Ira Chernus  





No one knows if the ceasefire in Lebanon will hold. It should be obvious to both Israel and Hezbollah that neither side can win. If the fighting starts again, Hezbollah would lose more fighters and more weapons. Israel would have to send its people back into the bomb shelters. But rational considerations may not rule the day.

Since I’m Jewish, and every Israeli bullet is fired in my name, I pay special attention to what the Israeli government does. Why might Israeli leaders choose to go another round in a self-destructive war?  To get at least part of the answer, let’s look at why they heated up the last round. Last week, as diplomats struggled to hammer out the ceasefire agreement, Israel’s cabinet debated about what to do if the diplomats failed. They decided that they’d launch a much bigger offensive in Lebanon. Here’s the story of how they reached that decision, as told by Akiva Eldar  and Aluf Benn, two leading journalists from Israel’s most prestigious newspaper, Ha’aretz.   

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz “will apparently meet, sooner or later, on opposing sides of the ballot box.” Both suffered plenty of criticism at home for the way they handled the war. “They both have the same fear of receiving a grade of ‘barely satisfactory’ on the final exam that has suddenly landed on their heads.” 

Peretz, who has never led troops in battle, needed to prove that he could map out and implement a winning war strategy. So he took the hard line, pushing the cabinet to approve the all-out assault. His predecessor as Defense Minister, Shaul Mofaz, warned that Peretz’s plan would require at least two months of fighting and maybe longer to achieve victory. Mofaz suggested a more modest plan: a quick deep ground assault to capture the Litani river. "You can get there in 48 hours and say we won,” he told the cabinet. That “would enable Israel to announce victory quickly and with minimal casualties.” 

A noisy debate broke about between Mofaz and Peretz, adding to the general confusion. “One of those present summed the situation up by saying, ‘everyone was involved in at least one quarrel.’" 

In the end, Olmert took charge. He did not like the Peretz plan. Nevertheless he supported it. He “made efforts to restore calm in the meeting and explained that since he must maintain authority and responsibility, he can only bring the defense establishment's proposal up to a vote.”  In other words Olmert, Israel’s first prime minister who was never a military officer, would not buck the powerful military establishment.  If he did, and Israel ended up looking like a loser to Hezbollah, his political career would be finished.

But Olmert also feared massive Israeli casualties in a long, drawn-out war that would probably end with no meaningful victory: “Confidants who have spoken with Olmert in the past few days received the impression that he is well aware of the danger that the situation on the ground on the day after a second unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon will be similar to the situation in the territories on the day after the first disengagement from the Gaza Strip.”  That outcome, too, would spell death for Olmert’s career. So what could he do?

“In the end, his salvation came from Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. Secretary of State called to inform the cabinet of expected progress in talks over a UN resolution. … And so the cabinet meeting ended in a rather predictable compromise: Approval of an outline of the operation in principle, while postponing its implementation to allow for development in the UN talks. Troops, however, will take up positions in preparation for the operation.”

It was not a compromise that pleased the cabinet: “’If everyone voted the way they spoke, there would be a majority opposing the [Peretz] proposal,’ one minister said. So why didn't anyone vote against the proposal? We were afraid, the minister explained, of showing the public and the Hezbollah that there are rifts within the government and cracks in its support for the IDF.” 

The cabinet ministers probably had their eye more on the Israeli public than on Hezbollah. The image of a divided cabinet might undermine public morale and support for the war. More importantly, it would undermine support for the coalition government. Voting against a wider war might cost these politicians votes in a country that heartily supported the IDF (the army) and its war. Akiva Elder concluded his analysis bluntly: “According to the latest Peace Index poll, the vast majority wants ‘victory’ -- no matter what the cost. Olmert from Kadima and Peretz from Labor have given them what they want.” 

In that poll (taken at the very end of July), 93% of Jewish Israelis said the war against Lebanon was justified. 87% assessed the Israeli army's combat capability as good or very good.  79% said they wanted Israel to go on fighting until its goals are reached -- even though only 56% thought their government had clearly defined war goals, and a majority said that they felt personally secure.

Politics drove Olmert and his cabinet  to approve a plan they didn’t like, one that would kill and endanger far more Israelis.  Foreign policymakers in every country keep an eye on the political fallout from their decisions. But most Israel-watchers agree that internal politics drives foreign policy in that country to an extraordinary degree. Henry Kissinger (who knew the Israelis well) once said that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy. Though that’s an exaggeration, the point behind it seems to be as valid as ever.

Now that Israel has clearly failed to get a victory, the political attack on the government is growing more fierce.  Leading the war party from the right is the still-popular former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. If Olmert and Peretz think they can stave off the attack by renewing the fighting, they might very well go to war and send their own people down into the bomb shelters again.

Of course the Israelis always check with Washington before they act. “Olmert did not shoot from the hip,” Eldar wrote. “Every word of his was not only well thought out, but also coordinated with the American administration.”  Analyzing the cabinet’s decision for wider war if there were no ceasefire, Aluf Benn concluded: “Israel is telling the UN ‘hold me back,’ in efforts to prevent itself from getting swept up in any one decision and hoping for the best.” Olmert counted on Condi Rice and John Bolton to make sure that the UN ceasefire resolution gave Israel enough advantage that he could claim some kind of Israeli victory.

His strategy tied Israeli politics to U.S. politics, too. If the Republicans stick to their “get-tough, kill all the terrorists” campaign stand, they’ll probably back another Israeli decision for war. But Karl Rove and his strategists are always watching the polls. If they decide that they need to temper their cowboy image with more diplomatic compromise, they may turn off the green light no matter what the Israeli leaders and their voters want.