Editor's Notes: Removing the pretext

Two champions of challenging Islamic extremism are near the end of their political roads.

The various senior international politicians and officials who have been shuttling in recent days between Jerusalem and Beirut and elsewhere in the region, discussing the logistics of an international force for southern Lebanon, have been hearing from Arab leaders, as ever, that Israel and its purported aggression are the source of all the world's ills - the root of Middle East instability, the cause of the latest conflict with Hizbullah, the trigger for Islamic extremist terrorism worldwide. On the basis of recent private conversations, I can attest that some of these prominent international frequent flyers actually believe that this is true or contains an element of truth. At least some are persuaded that were Israel only to do on its other frontiers what it did six years ago with Lebanon - withdraw all the way to international border lines - regional bitternesses would be assuaged, and the path to global harmony cleared. A subset would probably not be displeased if we were to disappear altogether. Many, probably most, of the shuttling high-rankers, however, thoroughly recognize the vacuity both of the "blame Israel" default Arab argument and of the notion that a withdrawal to the '67 lines would resolve it. If the very nature of the Palestinian terror campaign over the past six years, with its overwhelming focus on civilian targets throughout purportedly non-disputed sovereign Israel, was not enough to convince them that the struggle against Israel is not limited to a desire to "liberate" territory captured in the 1967 war, then the latest Lebanon conflict has made the point inescapable. Hizbullah had no remotely credible territorial claims against Israel. There was no Israeli presence in the country Hizbullah had overrun. Israel had, to its own immense (and underestimated) detriment, fully respected Lebanon's sovereignty even as Hizbullah built up its military capability. And yet Israel came under unprovoked attack across that undisputed border, by a guerrilla army equipped by Iran and Syria as an agent for pursuing Israel's elimination. Yet even those globe-trotting politicians and officials who firmly reject the Arab arguments about root cause, and even those among them who believe that an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders would embolden rather than sate regional efforts at our destruction - even some of them are nevertheless seeking, at Israel's expense, to "remove the pretext." "Yes," runs their argument, "we too profoundly doubt whether the departure of Israel from every inch of West Bank land, from east Jerusalem, from the Golan Heights, from Mount Dov, from the air space over Gaza and the waters off its coast, would put an end to attacks on Israel and to wider Islamic terrorism. But we're urging you to do it anyway, or at least to move in that direction, in order to remove the perceived justification for the attacks on you and on us." The fact is that an Israel that had indeed been moving in precisely this direction - with the Lebanon pullout in 2000 and the Gaza disengagement in 2005 - is now, in the bitter aftermath of Lebanon War 2006, plunged into a radical rethink. And with fatal irony, it is the self-same senior international politicians and diplomats, the people who through their own inaction and impotence helped facilitate Hizbullah's rise, who are now compounding the very problem they would have us solve via further withdrawals. It was the international community that breached its guarantees to Israel that our sovereignty would be protected on the Lebanon border when the IDF dismantled the security zone six years ago. And it is the international community that is failing to rebuild shattered Israeli confidence in the validity of guarantees of sovereignty, thus far, by declining to mobilize a genuinely robust international force to complement and build upon Israel's limited steps toward disabling Hizbullah, indeed by failing to so much as publicly underline the fundamental imperative for the guerrilla army's removal. The world has been telling Israel for years to "pull back to your sovereign borders and all will be well." On the Gaza and Lebanese borders, where Israel did exactly that, the result has been the opposite. If only from the narrowest perspective of the global community's perceived self-interest, therefore, it should be building the most powerful, well-equipped, widely mandated force possible to grapple with Hizbullah, prevent its resupply and render it a non-military player. In so doing, it would be beginning anew the path to what it sees as the realization of its interests - removing the pretext of Israel as aggressor by persuading Israel afresh that its security is best served via a withdrawal to sovereign borders, with the diplomatic backing and the concrete, physical assistance of international guarantors. Instead, the negotiations and the shuttle missions are pointing in the contrary direction. The notion of a NATO-style force, potentially capable of taking on Hizbullah, was doomed before it could draw breath. The West has procrastinated about committing troops. Talk of French leadership, to no Israeli's surprise, rapidly dissipated. The argument for including contingents from countries hostile to Israel, so as to avoid rendering the force a patent enemy of southern Lebanon, has gathered ground and been widely accepted - when the entire imperative was precisely for a force that would effectively fill the vacuum left by the departing IDF and constitute an obstacle to the renewed Hizbullah takeover of southern Lebanon. "No, it's probably not going to work," an international visitor who must remain nameless acknowledged to me this week. "But it's the best we can do." This visitor went on to stress that the idea essentially taking shape now amounts to a band-aid - a thoroughly temporary international presence, making a play of helping facilitate the deployment in the south of the Lebanese Army, and then getting the hell out as quickly as possible. THE TRUE root of the widening Islamist terror threat, as acknowledged by one of these high-flyers, is a widespread Muslim inability to come to terms with modernity and globalization, and the growing attraction of an extremist interpretation of Islam, emblemized by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and based on vicious certainties, an alleged imperative to murder infidels and a reliance that this life is a mere antechamber to a glorious world to come. Properly grappling with the phenomenon necessitates both a concerted international battle against the extremists and a similarly concerted effort to encourage more moderate opinion within Islam. The sorry truth, however, is that even after 9/11 and 7/7 and incessant terror across the globe; Ahmadinejad's relentless calls for Israel's destruction and his stated desire to eliminate America too; the evidence in Gaza, south Lebanon and beyond of Iran's spreading military tentacles; and the cat-and-mouse games being played by Teheran as it closes in on nuclear self-sufficiency - even after all that, there is little discernible evidence of any such concerted international will. And the derisory international force that will exacerbate Israel's failure to rid south Lebanon of Hizbullah is only the latest case in point. Indeed, such will as did exist appears to be fading. The two prime champions of a strategic challenge to the march of Islamic extremism - the powerful if inarticulate President George W. Bush and his more articulate ally Prime Minister Tony Blair are nearing the end of their respective political roads, with Blair's earnest support of Israel in the recent conflict with Hizbullah likely a major factor in the current marked decline in popularity of his Labor Party. It is, of course, so much easier, in the short term, to buy into the ridiculous Arab argument that Israel is to blame for all ills - so tempting to believe that, if only we were cut down to size or gone altogether, there'd be no more 9/11s or 7/7s or high oil prices or lousy long lines at airports. And it's so much easier, in the short term too, for western politicians, especially those with few Jews and growing numbers of Muslims in their constituencies, to duck out of publicly espousing the honest assessment of blame, if they even recognize it. But the consequences beyond the short term will be harsh, indeed. Trying to throw Israel to the Islamist extremist lions - "removing the pretext" - wouldn't sate them for long. The war in the north between Israel and Hizbullah was not an isolated skirmish over a minor border incident but a harbinger of the wider struggle to come, a struggle that goes far beyond Israel's presence in a hostile Middle East. Iran already has the missiles to reach all of our territory; it has longer trajectories in mind as well. AS FOR Israel itself, the last thing it can afford at this, one of the most difficult junctures in its modern history, is to tear itself apart in a panicked orgy of bitter recrimination and plaintive justification centered on five weeks of fighting that left so many of its rightly declared goals unfulfilled. A chief of General Staff whose thoughts so much as alighted on the threat to his stock portfolio in the frantic hours when he was preparing to send his troops to war should indeed recognize his flawed priorities; ministers who publicly underestimated a tenacious enemy and those who claimed victory when the decisive result had all-too plainly not been achieved have much to reflect upon, too. But what Israel needs - what this country truly requires in order to realistically plan for its very survival - is a thorough, efficient and speedy reassessment of the threats it faces and the measures it has been taking, and needs to take, in order to overcome them. In this ruthless region, enemy leaders are, unthinkably, obscenely, capable of calculating how many millions of their own people they might risk in the pursuit of their ambition to wipe out this country. Facing them down requires the maintenance and constant improvement of extraordinary military capabilities, absolute professionalism and peerless intelligence in the marshalling of those forces, and a diplomatic and public relations strategy to facilitate international comprehension of what is at stake when those forces have to be used and thus to create a climate of support. Some of these components are in place; others have proved glaringly absent in the last few weeks, when errors with a much longer history emerged to haunt us. Our reservists constitute a vital 80 percent of the IDF's fighting force in times of war. Larry Derfner's tremendously dismaying article in today's UpFront section, on the circumstances in which some of them were dispatched to the front-lines, suggests incompetence of dizzying proportions, rooted in years, not days, of dismal stewardship. Whether or not commissions of inquiry, or the self-motivated "drawing of conclusions," lead to the replacement of prominent political and military leaders in the near future, Israel must not allow itself to be fooled into thinking that a handful of personnel changes will rectify these and so many other deeper, long-rooted flaws. We are geographically situated at the forefront of the battle between the free world and suicidal Islamic extremism. And the past few weeks have shown that we were not battle ready.