Analysis: Ethical dilemmas for Israel at war

Must Israel reinterpret what its Jewish values require it to do in order to survive?

gunmen with rockets (photo credit: )
gunmen with rockets
(photo credit: )
This is a new and particularly pernicious type of war. A quarter of Israel has been shut down for the best part of a month by relentless missile fire from deep inside a neighboring country. Thwarting the salvoes from the air, with pinpoint precision, has proved impossible. Unless or until a full cease-fire is pursued and obtained, the principal military options that remain are wider air strikes causing far-from-pinpoint damage or a deeper ground incursion, involving large numbers of troops. This is a new and pernicious type of war in that, while much of Israel's homefront is coming under direct attack, deep inside our sovereign territory, it is not from enemy tank or artillery fire moving relentlessly forward, defeating Israel's conventional military defenses. It is, rather, a strategic rocket campaign, to which conventional defense has no answer. This is Saddam Hussein's Scud war of 1991 - except that the 39 missiles of 15 years ago have been superseded by 10,000 to 14,000 rockets in Hassan Nasrallah's Iranian- and Syrian-stocked arsenal. These thousands upon thousands of rockets are being launched into Israel's towns and villages from the very heart of residential Lebanese neighborhoods, whether with the support or to the dismay of the local populace. Almost four weeks into the war, Hizbullah mocks Israel's inability to staunch the fire. The Arab world, part of which essentially backed Israel's anti-Hizbullah offensive in its early stages, has withdrawn or, in many cases, thrown its weight publicly behind the terrorists amid daily evidence of Israel's failure to decisively prevail. In America, analysts question Washington's over-reliance on Israel, the little strategic ally that couldn't. But Israel could prevail in this conflict. Israel could silence the Katyusha launchers. What it would need do is resort to one of those two options - a much greater use of air power or a larger ground offensive. Either of those avenues, however, would necessarily involve death on a far larger scale than we have seen thus far. Pulverizing air power would likely create Lebanese civilian casualties of a number that would dwarf the toll to date. Wider use of ground forces, on Hizbullah's home territory, would likely dwarf the IDF toll hitherto sustained in the close-quarters fighting. With every day's evidence of underwhelming military success, the chorus swells in Israel that this is a no-brainer. The army is being humiliated, the argument runs; Israel's critical deterrent capability is being shattered. Israel simply must ratchet up its military response to the daily rain of incoming rockets. And while some experts favor the ground-forces option, for others the choice is no choice at all: Dead Lebanese or dead Israelis? Why the hesitation? And yet Israel hesitates. It certainly does not want to put more of its ground forces into harm's way. But it also does not want to inflict civilian casualties on a more drastic scale in Lebanon. This is partly because of a sense of short-term gain and long-term loss. A much more forceful use of air power might indeed shatter Hizbullah's Katyusha capability and bring a respite to the North. But it also might leave Israel friendless internationally, and thus utterly vulnerable. Without America in its corner, Israel is in real, existential trouble. And an Israel deemed to be causing unconscionable civilian casualties in this region, and by extension destroying what is left of its American ally's power and influence in the Middle East, would risk dramatically undermining the "special relationship" with Washington. Could US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice truly stand full-square with the Jewish state as hysterical anti-Israeli, and anti-American protests, gripped the Arab world, and mobilized the masses far beyond this region as well? But Israel's hesitation is also born of its own sense of morality. Israel has railed against what it considers egregious allegations of disproportionality in its military response thus far to Hizbullah's unprovoked escalation. The injustice is keenly felt precisely because Israel is acutely conscious of proportion. That sense of proportion has evidently determined that dozens of deaths at home, hundreds of thousands of fleeing northerners, and 26 days in the bomb-shelters for those who have remained in rocket range justifies the degree and scale of air power that it has employed to date, and no more. Presumably, continued Katyusha fire inflicting continued casualties at the current level might be deemed to justify greater fire power, but not much greater. A dire, Hizbullah-prompted escalation - such as, say, a missile attack on Tel Aviv - would likely presage a weightier Israeli response. But again, a calibration of kinds would apply, with the use of force calculated against a measure of the damage sustained. There is no sign - again, ironically, given the international criticism - that Israel is prepared to depart from this kind of calibration and resort to more devastating blows to the residential areas of Lebanon from which the rockets keep flying. Israel's official public relations performance in the course of this conflict has been, as ever, dire. It has failed to highlight that this is essentially a war against an Iran that publicly demands Israel's destruction. It has failed to effectively articulate how pernicious an enemy it faces - one that strikes Israel's citizens and delights in the fatalities inflicted, then cries foul to a responsive international community when Israel's attempts to stop the fire inevitably cause death and destruction. It has failed even to widely disseminate film that clearly shows where the Katyushas are being fired from; the footage of rockets flying out from Kana was released a full 12 hours after the world had been subjected to graphic coverage of the tragic consequences of Israel's response. It has failed, at the most basic level, to help a watching world differentiate between a guerrilla-terrorist aggressor subjugating Lebanon to its Iranian patron's will and an embattled sovereign nation attempting to protect itself. A major segment of international media, it should be noted, has emphatically chosen itself not to highlight that distinction - out of a sadly familiar combination of factors including ignorance, intellectual dishonesty, misguided self-perceived liberalism, in some cases anti-Semitism, in others fear for its own wellbeing in Arab host nations. The negative perception and presentation of Israel starkly impacts on the degree of Israeli military response that international public opinion, and by direct and vital extension the American political leadership, is prepared to tolerate. The problems, self-made or inflicted, that Israel is encountering on the media battlefield, in short, constitute a significant factor in circumscribing its military room for maneuver. But the main limitation on Israel's use of heavier force, nonetheless, remains our own nation's sense of right and wrong. Israel's leadership and its mainstream public don't want to get large numbers of reservists killed in the effort to eviscerate Hizbullah. And they also don't want to kill large numbers of Lebanese. And so Israel still hesitates. It may be that a cease-fire process curtails this conflict in the near future. It may be that it escalates into a wider regional war. But this round of conflict has already tested the degree to which Israel is prepared to reconsider the standards to which it has clung, even as it has fought for its survival through 58 blood-strewn years. In previous rounds of conflict and war, it often managed to use ingenuity and innovation in order to maintain its self-prescribed moral high-ground. Israeli ingenuity and innovation have not yet proved decisive this time. Yet to date - at immense ongoing cost to its civilians' welfare, and to its deterrent image both in the region and in the eyes of allies and enemies further afield - Israel has not chosen different answers to its ethical dilemmas. Facing evermore ingenious, cynical and merciless enemies, the stark choice grows evermore inescapable - kill or be killed. Our own sense of why the Jews must have a nation of their own is born in part of our appreciation of the Jewish values that underpin it. Our Jewish values are what sustained our nation in exile over the centuries. But in this hostile Middle East, in this ruthless and hypocritical era, Israel increasingly faces the question of whether it can cling to those values and still survive - or perhaps more accurately, whether it needs to reinterpret what those Jewish standards require it to do in order to survive. Sooner or later, Israel will have to decide how far it is prepared to use the devastating force it has at its disposal in order to maintain its right to national life in this vicious part of the world.