Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to
resist pressure that he resign following the publication late last month of
the interim report by a special Israeli commission on Israel's war on Lebanon
last summer. Military chief Dan Halutz has already been forced to step down,
and Defense Minister Amir Peretz has announced he will also be resigning shortly.
from the Winograd commission concludes that "the decision to respond with
an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive,
and authorized military plan." In making the decision to go to war in Lebanon,
the Israeli government "did not consider the whole range of options, including
that of continuing the policy of 'containment.'"
Unlike previous Israeli commissions that critically examined alleged government
misdeeds and were appointed by the Israeli Supreme Court, the Winograd Commission
was appointed by the Olmert government itself. That makes its harsh criticism
all the more surprising. It is also indicative of how, despite years of military
occupations and war crimes against its neighbors by successive governments,
as well as the systemic discrimination against the country's Arab minority,
Israeli democracy is strong enough to allow for a rigorous investigation of
their leaders' decision to launch an unnecessary and self-defeating war. It's
more than can be said for the United States.
During the five weeks of fighting in July and August, 119 Israeli soldiers
and 43 Israeli civilians were killed. More than 1,100 Lebanese were killed,
the vast majority of whom were civilians.
The commission failed, however, to address the fact that the Israeli government
went well beyond what constituted legitimate self-defense in its response to
Hezbollah's provocative attack on an Israeli border outpost and kidnapping of
two Israeli soldiers by targeting major segments of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure
unrelated to the radical militia. The report also failed to directly address
the large-scale war crimes committed by Israeli forces in its attacks on civilian
Bush Administration Exerted Pressure
Nor did the commission directly address the reason
as to why Israel, in the words of the report, decided to "launch a military
campaign and deviate from the policy of containment." The answer in large
part lies in pressure exerted on Olmert by the Bush administration, which had
long been pushing the Israelis to launch a war on Lebanon to cripple Hezbollah,
the anti-American Shi'ite Islamist movement allied with Iran.
Seven weeks before the start of the war, in his May 23 summit with Olmert,
Bush strongly encouraged the Israeli prime minister to launch an attack on Lebanon
soon, offering full U.S. support for the massive military operation. Just three
days later, Israeli agents assassinated two Islamic militants in Sidon, leading
to a series of tit-for-tat assassinations and abductions which eventually led
to Hezbollah's July 12 seizure of two Israeli soldiers, which was then used
as the excuse for a war that had been planned for many months.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh quoted
a consultant with the U.S. Department of Defense soon after the outbreak of
the fighting as describing how the Bush administration "has been agitating
for some time to find a reason for a preemptive blow against Hezbollah."
He added, "It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have
someone else doing it."
A War Planned in Advance
Rather than a spontaneous reaction to Hezbollah's
July 12 attack on Israel's northern border, as depicted by the Bush administration
and congressional leaders of both parties, Israel and the United States had
been planning the war since at least 2004. Israeli officials had briefed U.S.
officials with details of the plans, including PowerPoint presentations, in
what the San
Francisco Chronicle described as "revealing detail."
Though the Winograd Commission report cited poor planning on logistics, political
science professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University was quoted as saying,
"Of all of Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel
was most prepared. In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately
after the Israeli withdrawal…." In addition, Hersh noted how "several
Israeli officials visited Washington, separately, 'to get a green light for
the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear,'"
soon getting the final approval from Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, and soon thereafter President George W. Bush.
Some reports indicated that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was less sanguine
about the proposed Israeli military offensive, believing that Israel should
focus less on bombing and more on ground operations, despite the dramatically
higher Israeli casualties that would result. Still, Hersh quotes a former senior
intelligence official as saying that Rumsfeld was "delighted that Israel
is our stalking horse."
As Ze'ev Schiff, dean of Israel's military correspondents put it, "Rice
is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz."
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz,
Martin Indyk – who served in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary
of state for near eastern affairs and U.S. ambassador to Israel – noted that
the United States had no leverage on Hezbollah except "through Israel's
use of force." As Ha'aretz
analyst Shmuel Rosner wrote during the fighting, "the way has been found
for Israel to recompense the administration for its supportive attitudes during
the six year of the Bush administration," illustrating "the regional
power's importance for the great power."
"America Is Fully Complicit"
As the fighting continued into its third week
and with civilian casualties mounting, international and domestic pressure increased
on Israel to stop the onslaught, but Rice flew to Israel to push the government
to continue prosecuting the war. As veteran Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put
it, "Rice was back and forth, dictating when to start, when to stop, what
to do, what not to do. America is fully complicit."
By the first week of August, domestic pressure was forcing the Israelis to
rethink continuing the war indefinitely. Fearing the Israelis might seek a cease-fire,
Bush reportedly told them, "You
can't stop now; you're acting for all of us." Israel indicated its
willingness to accept a 10,000-member NATO force in southern Lebanon as a condition
for a cease-fire, but the Bush administration was demanding that Hezbollah accept
a 30,000-member force or be defeated militarily first.
However, by the beginning of the second week of August, it was becoming apparent
to U.S. officials that Israelis were becoming increasingly resentful of their
role as an American proxy. While the worsening humanitarian crisis and international
outcry was not enough for the Bush administration to shift U.S. policy, a senior
administration official reported that "it increasingly seemed that Israel
would not be able to achieve a military victory, a reality that led the Americans
to get behind a cease-fire."
That the war on Lebanon was fought primarily as an effort to advance America's
hegemonic objectives in the Middle East rather than as a defense of Israel's
legitimate security interests is made more apparent by how damaging the war
was to Israel's political and strategic interests.
An Unnecessary War
In the years prior to Israel's July 12 air strikes
on Lebanese cities, which prompted Hezbollah's retaliatory rocket attacks on
Israeli cities, the militia had become less and less of a threat. No Israeli
civilian had been killed by Hezbollah for more than a decade (with the exception
of one accidental fatality in 2003 caused by a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile
fired at an Israeli plane illegally violating Lebanese airspace landing on the
Israeli side of the border), and there had been no Hezbollah attacks against
civilian targets since well before the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000.
Virtually all of Hezbollah's military actions between May 2000 and July 2006
had been against Israeli occupation forces in a disputed border region between
Lebanon and the Israel-occupied portion of southwestern Syria. Hezbollah's long-standing
policy had been that they would fire into Israel only in response to Israeli
attacks on their political leadership or on Lebanese civilians. When the Israeli
government, in preparation for the U.S.-backed assault on Lebanon, advised residents
in northern Israel to participate in a drill in May 2006, a number of communities
reported they could not locate the keys to the bomb shelters since they had
been out of use for so long.
Hezbollah was down to about 500 full-time fighters prior to the Israeli assault,
and a national dialogue was going on between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government
regarding disarmament. As the Winograd Commission report points out, Hezbollah
was not enough of a serious threat to Israel's security that it required such
a massive strike against it, much less against the civilian infrastructure of
Lebanon as a whole. Though Hezbollah had hardly renounced their extremist ideology,
major acts of terrorism were largely a thing of the past.
War Boosted Support for Hezbollah
The majority of Lebanese had opposed Hezbollah,
both its reactionary fundamentalist social agenda as well as its insistence
on maintaining an armed presence independent of the country's elected government.
Thanks to the U.S.-backed Israeli attacks on Lebanon's civilian infrastructure,
however, support for Hezbollah grew to more than 80 percent according to polls,
even within the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Within four months of
successfully countering the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah was in strong enough
a position to launch a civil rebellion to oust Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad
Siniora's moderate pro-Western government.
Even Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during Bush's first term and
a leading hawk, acknowledged by the third week of the conflict that "the
only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against
As Israelis began to recognize how deleterious the war was to Israel's legitimate
security interests, a growing awareness emerged of the American role in getting
them into that mess. Not long after the beginning of the war, reports began
to circulate how a growing number of Israeli leaders, including some top military
officials, were furious at Bush for pushing Olmert to war. This was also apparent
at the grassroots level. A Ha'aretz
article on an antiwar demonstration in Tel Aviv July 22 noted how "this
was a distinctly anti-American protest" that included "chants of 'We
will not die and kill in the service of the United States' and slogans condemning
President George W. Bush."
U.S. Congress Still Backing War
Though Israelis on the streets of Tel Aviv may
have been declaring their unwillingness to "die and kill in the service
of the United States," an overwhelming bipartisan majority of both houses
of Congress passed resolutions that offered unconditional support for Bush's
backing of the war on Lebanon. The Senate version passed on a voice vote, and
there were only eight dissenting votes in the House. The House version – co-sponsored
by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), whom the Democrats later named to chair the House
Foreign Relations Committee – went so far as to praise Israel for "minimizing
civilian loss," despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and
to claim that the attacks were "in
accordance with international law," despite an a broad consensus of
international legal opinion to the contrary.
A number of the otherwise liberal members of Congress who supported the July
20 House resolution responded to constituents' outrage at their vote by claiming
they were simply defending Israel's legitimate interests. In reality, however,
by supporting Bush administration's support for the massive Israeli attacks
and blocking international efforts to impose a cease-fire, these self-proclaimed
"friends of Israel" were in fact defending policies which cynically
use Israel to its detriment in order to advance the Bush administration's militarist
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) – now the front-runner for the 2008
presidential nomination – defended the role of the Jewish state as an American
proxy, praising Israel's efforts to "send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah,
to the Syrians, [and] to the Iranians," for their opposition to the United
States' and Israel's commitment to "life and freedom."
At that time, American journalist Robert Scheer made the far more reasonable
that "long after Bush is gone from office, Israel will be threatened by
a new generation of enemies whose political memory was decisively shaped by
these horrible images emerging from Lebanon. At that point, Israelis attempting
to make peace with those they must coexist with will recognize that with friends
such as Bush and his neoconservative mentors, they would not lack for enemies."
Overwhelming Bipartisan Support
Even Israelis who recognize the key role the Bush
administration had in goading Israel on to attack Lebanon correctly emphasize
that rightist elements within Israel had their own reasons independent from
Washington to pursue the conflict. And yet, while they certainly believe that
Israeli leaders who agreed to serve as American surrogates and prosecuted the
war so poorly should be held accountable for their actions, there is still enormous
bitterness that the Bush administration – with overwhelming bipartisan support
from Congress – was so willing to sacrifice Israeli lives and Israel's long-term
security interests to advance American imperial objectives.
Indeed, given the enormous dependence Israel has on the United States militarily,
economically, and diplomatically, this latest war on Lebanon could not have
taken place without a green light from Washington. President Jimmy Carter, for
example, was able to put a halt to Israel's 1978 invasion of Lebanon within
days and force Israel to withdraw from the south bank of the Litani River to
a narrow strip just north of the border. The strident condemnation of the former
Democratic president by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party chairman
Howard Dean, and other leading Democrats in recent months in response to Carter's
recent book in which he reiterates his strong support for Israel but criticizes
its occupation policies as contrary to the interests of peace and security is
indicative how far to the right the Democratic Party has come under its current
While the Lebanese people, their infrastructure, and their environment suffered
the most from this immoral and misguided U.S. policy, Israel was a victim as
well. Just as ruling elites of medieval Europe cynically used some members of
the Jewish community as moneylenders and tax-collectors in order to maintain
their power and set up this vulnerable minority as scapegoats, so the United
States is cynically using the world's only Jewish state to advance its hegemonic
agenda in the Middle East, thereby contributing to the disturbing rise of anti-Israel
and anti-Jewish sentiments in the Islamic world.
Despite the Winograd Commission's shortcomings, Israelis should be commended
for allowing a serious investigation into their government's actions. But Olmert
and other Israeli leaders did not act alone. Americans who profess to care about
Israel should also demand an independent investigation here in the United States
as well to examine why the Bush administration, with the support of such a broad
bipartisan majority of Congress, goaded Israel into waging an unnecessary war
that cost the lives of scores of its citizens and emboldened anti-Israel extremists
in Lebanon and beyond.