Monday, July 16, 2007

A Stupid War

by Uri Avnery

A DETECTIVE trying to solve a crime always asks "cui bono?" (who would profit?) When we try to solve the crime called the Second Lebanon War, this question must head the list.

The day before yesterday, a full year after the war, the Israeli media devoted most of their time to the retrospective analysis of the war. Hour after hour of television time, page after page of print.

When the war broke out, all the media rooted for Olmert. Except for a few lone voices, the media performed like a group of prancing cheerleaders at an American football game. The anti-war demonstrations were hidden away. No wonder, therefore, that this week, too, the anti-war protest was completely ignored, and all the criticism in the media came from the right.

Dozens of penetrating questions: Why was the decision taken in haste? Why wasn't the army ready? Why wasn't the rear prepared for war? But one issue was not considered: why was there a war at all?

QUESTION NO. 1: Who stood to profit?

In order to understand why the war broke out, the question is not who profited from it in practice. The decisive question is: who would have profited from the enterprise if it had succeeded as planned?

The one who stood to gain the most was the President of the United States. George Bush was already stuck in the Iraqi quagmire. He desperately needed a success in the Middle East.

The Israeli army was to break Hizbullah, a supposed proxy of the Axis of Evil, and allow the pro-American client government of Fouad Siniora to take control of all of Lebanon. Since nobody doubted the huge superiority of the Israeli army over a small band of guerillas, that was to happen within days.

This scenario included a second chapter: the victorious Israeli army was to provoke the Syrian army, and after a short war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad should have collapsed. The Axis of Evil would have been smashed, American public opinion would have been convinced that the "vision" of President Bush had been realized, "Democracy" in the Middle East would have been triumphantly on the march, the Iraq fiasco would have become irrelevant.

The second one to profit would have been Ehud Olmert. The Prime Minister, who by sheer accident had taken over from Ariel Sharon, and who until then had been a bit player, would have been recognized as an outstanding leader, statesman and strategist. Even the trade union hack, whom Olmert had put in charge of the military establishment, would have cashed in.

According to this scenario, the threat to the North of Israel would have been eliminated, the arsenal of rockets would have been destroyed, Hizbullah would have been wiped off the map, an alliance would have been formed between Jerusalem and America's clients in Beirut. And if Syria, too, had collapsed, an ideal situation would have been achieved. The entire threat to the North of Israel, which had worried the Israeli military strategists for decades - the crescent of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon - would have been neutralized. Olmert would have entered history as the man who had eliminated from the Bible the verse of Jeremiah (1, 14) "Out of the North an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land."

The indirect profiteers would have been the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and perhaps also Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians would have been left even more isolated in their fight than before.

Who pushed whom into the war? Did Bush push Olmert, or did Olmert push Bush? Years may pass before we shall know for sure - and it's really not so important.

QUESTION NO. 2: Who has profited in practice?

To everybody's amazement, the Israeli army failed in its task. Hizbullah was not broken, but stood its ground against a military machine that is rated the fifth strongest in the world. The longest war in the annals of Israel since 1949 ended in a draw. So who profited?

Not Israel. True, the Air Force destroyed a large part of Hizbullah's arsenal of long-range rockets, but the short-range rockets created havoc in the Israeli rear and revealed to the whole Arab world how exposed Israel is to this kind of weapon.

The two captured Israeli soldiers - who had provided the mendacious justification for the war - were not freed. True, an international force has been inserted as a buffer between Israel and Hizbullah, and that was then presented as a huge achievement. But before the war, the Israeli military adamantly opposed the installing of just such a force. The army feared the loss of its freedom of action against Hizbullah. Now the UN force defends Hizbullah against the Israeli army as much as it defends Israel against Hizbullah.

The United States, too, did not profit. According to reports leaked from Washington, the failure of the Israeli army infuriated Bush. He turned his wrath on Olmert. The Israeli military disappointed him. In the course of the war, Bush, with the generous (and loathsome) help of several governments, including Germany, had again and again prevented a cease-fire from coming into force, in order to give Israel a little more time to fulfill the task. It did not help.

Hizbullah also did not gain. True, its steadfast stand against the Israeli army is viewed by many as an act of heroism that restores the dignity of the entire Arab world. Hizbullah's losses are in the process of being made good. But Hassan Nasrallah, who radiates an extraordinary integrity, found it necessary to admit in public that he would not have carried out the initial incursion into Israeli territory if he had known what would follow. He apologized to the Lebanese public for giving Israel the pretext for the war that caused them so much death and destruction.

Hizbullah is first and foremost a part of the Lebanese scene. The main aim of Nasrallah is to ensure for Hizbullah - and himself - a dominant position in the political system of his country. His alliances with Syria and Iran are a consequence of this objective. The Shiite conspiracy and the terrorist Axis of Evil exist only in the fertile imagination of George W.

The war has not weakened the position of Hizbullah in Lebanon. That was underlined this week when the president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, invited Hizbullah to take part in an all-Lebanese conference in Paris. But it seems that the war did not strengthen Hizbullah either.

Has Iran gained? After the United States did it a favor and destroyed Iraq, which has served for centuries as a roadblock between Iran and the Arab Middle East, it now has a foothold both in Iraq and Lebanon. But this has its drawbacks, too: the situation is pushing its potential enemies, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, into preventive actions.

The conclusion: nobody has gained from this war, from all this death and destruction. By the latest count: in the 34 days of fighting, 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians were killed, and so were 1200 Lebanese civilians and fighters. 2250 Israelis and 4400 Lebanese were injured. 300 thousand Israelis and 1 million Lebanese fled their homes, 200 thousand Lebanese have not yet returned.

QUESTION NO. 3: Has Israel drawn any conclusions?

For a year now, everybody here has been busy with "drawing conclusions". From the Winograd Commission of Inquiry to the last reporter on TV. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e.

But this is make-believe. As a result of the conspiracy of silence concerning the basic questions of the war, it is quite impossible to deal with the roots of the problem.

Everybody is dealing, of course, with the rehabilitation of the army. Thank God, everything has changed. Instead of the winged Chief of Staff we now have a commander covered with dust, Gabi Ashkenazi. Every day on TV, we see the brigades training, soldiers crawling among thorns and tanks going through their paces. So the next time (and everybody takes it as self-evident that there will be a next time) the Israeli army will be ready.

Nobody points out the absurdity of this spectacle. The army was not ready for the last war, so it is training now with great determination - for the last war. The conclusions have been drawn from the lack of preparedness for the campaign that was, so everything is now ready for the campaign that was.

If there is anything that can be assumed with certainty about the next war, if there be one, it is that it will not be a repeat of the last. Rockets will play a much bigger role, and will travel much longer distances. The weapons will be more sophisticated. The battlefield will be different.

Much has been said about the inability of the elected government to stand up to the army command in discussion about life and death, starting a war and conducting the campaign. People take comfort in the fact that we now have an "experienced" minister of defense, Ehud Barak, a former army Chief of Staff, prime minister and defense minister. But the change of personalities does not necessarily bring about a change in the balance of powers: in the future, too, a bunch of politicians who happen to be members of the government will not dare to contradict the authoritative and determined view of the military leadership, which always, but always, produces a "professional" intelligence report to support it.

This phenomenon has accompanied Israel since its foundation. A strong leader, like David Ben-Gurion and perhaps Ariel Sharon, can - perhaps, perhaps - somewhat offset this imbalance. But the imbalance remains.

That is now finding its expression in the endless talk about "the next war", "war this summer", "a miscalculation that may bring about a war with Syria", "the inevitable attack on Iran's nuclear installations", and so on. It is the army that determines the public discourse. And as the former Chief Rabbi of France lamented this week in Jerusalem: "Peace has become a dirty word in Israel".

Almost every war is stupid. The last war was more stupid than most. The next war, if there be one, will be even stupider.