Ira Chernus  




You can see Lebanon from my sisterís backyard.She and her family and thousands of others in northern Israel live with a constant roar of gun fire -- mostly from Israeli cannons aiming to kill Lebanese, occasionally from a Hezbollah shell that might land on them.

But the real threat to Israel doesnít come from Lebanese rockets.The real threat comes from the Israelis themselves -- and the rest of the world -- forgetting how and why this war started.

It started in June when the elected leaders of Hamas clearly declared that they accept the existence of the Jewish state.As government officials who wanted to stay in power, they had to produce practical results. So they compromised, moderated their views, and forged a deal with their Fatah opponents to form a united government.

That alone would have been enough to scare hell out of the Israeli government. Israelís policies always aim, above all, to keep their enemies divided. Prime Minister Ehud Olmertís shaky fledgling regime would be especially frightened to see the Palestinians uniting in a peaceful political way.

It was worse for Olmert because the Hamas-Fatah accord gelled around a concrete peace proposal, implicitly accepting the permanent existence of a Jewish state. Polls said that a huge majority of the Palestinians supported the plan. Most of the world would have supported it, too.

But it would have called for Palestinian control over part of Jerusalem and over all the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. No Israeli government that even considered this Palestinian plan could survive politically. The Israeli public would rather have war than accept such a genuinely just peace.

To keep the enemy divided and maintain its slim hold on power, Olmertís government had to head off the prospect of peace talks at any cost. The simplest solution was war. A Hamas splinter group, bent on wrecking the peace plan of the Hamas moderates, gave the pretext by kidnapping an Israeli soldier. They wanted to swap him for Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails.Israeli journalists pointed out at the time that such swaps are rather routine.But political calculations took over, and the Israelis rejected negotiation in favor of war.

Israeli journalist Danny Rubenstein explained his governmentís view clearly: ďIt is best that the Palestinians remain extremists because then no one will ask the government of Israel to negotiate with them. How do we ensure that the Palestinians remain radical? We simply strike at them, over and over.Ē Thatís how, and why, it all started.

In early July, with the attack on Gaza bogged down, Israelis were getting annoyed and starting to criticize their government. Then Hezbollah came to Olmertís rescue by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.Again, a swap for Lebanese prisoners in Israel was expected. But the Israelis used it as an excuse to start another, even more popular, war.

For Israelís leaders, itís been win-win all the way around. Olmert, who has no military background, has boosted his approval ratings dramatically by looking and talking tough. Ditto his defense minister, Labor party leader Amir Peretz, another non-military man who had to earn his spurs.

The biggest winner may be Gen. Dan Halutz, the head of the Israeli military. Some Israeli commentators say heís really calling the shots, with the civilian leaders powerless to object even if they wanted to. The military has recovered much of its fading public lustre in the last couple of weeks. And in traditional Israeli fashion, the top general is said to have big political ambitions, too.

But Israelís warmakers are just giving their people what most of them want: a show of force that makes the Jewish state look tough. Israel is like a schoolyard bully who keeps the fight going to show the rest of the kids whoís in charge. As with all bullies, the show of brutality is meant to hide a deeper truth -- the fear and shame bred by centuries of oppression.

An explanation is helpful, to know why a war started. But itís not an excuse. There is no excuse for the slaughter being carried out in Lebanon and Gaza. And there is no excuse for a government that rejects peace, putting its own people at risk in a needless war, even if it wins more votes at the next election.

Of course, Israeli Jews arenít the only ones who use violence to feel proud of themselves. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is cashing in politically, too. By strutting his bravado, heís become the most popular leader in Lebanon. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who was ready last month to negotiate a de facto two-state solution, is also giving his voters what they want. Understandably outraged, many can no longer bear to hear talk of conciliation. So Haniyeh has muted his peace talk and eclipsed President Mahmoud Abbas, the voice of moderation that Israel once supported, who has now been silenced.

But that all suits the Israeli leaders fine. Theyíve got the political situation in both neighboring countries more divided -- hence paralyzed -- than ever before. Theyíve made sure that theyíll have no partner for peace. So theyíre free from the difficult task of making peace. This gives them more chance to control things, or so they believe. Even if itís just an illusion, itís one that satisfies an Israeli public ever eager for more chances to display Jewish power.

The bigger and more satisfying illusion is that Israel is merely responding to unprovoked Hamas and Hezbollah aggression. That lets Israelis feel innocent as well as powerful.Itís the same lethal brew that has always driven Israelís policy toward its neighbors.As long as that brew dominates Israelís public mind and mood, Israeli bombs will keep on killing in Lebanon and Gaza.

My heart goes out to all the victims, including my loved ones and their neighbors, though I recognize that Israel has inflicted far more suffering in the last week than itís received. My heart goes out especially to those few Israelis who suffer in a special way because they know that their government started this war for the best of political reasons -- to give their own people what they want.