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May 23, 2007

Sometimes the Dog
Wags the Tail


by Stephen Zunes

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.

The report 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 population centers.

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 the Israelis."

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 agenda.

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 observation 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 leadership.

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.

 

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  • Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

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