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Israeli left divided over Lebanon clashes

Facing tougher than expected battles with Hizbullah, Israeli doves protest plans for a wider war.

By Josh MitnickCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2006


The rift on Israel's left was on noisy display Thursday as some 200 demonstrators carrying Israeli flags chanted "Peace, yes. War, no" outside Israel's defense ministry to protest the cabinet's decision to widen the army's ground offensive against Hizbullah. After a month of silence, Thursday's protest reflects a small but growing criticism by left wing intellectuals and politicians of a war effort being led by one of their own.

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Israel's Security Cabinet approved Wednesday an expanded ground operation in south Lebanon, but has put it off to give the international community time to pursue diplomacy. Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that if American and French cease-fire efforts succeed, "We'll see the military operation as having created the diplomatic climate and a new situation.... If not, we'll use all of the tools."

But with the left-of-center Labor Party in the government and its dovish leader, Mr. Peretz, overseeing the war effort, the left's divisions seem likely to hinder the development of the kind of mass antiwar protests that took place during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

"People like me wanted to protest, but others said, '[Israel] needs to fight back,'" says Mossi Raz, a former secretary general of Peace Now, Israel's umbrella peace movement. "As long as the Labor Party is in the government, we won't see big protests. But I don't understand how the Labor Party can be at peace with itself."

The turmoil on the left over the war is explained in part by the fact that most here feel Israel has the right to respond militarily to the July 12 kidnapping of two soldiers in a Hizbullah cross-border attack.

But as the fighting enters its fifth week, the cabinet decision to push Hizbullah north of the Litani River has emboldened doves to begin openly questioning the war effort and warn of spiraling casualties on both sides.

"It's unthinkable even to the left that we would just sit and turn the other cheek," says Yael Dayan, a former Labor Party parliament member. "But [the government] is talking about acts of war that can't be successful, and can't be totally destructive to the Hizbullah."

The new call comes as Israelis are voicing disappointment that the quick, decisive military victory many expected has not materialized.

In a Tel Aviv University survey last week, some 79 percent of Israelis said they favor continuing the fighting. But the same poll found 34 percent said the government lacked clear goals in the conflict. The public sentiment reflects an abrupt shift from just a couple of months ago when Peretz joined Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to form a government that vowed to withdraw from most of the West Bank with or without a peace treaty.

"Amir Peretz is the real surprise of Israeli politics, and everybody believed him that he is a man of peace," says Tom Segev, an Israeli historian and journalist. "Maybe he is, but he is too weak. He started the wide-scale operations against the Palestinians and he led the army to this war in Lebanon."

Still, at a time when Israel's war casualties are increasing, voicing criticism of the government is politically risky. "When we bury the dead, it's very difficult for us to stand up and say. 'This bloodshed could have been avoided,' " says Mr. Dayan.

The Lebanon conflict blurred the lines of the debate between Israeli hawks and doves going back two decades. Instead of arguing over settlements in the Palestinian Territories, the current clashes have refocused the conflict around an internationally recognized border under attack from outside.

"We have a completely different situation which is being experienced by the left as liberating," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "It's a war that we didn't start, it's a war over an international border, and it's against Hizbullah."

In a front-page newspaper ad taken out this week, prominent left-wing literary laureates Amos Oz, David Grossman, and A.B. Yehoshua defended the government's initial military response, but said Israel now should agree to a cease-fire."It's difficult to explain that you're against Hizbullah and the war," says Mr. Segev. "It's too sophisticated a position to take."

But Labor parliamentarians such as Colette Avital seem to have taken up a similar position, arguing that Israel has a better chance of getting its kidnapped soldiers back, disarming Hizbullah, and demilitarizing southern Lebanon through a UN-brokered cease-fire rather than a broadened military operation. And yet Ms. Avital says the protests are unproductive.

"I don't think the time is now for demonstrations," she says. "Too many people are fighting now. There's a war going on and I don't wish to get involved in something that is going to be demoralizing."