Essay: Declare victory in Lebanon

Let's not hold out for our maximum demands because we could end up with less than is probably now attainable.

War in Lebanon 88 (photo credit: AP)
War in Lebanon 88
(photo credit: AP)
A friend of mine is on the Left. But I mean Left. He votes Hadash with misgiving because he finds it too moderate. He doesn't miss a demonstration: Against the occupation, against the security fence, against targeted assassinations, against arresting Hamas leaders, you name it. And so when he told me that he had just been to a demonstration in Tel Aviv over Lebanon, I said: "Sure. You were protesting the persecution of Nasrallah. You want us to rebuild the Hizbullah outposts on the border. You were calling on the government of Israel to swap the Western Wall for the two soldiers that Hizbullah holding." "Not at all," he said. "We were calling on Israel to stop shooting so that negotiations with the Lebanese government can begin." "That's all?" "That's all." "You should have told me that," I said. "I might have gone to the demonstration with you." It's not that Hizbullah didn't get what it deserved. One would love to see Nasrallah's head on a pike in front of the Knesset, along with the heads of his best friends. But sometimes, just as it can be important to realize when you're beaten so that you can cut your losses while it's still possible, it can be important to realize when you've won so that you can cash your chips in on time. And we have won, even if, as I write these words, the rockets keep falling. Hizbullah has taken a bad licking; Israel has suffered far less damage and loss of life than could have been anticipated; the international community, for a change, has backed us and let us do the job with a minimum of squawking; and most importantly, the government of Lebanon has announced that it is prepared to take responsibility for its southern border and keep Hizbullah from returning to it. That's a victory, even if not everyone in our cabinet seems to have noticed it. True, Hizbullah is down but not yet out. True, it still has our two soldiers. True, too, if we keep dropping enough bombs in enough places, one of them may yet fall on Nasrallah's head. It would be interesting to see if that man of a thousand smug smiles has one for such an occasion. But you can't always have everything. Tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta, the rabbis said: If you try to grab too much, you may end up by dropping it. WE'VE DONE it before. Israel has a history of military victories that were never turned into equivalent political capital. We won big in 1967 and then sat back and waited for the famous telephone calls from Arab leaders that never came. We won again in 1973 and let four years go by for Sadat to make us an offer when we might have gotten him to accept a better one if we had made it first. We marched to Beirut in 1982 and then stuck around in Lebanon for nearly two costly decades longer than we should have when we could have gotten out quickly on far better terms than we got out slowly on. In each case we held out for the maximum and ended up with less than was probably attainable. It would be a shame to let it happen again. It's not a question of theoretical justice. Of course it would be right and proper for Nasrallah to be given the chance to meet his Maker, with whom he has often expressed the desire to commune personally. Of course the Lebanese army should trot right down south and take up positions on its side of the border. Of course the two abducted soldiers should be released immediately. These are all perfectly reasonable desires. But they're not all perfectly attainable within the next few days or even weeks. Take the Lebanese army. It's not only an Israeli interest that it should be in control of southern Lebanon, it's a Lebanese interest too, and any agreement hammered out now among Israel, Lebanon, the United States, and the European Community should unequivocally demand that this be done and lay down a timetable for it. But if the Lebanese army doesn't feel that it's up to the job immediately, there's no reason why Israel can't live with an international force on the border as an interim measure. International troops haven't always worked out well for us - UNIFIL in Lebanon is a good example - but they've been fine in other places, such as the multinational contingent in Sinai. For Israel to rule out such a temporary solution on a knee-jerk basis could just end up creating a vacuum that Hizbullah could slowly creep back into. Or take the two soldiers. Hizbullah presumably has them stashed away some place that won't be easy to uncover. Are we going to keep bombing day after day until they're released? But why should Hizbullah release them? It's already lost men and equipment, it's been pushed back from the border, its installations have been demolished or badly damaged - how much worse, in the short run, can life be made for it? Why should it simply surrender one of its best cards, especially since doing so will make it lose more face in the eyes of the Arab public than all its military setbacks put together? This is not to say that we should negotiate with Hizbullah over the soldiers' return. On the contrary: We should not talk to Hizbullah at all. But we can and should negotiate with the government of Lebanon. Not only is it the address we should be dealing with, it has leverage over Hizbullah that we don't. If there is going to be a concerted effort now on the part of the United States and Europe to turn this government into one that can genuinely govern, this is precisely the kind issue that it should be asked to handle. A tremendous opportunity exists now in Lebanon, and it exists only because Israel went to war against Hizbullah. But smashing Hizbullah isn't the same as putting Lebanon together again. For that we need the rest of the world. And the rest of the world can't act until the fighting has stopped. It's been a long time since so much of it has been on our side. Let's try to keep it there, at least for a while.