Israel and that ‘immediate cease-fire’: Bush and Blair are right, for once
Bush and Blair are right about Israel, Lebanon and the demands for an immediate cease-fire. There! I never thought I would start a piece with those words. But I'm afraid that all the humanitarian clamour for an instant end to the fighting is misconceived, however widespread in Europe and the bien-pensant British media.
The images of small children's limp bodies being dragged from the debris after an Israeli bomb or rocket attack, of parents' grief, of the suffering of the dreadfully badly maimed and wounded, are almost unbearable, and the natural instinctive reaction to them is to demand that this murderous activity be stopped at once. But even humane instinct isn't always a safe guide to policy, and reliance on it can be a kind of self-indulgence, especially on the part of those living in comfortable safety in the west. The Israeli response to constant low-grade aggression by Hezbollah and Hamas (and their Iranian and Syrian backers) may yet open up an opportunity for some kind of interim and provisional settlement that could reduce the level of violence, perhaps for months or even years, but only if the Israeli campaign is allowed time to build up sufficient pressure on Hezbollah to sue for a reasonably durable peace. An unconditional cease-fire forced on Israel now would save a few lives in the immediate future but at a cost of many more when a triumphant Hezbollah (and probably Hamas) resume their assaults on Israel within a few short days or weeks, with the prospect of an interim political settlement further away than ever.
Our media are full of vehement criticism of Israel's 'disproportionate' response to Hamas and Hezbollah aggression, with very little indication of what the critics would regard as a 'proportionate' response — still less of what such a 'proportionate' response could hope to achieve. Refusing to call for 'an immediate and unconditional cease-fire' is a bit like denouncing motherhood or apple pie, but in present circumstances it's the right and brave position to take. I sent the following dissenting comment to the author of one of the articles in today's newspapers (no prizes for guessing which and whom):
>>I'm unhappy, but not unduly surprised, to find that I disagree, sometimes profoundly, with almost everything in your article. That's worrying in view of the obvious reality that you are an expert and specialist in the area and I'm (thankfully) not. The difference between us goes right back to root cause and effect. Where you blame the current disaster on US-UK distraction by the 'war on terror' from pursuing the road map solution, I blame the fundamental irreconcilability of the opposing parties, one side bent on the total destruction of the state of Israel by force if necessary (and accepting that necessity), the other determined to survive as a state at whatever the cost in blood, treasure and international opprobrium. If there's to be a settlement by diplomacy rather than force, as we'd all want, one side or the other has to modify its position. For obvious reasons, Israel won't and indeed can't modify its commitment to its own survival: it could make concessions such as removing illegal settlements, releasing Palestinian prisoners, compromising over Jerusalem, etc., and would probably do so if it saw any hope that such concessions would lead to acceptance by its neighbours of its right to exist inside secure borders; but at the moment any such concessions would be gobbled up without any movement towards acceptance of Israel's right to exist at all. The inescapable logic of this, it seems to me, is that if there's to be any progress towards a political settlement both Hamas and Hezbollah will have to give up their current illegitimate objectives and terminate their attacks on Israel. Of this there's no sign that I'm aware of (apart from an indication of willingness to recognise Israel by one Hamas leader, not so far followed up, and probably anyway inoperable in the present conflict). What do we expect Israel to do in the face of constant attacks (on civilian as well as military targets) designed to force it off the map as a state entity? [
The Security Council has ordered the government of Lebanon in a mandatory Chapter VII resolution to disarm Hezbollah and prevent it from further attacking Israel.]* The Security Council has called in resolution 1559 for "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias" (clearly including Hezbollah). So far from complying, Lebanon has Hezbollah ministers in its Cabinet. UNIFIL is supposed to be keeping the warring sides apart but is apparently totally ineffective. Since the international community continues to fail to stop Lebanese and Palestinian (ie mainly Hezbollah and Hamas) aggression against Israel, Israel has little choice but to try to stop it itself.
I was initially inclined to condemn the Israeli response to the rocketings and kidnappings (or 'captures') of its soldiers as 'disproportionate' and unnecessarily brutal, but on mature reflection I doubt if that means anything very much. As an old friend of mine remarked in a recent e-mail, —
The question of proportionality is much over-blown as well in these latter days. I guess we did ask this question of ourselves, but considerably after 1945, above all with reference to Dresden. It seems to me the wrong question. In 1945 the aim was to bring an end to a war which we had not sought. The burning of Dresden did not contribute to that aim – predictably – and was at best a serious and tragic error of judgment. In Israel now, the commonly-agreed objective is to put an end to a long-continuing story of harassment, relatively low-level but cumulatively intolerable. To answer each rocket fired by Hezbollah with a rocket fired from Israel, or to reply to the kidnap of two soldiers by the kidnap of two “freedom fighters” (the proportionate response for sure) will not advance this objective. Hezbollah’s tactics can only be answered by “disproportionate” means.
That seems to me incontrovertible. The current military campaign by Israel is aimed at removing a real and immediate threat to its own existence as a state, by driving Hezbollah back from the border to a point where most of its rockets can't reach Israel and by destroying as much as possible of Hezbollah's rocket capacity. This is a war against a well armed and actively aggressive military force and it's no good throwing up our hands in fastidious horror when we see on our TV screens evidence that women and children are among its victims. Which side has the responsibility and motive for attacking the other? Which side desperately wants an end to violence and the ability to live in peace with its neighbours? Of course Israel is to blame for specific incidents involving horrific loss of life, as well as for its intransigence over settlements and other issues, but even these have their origins in the perceived need to defend itself. Of course we all want to see an end to the war. But can it really be maintained that stopping Israel from completing its current mission, ie to drive Hezbollah back and destroy its military capacity for further aggression, by imposing an "immediate ceasefire" which leaves Hezbollah free to resume its attacks whenever it feels ready to do so, is going to save more lives even in the medium term than allowing Israel to finish the job? Of course the Israeli action is 'inflaming Arab opinion' and outraging bien pensant opinion in much, but not all, of the western world, and Israel pays a heavy political price for that. But if it's the price that has to be paid for survival, who's to say that it's 'disproportionate'?
You don't have to buy George W. Bush's simple-minded stuff about good guys and bad guys and the war against the terrrrists to recognise that this is not a simple issue, and not necessarily or even probably one best resolved by knee-jerk demands for an instant cease-fire. For once Bush and Blair have a strong case on the immediate issue. If Hezbollah and Hamas and their Arab and Iranian backers can't be persuaded by international diplomacy to modify their aggressive war aims, perhaps the prospect (or reality) of a military hammering by the Israelis (if that's militarily and politically feasible) may be the only remaining way to convince them, however terrible the cost in civilian and other lives. As my friend pointed out, it was a cost that we accepted in 1939–45. And standing back wringing our hands while forcing Israel to give up its military response to patent aggression before it has been able to achieve its essentially desirable objectives may well prove even more costly in the end.
It's very odd, I think, the way that reasonably (or very) well informed and decent people of good will can have such radically divergent opinions about the same international crisis where there's little or no disagreement about the facts. It's just a pity that some of the knee-jerk 'immediate cease-fire' brigade — certainly not including yourself, I hasten to say — succumb to the temptation to impugn the motives and assail the moral character of those who take a different and perhaps more sophisticated view.
*I am grateful to a former colleague for pointing out to me that UNSCR 1559 was not in fact adopted under Chapter VII of the Charter and is therefore not legally mandatory, as noted by a former FCO Legal Adviser in a letter to The Times on 28 July 2006 when I was away overseas, or rather on them. Apologies for my original error.
PS: For a different and nuançé account of the situation, still on the whole critical of Israel but allowing for a different and tenable view, I recommend Ian Black's article in today's Guardian. Reading Black's analysis side by side with other, more fiercely partisan and sometimes shriller pieces is interesting and instructive."<<