Israelis See Little Apparent Gain From Invasion
ISRAELIS have the opportunity to remember two wars this weekend, and their preference is clear.
All over the country today, they will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a lightning display of military prowess on three fronts that sealed Israel's image as a valiant little David. (Arabs also remember 1967, Page 7.)
Swept under the carpet are memories of the Lebanon war, launched 10 years ago Saturday, which dragged into a costly three-year quagmire and brought disgrace to Israel over the massacre by their surrogates, the South Lebanon Army, of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
"People always prefer to remember victories rather than mistakes," says Zeev Chafets, a columnist for the Jerusalem Report magazine. "In Lebanon, what's to celebrate?"
As if to underscore the failure of the war - fought partly to secure Israel's northern border - this week began with more Israeli strikes against enemy targets in south Lebanon. Yesterday helicopter gunships attacked a suspected Palestinian base at a refugee camp in the region.
"We are in the same position as we had before the war," complains Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, chief of Israeli military intelligence in 1982. "We have no peace treaty with Lebanon, and we did not finish with terrorist activities on the border. We are still fighting the war 10 years later."
Not all Israelis would agree. Before the war, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) gunners posed a far greater threat to Israel's northern villages than Hizbullah forces do today, points out government spokesman Yossi Olmert, referring to the Iranian-backed fundamentalist militia. He says cross-border shelling has killed only one Israeli civilian in the past 10 years.
But the war's wider goals set by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon - to install a friendly president in Lebanon and sign a peace treaty - were never achieved. That failure has taught Israel lessons.
"The notion that Israel can play with the politics of a neighboring country in a controlled way was completely destroyed by the Lebanon war," says Dore Gold, a strategic analyst at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center.
Israel's assault on Lebanon was the country's first "war of choice," as Begin described it at the time. That stood in strong contrast with the fighting in 1967 and 1973, seen as desperate bids to stave off Israel's destruction as a state.
"Lebanon was not an existential threat," says Dr. Gold, and the decision to send in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) tore the country apart as never before over the use of an army conceived precisely as a defensive force.
Large protest demonstrations within weeks of the invasion of Lebanon soon involved even soldiers home on leave from the front, and Israelis were deeply divided over the goals, conduct, and duration of the war.
The invasion "did teach people here that you cannot go to war without a national consensus," says Mr. Chafets. "It made people more cautious about the virtues of war."
"It is clear that we cannot go to this kind of war again, with no direct connection to the defense of Israel proper," says Zeev Schiff, military editor of the Haaretz newspaper and coauthor of a history of the Lebanon war.
That lesson, he adds, was remembered in Israel last year. "I have no doubt that this was at the back of people's minds during the Gulf war," he says, although other factors also restrained Israel from striking at Iraq.
Yitzhak Galnoor, professor of politics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, agrees. "The fact that public opinion was very alert to the way the IDF would be used did influence the government not to go in" to the Gulf war, he says.
On the home front, the deaths of 657 Israeli soldiers during the Lebanon war - not far short of the United States' toll in Vietnam in proportional terms - only sharpened the questioning of Israel's political and military leadership that had begun after the near disaster of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
Internationally, "Israel's reputation took a tremendous battering that it hasn't really recovered from since," adds Harry Wall, the local director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, a major US Jewish organization. "Israel was seen as the oppressor, which has continued with the intifadah. This was a real reversal of imagery" from 1967.
On the ground, the PLO's expulsion from Lebanon was a heavy blow to its power, and Mr. Sharon - about the only public figure still to defend the war - claimed this week that his 1982 campaign contributed to the current Middle East peace process.
"It was only after the removal of the PLO from Beirut that they realized they did not have a military option," he argued.
His critics point out, however, that the war also led to increased Syrian dominance in Lebanon and fomented the hostility among Shiite Muslims in south Lebanon that produced Hizbullah, ensuring that the northern border is still insecure.
The recent upswing in violence there, including yesterday's helicopter raid against a radical Palestinian faction in Rashidiyeh refugee camp in response to last week's attack on troops inside the Israeli "security zone," is evidence of that insecurity.
But the lessons learned in 1982 also hedge Israel's response to the problem. "We understand better the limits of power," as a result of the Lebanon experience, says Mr. Schiff.
Chafets agrees: "It will be a long time here until a government decides to launch a war to solve a problem."