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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Town Hall Conference Call with Daniel Levy The Mideast Crisis in Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon
On Sunday, July 16, 2006, Daniel Levy, director of policy planning for the Geneva Initiative, spoke about the current Mideast crisis with over one-hundred Brit Tzedek supporters. Below is the text from his address.
Let me start by praising Brit Tzedek for being out there and bringing the ‘peace voice’ to what can sometimes be, for many of us on the progressive side and the peace seeking side in Israel, a terribly frustrating and we think destructive debate that goes on in the US. I noticed the lobby day that you held recently and I think that kind of activity needs to be applauded but also needs to be strengthened and deepened, and if I could use this opportunity to encourage that kind of activity then I can mention that I’ve done so.
Of course these are difficult times both inside and outside [Israel], when you have soldiers who are being held captive and of course now when you have civilians who have lost their lives. When you have the situation that we have in Israel today there is an instinctive kneejerk, and under these circumstances there is an understandable hunker-down mentality. It is difficult in times like these to try and convey a different voice. It is all the more necessary and obviously we find ourselves in a similar position here in Israel. There is support for what the government is doing. There is questioning of it in certain parts of the media and certain parts of the public but that tends not to kick in until either something horrific happens on a big scale or until one gets stuck down in the mud for a long period of time and we all obviously hope it won’t go there. I think sometimes Israel acts in a way that it feels it is testing out the limits of what it can do or get away with internationally. When there is no one there to say ‘hey, you’ve gone so far—don’t go further,’ you get a bit drunk on your own ability to do whatever you want. Sometimes that can be a big disservice to Israel and the cause of a more secure and strengthened Israel.
Where is Israeli diplomacy? Looking back, the events of the past few days is the story of a period when we could of, had we chosen, mobilized our resources—we all know that when Israel mobilizes to achieve something diplomatically we can be pretty damn good at it—to say, ‘hey, there is a sovereign government in Lebanon, there is a UN resolution, this is an absolute priority for Israel and we’re trying everything by diplomatic means to ensure that Hezbollah does not have freedom of action, freedom of deployment, freedom to build up its weapons arsenal in our border.’ And we didn’t. We invested a whole lot in making sure that the world understood we had no one to talk to on the Palestinian side, we invested a hell of a lot of activity in making sure everyone was scared of Hamas, a lot of activity so people wouldn’t disturb us while we built our separation barrier in places we shouldn’t build it, and while we were expanding settlements around Jerusalem in the E1 area, and we didn’t focus on the present issue. I can promise you this was not a major talking point and unfortunately it is a pattern of behavior whereby Israeli diplomacy tends to be a very defensive, reactive thing. Somehow we are much more comfortable talking with guns, it would seem sometimes, than when we are in a negotiations process. I think that is a great shame. The other missed opportunity is the Abu Mazen presidency. If we successfully convinced everyone that Arafat was a non-partner why did we not jump at the chance following the election—now 18 months ag—of Abu Mazen as president? We didn’t, and the longer we allow the Palestinian situation to fester, the longer we don’t look at conflict resolution, in the context of this current crisis, if the only outcome is a ceasefire with no immediate address of how to actually resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, then we are simply turning over the egg-timer and beginning the count-down until the next conflagration and the next eruption of a crisis.
There are a couple of myths I think we should dispel. First, Hamas and Hezbollah are not the same. Hezbollah has deep roots in Lebanese Shiite society, just as Hamas has deep roots in Palestinian society. Hezbollah are not visitors in Lebanon just as Hamas are not visitors in Palestine. Whatever the outcome here, I don’t think we can blast away either of those movements. I hope not too many people believe that we’re very good at winning hearts and minds through military weaponry. People in Lebanon of all persuasions may be pissed at Hezbollah, but they aren’t too keen on us right now either given what is going on there. I hope that those who believe unilateralist moves can somehow solve our problems will take very significant steps towards disavowing themselves of this notion as a result of the terrible circumstances that we are in today. We have peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan. Those treaties involved leaving territories that were captured. Did they adhere to the spirit or warmth that we would have liked? No, but we have not had violence on either of these borders. We left Lebanon unilaterally and I supported that, but many of us who supported that expected a serious diplomatic offensive afterwards, which did not happen. And we left Gaza unilaterally. Let’s use this equation: weigh what happens when you get a peace treaty even when it is not perfect, to what happens when you withdraw unilaterally, even if it is almost perfect—withdrawing to internationally recognized lines.
Regarding the Lebanese situation, Israel is justified. There is a distinction with the situation in Gaza. It was unprovoked. The Hezbollah raid was across our border, two soldiers were snatched, the killing of the other soldiers, the immediate ambush and subsequent deaths when Israel moved in after them. That entire episode may have had to do with who wanted to be top cat among militants, as Khaled Meshal [of Hamas, in Damascus] was grabbing the limelight; it may have had things to do with signals from Iran to the international community; but Israel has the right to defend itself. Whether it is smart to make the moves we have made is another question. On the Lebanese front one of the things that is worrying Israelis at the moment—and as Americans some of you may break out in a smile as I say this—is the failure of our intelligence. Apparently there isn’t one group of people handling intelligence on a given day, apparently there is a difficultly with communicating things. Israelis had a very rude awakening when missiles were successfully, and with terrible effect, launched at places where they have been launched over the past few days. In the general tumult of everything that’s been going on, and it’s been less commented on, but the ship incident the other day off the coast of Lebanon was apparently a big surprise and we hadn’t anticipated that Hezbollah capacity.
Israel does have goals regarding this mission in Lebanon. You would be hard pressed to get me to come up with our goal right now in Gaza, because I think that is totally ill thought through. In Lebanon there is an Israeli aim in the current mission, and it should be clear to people at this stage that the release of the two soldiers apparently being held in Lebanon, just as the release of Gilad Shalit being held now in Gaza, has apparently dropped down the priority list in terms of what is trying to be achieved in these missions. The goal in Lebanon is not to return to the status quo whereby the Lebanese sovereign state and its armed wing, the Lebanese army, are essentially not operating in southern Lebanon leaving that area free to the Hezbollah to deploy, act, and arm itself as it sees fit in contravention to UN resolutions. So, legitimately, Israel is saying that cannot be the case. So how do you try to achieve that? Once you have abducted soldiers and shelling in the north, you are in a whole new reality in terms of how you try to achieve that. I think Israel had to respond. I don’t want to completely dismiss deterrence as a factor in international relations. My beef would be with the decision on day one to bomb the Lebanese airport. If Israel had gone after Hezbollah targets there would have been room for further escalation should there have been a need, and Hezbollah would have had to think twice about how it graded its response to such an action. But we went straight for the airport and I think that narrowed our maneuverability in terms of how we would ratchet it up from there, as well as perhaps creating an equation that no one seems to understand: how this is supposed to force the Lebanese government to assert it authority—and no one thinks they actually have the capacity to do that.
Given that Lebanon is dominating the headlines, let me get to the ways out of the situation. Obviously one way out is that we discover there is a backchannel working and Israel and the Lebanese government call for a ceasefire which is internally generated. But that doesn’t seem to be where we are going.
The three most convincing assessments I have heard so far about how to get out of this are:
- The Lebanese government does something whereby Israel can say in a face-saving way that Lebanon has begun to assert it sovereignty, has begun to deploy in the south, and that we can begin to climb down from the current escalation and perhaps declare a period in which we allow the Lebanese government to show the results of their new attitude and once we have a period of Israel ceasing its attacks there would be tremendous pressure on Hezbollah to cease attacks on its side, and then hopefully neither side would rush to re-escalate. What I say here is that this would be a face-saving option for Israel, since no one really expects the Lebanese government to actually take on the armed element of Hezbollah. The Lebanese army itself is composed of many elements sympathetic to the Hezbollah cause. On the other hand, there is some foundation to the assertion that there are some in the Lebanese government and certainly in the anti-Syria coalition in the Lebanese government, who would be happy to see Israel weaken Hezbollah’s military capacity.
- The second option is the “something really ugly happens” option, and you just can’t carry on as you are. This brings to mind whenShimon Peres was prime minister in 1996 and there was an IDF mission not dissimilar, although perhaps not as far-reaching, in Lebanon in response to a then-border escalation and there was a tragic bombing of a kindergarten in a town in Lebanon called Kfar Khana. About 100 Lebanese youngsters were killed in that mission, and that immediately led to international involvement and the establishment of a ceasefire. Under the present circumstances something like that could happen on either side but that unfortunately may be the way this situation deescalates.
- The third option would involve the international community working towards a ceasefire. The US had said either today or yesterday that a ceasefire would not solve the problem. Thankfully, the other members of the G8 have managed to bring the Administration into a far more balanced, sensible, meaningful way forward, and I would suggest finding and reading the G8 statement on the internet. The obvious way forward now is the international community says ‘we are going to do everything to try and create the circumstances for a ceasefire.’ That may well still happen. I’d be tempted to say that there is sometimes a rhythm to these kinds of things whereby the Americans essentially say to the Israelis, ‘listen, you have 48, 96, or 200 hours and eventually the pressure is going to be too much and we’re going to have to intervene and bring you around to a ceasefire so in the meantime do your worst. I’m not whether this will necessarily happen this time. If it is going to happen, whether its 48, 96 or 200 hours, I don’t know what terrible things could happen in the meantime.
Once we reach the morning after—and I don’t think it is going to be that Hezbollah lays down its arms and declares it has been defeated—we will have to move very quickly and do the kinds of diplomatic things we didn’t do until now to change the situation on Israel’s northern border. The other thing is that there may very well be a need for a serious monitoring presence. In the 1996 ceasefire there was a monitoring group. I don’t know if anyone in the international community would have the appetite for some kind of serious deployment. There is not a Lebanese government capacity to take on the Hezbollah. I don’t think there would be dramatic Israeli opposition to such a thing happening.
You never know what can happen but right now it seems quite clear that messages have been exchanged between Israel and the Syrians. Israel has no interest in bringing Syria into this and it would not be wise for Syria to get into this either. The circumstances of a wider Middle East conflagration would be the product of accident rather than the product of planning. But of course every minute this carries on the chances of a horrible accident happening continues to be possible.
Regarding the Palestinian front, the background to the escalation in Gaza unfortunately was that Israel was responding or initiating attacks, and we don’t need to get into the tit for tat, who started what, but there were some quite significant Palestinian casualties as well as arrests and assassinations leading up to the tunnel incident in which Gilad Shalit was captured. That also followed from the way in which the unilateral Gaza withdrawal was perceived on Palestinian side, but also followed on how Israel handled the Abbas vs Hamas situation, and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s reluctance to meet Abbas. In Lebanon Hezbollah is part of a government. In the Palestinian territories Hamas won an election. Hamas is extremely problematic but the position that Israel adopted--and the international community fell in line--was rather than to prod and test the theory that democratic participation can have a moderating influence, rather than test that actively, rather than trying to maximize prospects of a Hamas government behaving differently, the immediate message was three relatively unreasonable pre-conditions were laid down and basically Hamas was pushed into a corner. I can’t guarantee that Hamas would have behaved any differently had we handled it differently, but we handled it dumbly. You then had a situation in which there was an [internal Palestinian] effort, [by which] some in the Fatah-Abu Mazen camp were using the national dialogue as a way to further corner Hamas. And some, including perhaps Abbas himself, genuinely wanted to reach a national understanding that could allow Abu Mazen to say, ‘hey-you say I can’t deliver on anything? Here, I got the government to sign up to me being the representative to speak on behalf of the entire PA infrastructure.’ And this of course all blew up just as that was happening. The ingredients on the Palestinian side are perhaps more obvious just to throw around even if they are not less easy to achieve in practice. Israel clearly needs the release of the soldier, Israel clearly needs an end to Qassam rockets that have been launched from Gaza at Sderot, Ashkelon and other areas in southern Israel, and Israel of course wants to see an end to all hostile acts emanating from the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians of course want to see not only the end of the current Gaza incursion but the end of military assassinations, arrests, etc, on Israel’s part as well. There’s also half a Palestinian parliament in Israeli jails right now. If you want to put together a broader ceasefire package on the Palestinian side, and of course the choreography is always difficult, and figuring out who does what first, but the package is not so difficult to construct and not so unreasonable either. I think the real challenge is how do you move from [a ceasefire] back into a place where you actually try to resolve some of the core issues between Israelis and Palestinians, because as I said, the longer you’re locked in the unilateral paradigm, and doing everything in tiny steps, it not only explodes in our face in the way we’ve seen just now in Gaza, but explodes in our face in a much bigger way, which is, I would argue, the capacity for Hezbollah to target Israel, the capacity for Iran to use us as the bogey man, and the fact that for the first time in a long time all across the world, there are Muslims marching against Israel. It is about the Palestinian issue. The dramatic effect of the Israeli-Palestinian issue should always be at the core of our argument. If we don’t move, whenever the morning after comes, and let’s hope it comes sooner rather than later, to try and address how we can get back into a political negotiating process, that has hope and has a political horizon with the Palestinians, then as I say, we are just creating the conditions for the next disaster.
Q&A followed this address, and is available for listening on our website.