In the midst of madness, when Israeli leaders have become bereft of strategic sense and obtuse to the suffering of their own and the Lebanese people, all I can say is thank God for news sources like Haaretz which allow sane Israeli analysts to speak out against the utter futility of current Israeli policy. A high-ranking former Israeli general swims upstream against the prevailing bellicosity of Israeli military and political discourse, saying it’s imperative to talk to Syria and to do it now:
Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Sagi…headed the IDF Intelligence Corps for four years (1991-1995) and was also the OC of the Southern Command and the OC of the Ground Forces Command, is not overly enthusiastic about the political leadership’s “determination,” is not urging the military “to get rid of Nasrallah” and is also not excited by the Israeli public’s “power of endurance.” He points out the limits of force, time and tolerance. At a time when Yossi Beilin, Meretz leader, is suggesting abducting Syrians, Sagi, the retired senior officer, actually prefers talking to the Syrians.
“Whoever says that we have all the time in the world at our disposal, is not telling the truth to himself and to Israel’s citizens. How long will be able to continue in this situation?” Sagi asks, concluding that sooner or later we will have to start talking, and sooner is best. “The air force’s actions are important, but not enough to eliminate all of Hezbollah’s infrastructure. To do that, would require a land operation, to which I strongly object.
“Hezbollah is patient. They are racking up achievements, such as a strike on a large city such as Haifa and the continuing paralysis of a fifth of Israel’s population. The more time goes by, the greater the danger of more Kafr Kana-style debacles (an Israeli atrocity during its previous occupation of Lebanon), and in a few more days, the world will forget that it all began with a Hezbollah assault and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. What will remain in the collective consciousness is that Israel is attacking citizens of a neighboring country and perhaps brought about the downfall of the weak government there and caused chaos in Lebanon.”
Sagi understands what even George Bush and Condi Rice do not. That there is no military solution. That we cannot wave a magic wand at the situation, say ‘poof!’ and have it disappear. I’m amused when I hear Bush talk in that seemingly rational, though slightly daft ‘common sense’ way of his about who’s to blame for the current crisis (Syria) and how easy it would be (at least in Bush’s mind) for Syria to merely say “poof” and have Hezbolloh vanish into the woodwork. Bush is unbelievably dense about both the Mideast and about the corrosive effects of his own policy on our potential to engage regimes we’ve previously reviled (like Syria).
Sagi talks further about the limits of the military option:
“Today the decision-makers think they know everything,” he says. “They live in the illusion that Israel can continue attacking as much as it wants, and that nothing will happen in the world. We are approaching the point of fully utilizing military might.” Sagi is furious about Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s remarks on the need to “extract a price” from Hezbollah. He suggests that whoever wants to extract a price be aware that such a policy will also extract a price from Israel. Halutz’s call to “force” the government of Lebanon to “impose its sovereignty all the way to the border” also seems to him a little delusional, so long as such a move does not have political and moral support from the international community and from Arab countries, first and foremost among them Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as willingness on the part of Syria not to disturb the process.
He warns his former colleagues not to revel in the supposed glory of the IDF as a military deterrent:
We are strong in the conceit that we surprised Hezbollah with the intensity of our response. In effect, we were just as surprised, by the abduction of the soldiers and the missile that hit the navy missile boat and the intensity of the enemy’s fire and the range of its missiles.”
Sagi is surprisingly keen on the notion that Syria is not only the key to resolving much of the Israeli-Arab conflict, but that Israel has had opportunities to do so which it failed to grasp:
Sagi, who headed the Israeli team negotiating with Syria and spent hundreds of hours talking to key Syrian figures, defines the break with Syria [a failed 2000 negotiation] as “a fatal error.”
According to him, Israel is blindly following the Americans, who think that because there has been a decline in Syria’s importance, it can be totally ignored.
“I told Dan Kurtzer (the previous U.S. ambassador), that hatred is not a policy. His answer was ‘so go ahead and talk to them and we won’t object.'” Unfortunately, since the negotiations were stopped during the Barak government’s tenure, Israel has not seen fit to establish a channel for dialogue with Damascus and lost the most important leverage it had with the Lebanese government.
Does this remind you of the bind facing another major international power in its own peculiar relationship with Syria? Bush forgets that if you call out an Arab leader and burn all your bridges to him, then you can’t recross the bridge if you ever need that leader in the future. That’s what diplomacy is for–to tell you how to act carefully and judiciously so that you don’t make those types of mistakes. But Bush clearly reviles diplomacy of that sort. So let him pay the price by having next to no influence right now when he could use some.
“Israel was insulted and is using military force in Lebanon, and that’s important and perhaps even necessary,” continues Sagi, “but without a new arrangement in Lebanon the benefits of this operation will go down the drain. Everyone understands that the only ones capable of changing the order are Syria and Iran, or a determined international equivalent. Lebanon will not be able to do it alone.”
Sagi believes that six years ago, Israel missed a rare opportunity to sign a peace treaty with Syria under Hafez Assad. “The United States did not stand by its word to Assad and Barak got cold feet at the last minute.” He wants to believe that the day is not far off when the younger Assad will finish the job and even surpass his father. He is convinced that the key to Israel’s long-term security problems lies with Syria: the options of neutralizing the actual Syrian threat, a road to an arrangement with Lebanon and even opening a window through it to Iran are all in Syria. He notes that the Iranians in 1991 gave Syria a green light to join the Madrid Conference and promised not to disrupt the negotiations with Barak.
I’m both amazed and heartened that Sagi can remain so hopeful despite the absolute mess we now face in Lebanon. But will Israel’s policy planners ever absorb his wisdom enough to open a new channel to Damascus? Given the clueless and harsh words emanating both from Washington and Jerusalem about Syria one would be right to remain cautious that anything positive can be learned along those lines.
Vipal Prem says
In these dark days (or maybe it’s more appropriate to say “darker” days), it’s comforting to know that I can visit Tikun Olam and get a dose of sane insight on the very complex issues driving the conflict in the Middle East. It is so disheartening to read and hear the ignorant and hateful comments coming from most Americans who are speaking up on these issues. While some may find it laudable that so many in this country support Israel’s actions whole-heartedly, the energy behind so much of this support seems racist, spiteful–almost sadistic, as if John Bolton’s comment about no moral equivalency exists between Lebanese civilian deaths and terror-deaths inside Israel were actually true. It’s the perfect illustration of what so many Muslims around the world believe–that their lives, their blood, their misery doesn’t have anywhere near the same value as that of so-called “Christians” or their Jewish brethren. If more Americans could step outside their selfish lives for two seconds and feel a little empathy for “the other,” whether they are living in Beirut, Gaza, or Fallujah, perhaps they would be a little less sanguine about the civilian innocents killed in these places, all in the name of the so-called “war on terror.” As it is now, aside from some bloodthirsty cheering from the sidelines about “kicking some Arab ass,” most Americans don’t much care about that part of the world until it hits them in the pocket-book when filling up. If more people were better informed, they may continue their strong support of Israel, but would do so with a greater dose of humanity and empathy. I think Tikun Olam, and your proposed Middle East Peace Blog Aggregator site go a long way towards furthering this possibility.
Richard Silverstein says
Thanks Vipal for yr support. And I can say is “amen” to everything you wrote above.
I am an American and I don’t think that I know much about this horrible conflict but I do know that my gut is telling me that what Israel is doing is wrong. I am so angry and embarrassed by our President Bush that I can hardly stand it and the fact that we don’t demand a cease fire is absolutely wrong. I heard one talking head from Washington say today, “how do you demand a cease fire from a terrorist? I wonder which side he was speaking of. Both sides seem hateful. Lebanon seems to have more of a reason to be angry in my judgment, however.