In 1967 Israel’s government was headed by Levi Eshkol, a politician said to be easygoing, weak and indecisive, who four years earlier had replaced the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, as prime minister. The Israeli public, tired of Ben-Gurion’s authoritarianism and constant exhortations to greater and greater sacrifice, had greeted Eshkol’s appointment with a sigh of relief. Israel’s chief Arab adversary at the time, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to take advantage of the Eshkol government’s reputed lassitude in order to annul Israel’s achievements in the 1956 Suez campaign: the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula and the opening of the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping. On Nasser’s orders, Egyptian soldiers moved into the Sinai, and Egyptian gunboats blocked the narrow waterway.

Nasser’s actions were largely symbolic — only some 3 percent of Israel’s international trade moved through the Strait of Tiran, and the Egyptian forces in the Sinai did not pose any immediate threat to Israel — but the Israeli military argued that the credibility of its deterrence doctrine must be restored, and that effective deterrence could only be restored by military means. After resisting the generals’ urgings for three weeks, Eshkol’s government caved in and, in the ensuing six-day war, the Middle East was transformed. [1] Nasser’s mistake was that he did not realize that, with a weak civilian government in Israel, nobody would stand up to the military’s belligerent designs. (Ben-Gurion, it should be noted, advised very strongly against launching the 1967 war, but his advice was ignored.)

In July 2006, by his own admission, Hasan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah, made the same mistake. Under the two most recent prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, both of whom were retired generals, Israel had met minor Hizballah operations with carefully measured responses, designed not to escalate conflict on the Lebanese border while Israel was busy fighting the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Based on that experience, Nasrallah estimated that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, headed by “rookies” (his term) and committed to a “civilian agenda” (their term), would not react very strongly to a brief incursion across the border and the capture of a few Israeli soldiers. Nasrallah was probably assured in his assumption by the facts that, on June 25, militants of Hamas and associated forces had launched a similar attack on Israel from inside Gaza, and that, as a result, the Israeli military was engaged in a massive attack on the Palestinians. From this, Nasrallah must have concluded that Hizballah’s action would alleviate the pressure upon the Palestinians, without too much risk to the Shiite militia or to Lebanon as a whole.

Nasrallah’s decision turned out to be a huge miscalculation. The two figures at the head of the Israeli government — Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz (formerly of Peace Now) — proved to be totally incapable of standing up to the military, which was itching to avenge its humiliation at the hands of Hizballah, as well as Hamas. In fact, Olmert and Peretz abdicated their leadership role in favor of Dan Halutz, chief of the General Staff and a former air force commander, made famous by his remarks after an Israeli jet dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building in Gaza, killing Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh and 15 civilians. Asked by a journalist what he felt after such “targeted killings,” he said he felt “a slight bump to the plane as a result of the bomb’s release…. That’s what I feel.”

The Israeli military took advantage of Nasrallah’s miscalculation in order to visit death and destruction upon Lebanon, on a scale unknown since Sharon’s invasion of that country in 1982. Halutz vowed to set Lebanon back 20 years, and he probably did, but not before liquidating his personal stock portfolio, just in case things did not go as smoothly as expected. Indeed, things did not go smoothly at all from Israel’s point of view.

Dual Failure

Israel’s failure in the 2006 Lebanon war was twofold — military and civilian. The dual failure brought to the fore in a dramatic way the two time bombs bequeathed by Ariel Sharon to his successor: the ongoing war against the Palestinians and the social crisis created by the neo-liberal economic policy of the last two decades. Militarily, Israel failed to achieve any of its three (totally unrealistic) declared war aims: release of the two soldiers captured by Hizballah, dismantling of the military arm of that organization, or, failing that, its complete removal from southern Lebanon. Most devastating, however, was the military’s failure to halt the barrage of Katyushas and other rockets that kept falling on northern Israel at a rate of 100-200 per day until the very last day of the war, and that effectively brought life in that region to a standstill for an entire month. The civilian aspect of the failure was just as severe. The state failed to evacuate the civilian population of northern Israel in an orderly fashion, and did not even attempt to provide essential services to those — the poor, the old and the infirm — who could not evacuate themselves. In both cases, the responsibility fell to private charities that, naturally, could provide only partial solutions.

The specific causes of Israel’s military failures are now being investigated, debated and fought over, but the underlying reason is clear to anyone who wants to look. For the last 40 years, but especially since September 2000, the main task of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been what Zeev Schiff, the eminent military analyst for the daily Ha’aretz, has euphemistically called the “violent policing” of the occupied Palestinian territories. Given the limited resources put at its disposal by a society that is fast becoming economically liberal, affluent and individualistic, the IDF (with the exception of the air force) could not engage in “violent policing” while at the same time maintaining fighting capabilities at the pre-1967 level. Revealingly, after one repulsed advance on a southern Lebanese village, some soldiers expressed genuine amazement that Hizballah fighters in the village actually shot back at them.

The civilian failure had its roots in the neo-liberal economic policy pursued by the Israeli state since 1985, designed to shift resources from the public sector to the market. This policy has led to extensive privatization of public services and the gradual degeneration of those that cannot be made profitable enough to be privatized. Maintenance of public bomb shelters and provision of food, water and medical assistance to the people who find refuge therein at times of war are not activities that can be privatized, however. So these services were not provided at all, or were provided very inadequately by private charities or NGOs. The low point of this benign neglect by the state was the failure to declare a state of emergency in the northern part of the country, a measure that would have committed the state to provide essential services and pay adequate compensation to businesses and individuals who suffered economic losses because of the war. (A less far-ranging “special state” was declared, but the needs of most residents of the affected region were not met.)

In a deeper sense, though, Israel’s failures in the Lebanon war signified the divorce of two political objectives — economic liberalization and war — that Sharon had managed to wed though they had been believed, historically, to be at odds. Sharon’s ability to defeat the second intifada while pursuing a policy of aggressive economic liberalization made him Israel’s most popular prime minister since the introduction of public opinion polls in the late 1960s (well after Ben-Gurion’s time). But the mechanism for this seemingly historic achievement, the promised unilateral solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was actually sleight of hand. And the Lebanon war, coupled with the summer’s events in Gaza, exposed the trick.

An Illusion Banished

Sharon borrowed the idea of a unilateral solution, like many of his other bits of political prestidigitation, from his Labor party rivals. In 2000, Prime Minister Barak declined to sign a peace agreement with Syria that would have provided for Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon in return for peace and security arrangements, because he feared he would lose popularity with the Israeli public. [2] Instead, he decided to withdraw from southern Lebanon unilaterally, promising fire and brimstone to anyone who dared attack Israel across the UN-demarcated Blue Line. In the 2003 election campaign, Amram Mitzna, then Labor party leader, proposed to apply the same logic to Gaza. Sharon adopted Mitzna’s proposal after his election victory and carried it out successfully, thus changing his image from warmonger to peacemaker at the twilight of his active life.

The attraction of unilateral withdrawals was that they promised to stabilize areas of confrontation, thus cutting back on military expenses, without the need for Israel to give up territory that it really valued: the Golan Heights, in one case, and much of the West Bank, in the other. For six years following the unilateral pullout from Lebanon, the northern border was indeed quiet, with a few interruptions from skirmishes with Hizballah that the Barak and Sharon governments knew how to contain. That experience was the basis of Sharon’s decision to implement similar unilateral arrangements, first in Gaza and then in the West Bank, where a complex of concrete walls and barbed-wire fences is being built to mark the line of withdrawal.

“Disengagement” from Gaza, however, did not end Israel’s control over that strip of land; it only changed the form of control. Instead of ruling Gaza from the inside, Israeli forces have kept the territory under siege, gradually suffocating economic and social activity there, until the present moment, when the population busies itself with bare survival. Based on this “success,” Sharon planned to implement a similar arrangement in parts of the West Bank. For that purpose he split his political party, Likud, and set up Kadima, a new party that ran in the March 2006 elections solely on the “disengagement” platform and gained a plurality of the seats in the Knesset. (Unlike the less astute Olmert, however, Sharon never committed himself publicly to further disengagement in the West Bank.)

Sharon was incapacitated before the 2006 elections, and his successor declared that through disengagement in the West Bank (later renamed “convergence,” and still later “realignment”), he would turn Israel into “a fun place to live in” by 2010. That fantasy never had a real political chance, but before it could even be tested, Hamas and their fellow militants banished Olmert’s illusion. The disengagement has not caused the Gazan resistance forces to stop shooting Qassam rockets into Israel, terrorizing in particular one small town, Sderot, which happens to be Defense Minister Peretz’s home town. Evidently, and like much of the rest of the world, these fighters have not been persuaded that Israel has really relinquished its control over Gaza. Finally, a daring attack on an Israeli military outpost and the capture of one soldier lured Israel back into the Gaza Strip.

By the Sword Or…

From the beginning, Israel’s security establishment, which lives off the occupation of lands taken in the 1967 war, objected to the idea of unilateral (or any other) withdrawal, but eventually abided by Barak’s and Sharon’s authority. The most dramatically public expression of this attitude to date came from Maj. Gen. Yiftach Ron-Tal, until recently commander of the Land Branch of the IDF (a position roughly equivalent to the US Army chief of staff), and who was on leave before retiring, but still officially on active duty. In unauthorized interviews with several Israeli media outlets on October 4, Ron-Tal, whose son, it turns out, was a Gaza settler, blamed Israel’s failure in Lebanon on the disengagement from Gaza and claimed that a people that gives up parts of “its” land commits suicide. Now, with the developing civil war in Gaza, caused by the policy of economic strangulation of the Palestinians pursued by Israel with the aid of the US and the European Union, there is talk in IDF circles of reoccupying Gaza in order to bleach the stain of defeat in Lebanon.

With the illusion of unilateral withdrawal dispelled, the old dilemma of war vs. economic prosperity has reared its ugly head again. Israel clearly has only two options left: it can try to achieve peace, stability and prosperity through negotiated agreements with its Arab neighbors, or it can continue to live and die by the sword. But in order to live, rather than die, by the sword, the country’s course of development over the last 20 years must be reversed, and a Ben-Gurionesque, mobilized society must be restored. Such a turnabout is being advocated now not only by the West Bank settlers, who have always yearned for it, but also by erstwhile liberal commentators such as Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit. “What the hell happened to us?” Shavit implored in a widely reproduced column that appeared in English on August 16. He proceeded to blame “political correctness” for Israel’s military failings. Not only was the defense budget cut, but also “the Israel Defense Forces was identified as an army of occupation — rather than as an army defending feminists and homo-lesbians from the fanaticism of the Middle East…. In the spiritual world of political correctness, power and army have become dirty words.”

A softening of manliness, a yearning for normalcy, a pursuit of bourgeois individual pleasures at the expense of the rugged Zionist collective — all these decadent indulgences, in Shavit’s estimation, lulled Israel to sleep and presaged its rude reawakening in the “Lebanese mud” (the Israeli equivalent of the American expression, the “rice paddies of Vietnam”). “Israel tried with all its soul and all its might to be Athens. However in this place, in this era, there is no future for an Athens without a speck of Sparta.” But how is Ben-Gurion’s Israel to be conjured anew, in the globalized, liberalized country that actually exists? Ben-Gurion did not even allow television broadcasting in his time; in 2006, Israeli soldiers blogged, completely uncensored, from the front. The fact that turning Israel from whatever it is (certainly not Athens) back into Sparta, if at all possible, would require the institution of a quasi-fascist state, does not seem to bother Shavit.

The other option, a move toward negotiated, comprehensive peace, would require a major realignment of the public mood, which blames the government not for launching a totally unnecessary and ill-conceived war, but for conducting that war so ineptly. Hence this option presently seems unavailable. Yet the past popularity of unilateral withdrawals, manifested in the electoral success of Kadima, indicates that a significant segment of the Israeli Jewish public — the beneficiaries of economic liberalization — have tired of paying the price for the ongoing conflict. Given that unilateral arrangements are off the table, these elements — symbolically designated “Tel Aviv” in the current public discourse — may migrate back to the political camp to which they belonged before the breakdown of the Oslo process: the one that advocates peace through negotiated settlements. The idea of negotiated peace with the Palestinians is not, in fact, dead among the broader public. In the monthly poll conducted by the Tami Steinmetz Center at Tel Aviv University, the “negotiations index” that measures willingness among Israeli Jews to negotiate with the Palestinians, combined with confidence in the utility of such negotiations, stood at 43.2 in June 2006, right before the war, declined to 41 in July, and climbed back to 41.8 in August and 42.2 in September. [3] This is not a majority, but it is a constituency upon which to build.

The peace course is already urged by what is left of Israel’s liberal punditry, [4] and the Olmert government, desperate to hold on to power, has released a few trial balloons in that direction, as well as in all others. It is still quite difficult to imagine the peace camp being revived, or what its concrete political program would look like. But the elimination of the unilateral option by the actions of Hamas and Hizballah raises the hope, for the first time in six years, that this line of development is at least possible.


[1] For details, see Tom Segev, Israel in 1967 (Jerusalem: Keter, 2005), especially pp. 243-358. [Hebrew] [2] Gilead Sher, Just Beyond Reach: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001 (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, 2001), pp. 65-66. [Hebrew] See also Akiva Eldar’s interview with Uri Sagi, the retired major general who headed the Israeli delegation in the negotiations with Syria, in Ha’aretz, July 18, 2006. [Hebrew] [3] On the other hand, in August 2006 only 14 percent of Jewish Israelis favored full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria, compared to 21 percent in January 2005, the last time this question was asked in this poll.
[4] On just one day, October 1, 2006, the following op-eds appeared in Haaretz (all in English): Uzi Benziman, “Is Israel a Partner?” Gideon Levy, “Operation Peace for the Winery,” Daniel Gavron, “Let’s Prevent the Next Round.” See also the column by another retired major general, Avraham Tamir, “Yes to the Saudi Plan,” Ha’aretz, October 3, 2006. [Hebrew]

How to cite this article:

Yoav Peled "Illusions of Unilateralism Dispelled in Israel," Middle East Report Online, October 11, 2007.

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