Something raw and elemental has been laid bare in the current Middle East crisis, exposing certain primal truths about our new world order that many of us might have preferred not to know.
As awkward as it might be for liberals to acknowledge, there is no comforting balance of competing rights in this battle, no “Yes, but” behind which to hide from engagement. Israel has been forced into a fight that pits simple right against wrong.
And yet, as frustrating as it will be to conservatives, this battle will not end in a clear triumph of right. There will inevitably be compromise. The balance of existing powers will not permit anything else. It is foolish to pretend otherwise.
This fight began when Israel was attacked on its southern border on June 25, without provocation and without a shred of justification. The attackers were armed gangs that are sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state and make no other pretense. On July 12, a second front was opened on Israel’s northern border, this time by an armed gang from a neighboring state that does not even have a semblance of a territorial dispute with Israel. Neither attack served any purpose except to humiliate Israel and destabilize the region. Three Israeli soldiers were taken captive, one in the south and two in the north.
From the first, the Israeli response was disproportionate to the stated goal of freeing the soldiers — not for lack of judgment, but because a broader response was necessary. In a systematic campaign of targeted bombings of military and civilian infrastructure, Israel sought to lay down markers of deterrence, to signal to its neighbors that assaults on its territory are intolerable.
As the fighting escalated, however, Jerusalem expanded its objectives. The larger goal, implicit in the south but clearly spelled out in the north, is to eliminate the illegal presence of armed militias on Israel’s borders.
The effort is a worthy one and should be welcomed by the world community. The weakening of state authority and the usurpation of power by lawless gangs is one of the most worrisome developments on the global scene in recent years, sowing chaos from Somalia to Colombia to the slums of Brazil and the jungles of Laos. The problem is particularly acute on Israel’s borders, where fundamentalist militias dedicated to holy war have harassed the Jewish state for years and frustrated all attempts at regional stability. In Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has become a virtual state-within-a-state, the disarming of the Shi’ite militia is an explicit mandate of international law, adopted by the United Nations Security Council in its Resolution 1559 of September 2004.
It’s not every day that Israel finds itself cast in the role of enforcer of U.N. mandate, but that is what its current campaign in Lebanon amounts to. Lebanon has bluntly refused for two years to honor the Security Council’s dictate and assert its sovereignty on its own soil. It has, in effect, insisted publicly on its right to be a failed state and to let gangs run rampant along its southern border. For Israel, this has become intolerable. But the fight is not only Israel’s. In moving against the armed forces of Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel is bearing the standard of international law.
Odder still is the sight of major players in the world community — including France and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council — protesting the Israeli effort, demanding a quick cease-fire that would leave Hezbollah in place, effectively defending the flouting of the council’s will.
And yet, such is the state of affairs in Lebanon, and on the larger world stage, that a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah is a virtual certainty. Hezbollah cannot simply be wiped out by force of arms, as Israeli leaders have begun acknowledging. It has deep roots among Lebanon’s Shi’ites, who make up two-fifths of that nation’s population. There is no opposing constellation of Lebanese forces that has the strength and the will to face it down. Israel’s best hope is to hammer the organization until it accepts sweeping constraints on its mischief-making capacities. Jerusalem will know when it’s time to stop and claim victory. It’s essential that its friends and allies around the world show the same wisdom, and not let themselves be caught up in a vain pursuit of moral absolutes.
It’s essential, too, that in pursuing its current campaign, Israel not lose sight of the next battle that waits beyond the hill. After the terrorist threat has been reduced on its borders, Israel will need to address the far greater menace of Iran’s nuclear project. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will demand a unified, sustained effort by the entire international community. It would be a deadly mistake for Israel to press its current effort to the point where it loses the good will it currently enjoys, and finds itself isolated just when it most needs friends.