Hopeful thinking isn’t for everybody. Contributing to Ha’aretz is Shlomo Avineri, who may be tagged as a dove mugged by reality. A professor at Hebrew University, director-general of the Foreign Ministry when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, an early advocate of the PLO option, he was chastened by Arafat’s “no.” He’s despaired of a negotiated peace and, like Barak, wants a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and most of the West Bank.

Quite unconnected to that, he explained to your reporter that the world’s problem with Saddam is analogous to its problem with Hitler in 1936, when the German chancellor had trashed the Versailles Treaty by re-arming. The League of Nation—meaning France and England—could have legally prevented another world war by going to war, but didn’t. Saddam has been in violation of UN disarmament resolutions for years; the UN having failed to enforce them, it’s right for the U.S. to act. Of course, the full consequences of that cannot be known ahead of time. Will removing Saddam hasten the kicking upstairs of Arafat? “Yes, but no one taking his place will end the conflict,” says Avineri. Once Saddam is gone, will the U.S. pressurize Sharon? “Not necessarily, and if it does it won’t necessarily be good.” But he also says such questions aren’t vital: “For the world, the consequences of not removing Saddam were too great to live with before 9/11 and today are even greater.”

The professor may be right. If he is, then Israel’s ordeal in Lebanon shouldn’t keep the U.S. from going to war. 

Picture if you will the release of nerve gas at a Washington Wizards game or on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Or of smallpox in Berlin. Any such event—not hard to imagine after 9/11—really would tear the fabric of global order, the web of civilization. With the dead would go many of our civil liberties. Al-Qaeda has the ingenuity, patience, and nonchalance to bring it off. It just doesn’t have the gas. Honest people disagree on when Saddam is likeliest to give out chemicals and biologicals. Would it be as the UN dithers, as the UN inspects, or as the United States and Britain attack and he feels himself going under? It could be at anytime. Saddam is described by Western experts as a man of secular outlook, bin Laden as a God-fearing man, but on the Moslem “street”—including Saladin Street in East Jerusalem, named for the great anti-Crusader—the two are neck and neck in popularity. They exemplify different faces of the same collective illness.

On the all-important psychological level, however, it would be best if it didn’t come out of the blue, as a second 9/11. It would be best if it happened as Saddam was losing a war and going under. Yet another martyr.

A number of grim wartime and post-war scenarios have been presented. They’re inspired by the Israeli experience in Lebanon. But of course the analogy goes only so far. The Jewish state is tiny and the U.S. is—well, the U.S. is the U.S.What Israel can do is nothing like what the only superpower has the liberty and obligation to do, in preemptive self-defense and in defense of what Pedatzur of Ha’aretz calls “the free world.” With a blend of luck and intelligence, and a dash of the sort of “crazy” pitilessness which characterized the Americans who fought World War II, many complications and temptations should be avoidable. Including the temptation of remaking the Middle East. Who’s more naive—those who believe the UN can disarm Saddam, or those who expect a U.S. occupation of Iraq to usher in a “New Middle East”? From here, Jerusalem, it looks like a close call. A “New Middle East” is a bridge too far. Not even a superpower is going to cure what ails the Arab and Moslem worlds. The U.S. should go in, kill the Butcher of Baghdad, scour the land for weapons, stand godfather to a new government of one kind or another, and then with all deliberate speed, leave. Thus proving that it’s not only much, much bigger than its most faithful ally, but wiser.

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