Rejection of hubris has become the defining characteristic of the post-Lebanon war mood and debate in Israel. That is understandable. Israel’s civilians in the north faced a daily dosage of 200 missiles, while the military met a surprisingly well-equipped and trained guerrilla force. The mood has been best captured by the Israeli military’s outgoing commander for infantry and paratroops, Brigadier General Yossi Hyman, who publicly bemoaned that “we were guilty of the sin of arrogance.”
Although the circumstances in the United States are clearly different, a little introspection might benefit those Americans concerned and passionate about Israel. While the laudable United Jewish Communities-led effort to provide assistance to both Jewish and Arab communities in Israel addresses a real need and demonstrates the vitality of heartfelt ties, getting the response right when it come to political policy will prove far more difficult. Washington’s reflex to the war with Hezbollah was to stick to the same old narrative: the administration stayed in lock-step with Jerusalem, Congress overwhelmingly passed a ‘pro-Israel’ resolution, evangelical pastor John Hagee led our Christian ‘friends’ to Capitol Hill and only the usual suspects were left to snipe from the sidelines. Mission accomplished — except that the circumstances faced by Israel and the United States following the latest Lebanon war make the smug response anything but the smart response.
At least three trends visible during that long month demand a reflective, not reflexive, approach to its aftermath.
First, Israel has apparently not delivered the goods as expected by some of our more prominent self-styled friends. Disappointment with their under-performing cause celebre has been expressed by columnist Charles Krauthammer and his ilk. Israel, they seem to think, is there in order to unequivocally vanquish our shared foes, whatever the cost in Israeli blood and suffering, and righteous indignation poured forth at Israel’s timidity in not taking the fight to the Syrians and in crying off to the United Nations. Suddenly, it seems that for some Israel is to be worshipped only if it serves the greater god of neoconservative transformation.
Second, the ever-growing chorus critiquing the Iraq war and the administration’s Middle East policy could no longer pretend that Israel exists on another planet. This conflict was a rude reminder that Israel is, in fact, in the same region. Iraq-war skeptics from both parties — from Senators Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden, to past masters Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski — all offered Middle East policy prescriptions that factored in Israel.
Some, and I believe very mistakenly, have claimed an anti-Israel bias in various calls for re-invigorated peacemaking, but the message is clear: If regional policy needs a re-think, then Israel has got to be part of that story. Israelis should be part of that re-think, as should our allies. Third, the Bush administration at first avoided and then was unable to deliver the diplomatic agility that was called for, and that is bad news for Israel. The United States had no direct channels to or leverage with key actors, and could not commit troops to any cease-fire implementation force. Unilateralism has failed, both here and there.
The idea that current American policy advances Israeli security and national interests is thoroughly discredited — something that is now openly aired in the Israeli media, and raised, albeit in more discreet circles, by Israeli Cabinet ministers. Iran has been emboldened and regionally strengthened, the growing Israeli debate on possible dialogue with Syria is cut short by “Washington will say no” reminders, and the much-needed international encouragement for renewing a political process with the Palestinians to replace the unappealing options of unilateralism and stagnation lacks American leadership.
It may be awkward, even counter-intuitive, but Israelis and Americans who care about Israel need to find a way to spit out the words that those in the administration who can perhaps still be convinced need to hear: “You may indeed think you’re being terribly supportive of Israel, but, uh, actually it isn’t going so great. That clash of civilizations thing, well eventually your 130,000 troops will go home and we’ll be left carrying the can. What we really need is serious, unwavering diplomatic engagement, perhaps an envoy, and broaden the circle of folks you are talking too, ‘bad guys’ included. Maybe re-launch a peace process worthy of the name, even a regional Madrid-style conference — just try it.”
Just in case that does not work, a parallel effort must be put into building common approaches with internationalist Republicans and anti-war Democrats, with the aim of creating a shared agenda of stability building and conflict resolution in the Middle East. The threat of an anti-Israel populist and isolationist backlash may well exist, but so too does the opportunity to ally with the Iraq-war skeptics in navigating regional policy away from its dangerous and failed current trajectory.
Of course, there is always the no-think option: continuing the politics of intimidation, merrily counting the co-signatories on meaningless ‘pro-Israel’ congressional resolutions, and embracing the apocalyptic vision of a 100 Years War in the Middle East that so threatens Israel’s well-being. Israelis today do not have the luxury of indulging arrogant fantasies. Neither, I would suggest, do our American friends.
Daniel Levy, a joint senior fellow at the New America Foundation and The Century Foundation, served as an official negotiator at the Oslo II and Taba peace talks and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.