In the Middle East, self-respect is a deterrent

Ehud Barak’s recent statements about future unilateral steps contradict the region’s mentality; no one will appreciate them and they might only make us look desperate.

ehud barak 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ehud barak 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Recently, a headline on one of the news websites caught my attention. Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared “We will need to implement more unilateral actions.”
I immediately clicked on the story and I was greatly disturbed by what I found. The defense minister was quoted as saying, “Perhaps in Finland and in Holland there is no need for unilateral steps, but in Israel I promise you that we will yet need to take unilateral actions in the future.”
In a flash, this took me back to those wretched moments of May 24, 2000 at 5:00 am when I was serving in Qatar as head of the Israeli representative office, and I awoke to a live broadcast on Al Jazeera from south Lebanon. All the reports showed abandoned IDF equipment, Hizbullah fighters entering army outposts and most terrible of all; a line of cars belonging to Southern Lebanon Army (SLA) personnel who were begging to enter Israel through the Fatima Gate (the Good Fence) border crossing. They were being delayed and kept back and I was overcome by anger, frustration and wrath against our most treacherous act ever against people who had been loyal to us. Pictures of SLA people who had fallen in battle in Lebanon, and whom I had personally known, flashed before my eyes and my feeling was that we had betrayed their memory, and in the end, the families that they had left behind.
THE MOST amazing thing to me is our perpetual refusal to learn from past experience. We had already experienced a unilateral withdrawal in Lebanon when SLA forces had pulled out of the city of Jezzine, as announced by General Antoine Lahad, the SLA commander, at a press conference on May 31, 1999. Then too, Lahad’s proposal to the Lebanese government to take responsibility for the Jezzine enclave had gone unanswered. He also announced that the SLA withdrawal from Jezzine put the Lebanese government in a situation in which it could no longer ignore the enclave, and would have to take responsibility for it.
And what happened then? Hizbullah launched a massive attack against SLA forces as they pulled back in order to show the world that the SLA was not withdrawing of its own volition, but running away back into the security zone. The pull-back was completed on June 2, 1999, and the battle fought by the SLA fighters cost them two lives and one wounded, and it was etched into the consciousness of the Arab world that Hizbullah had chased out the SLA, and not that the SLA had withdrawn of its own free will.
It is superfluous to say that the Lebanese government did not take responsibility and that Hizbullah took absolute control of the region, and made it into a base from which to launch strikes against the security zone. The Lebanese government did what Syria had expected of it, and made the withdrawal look like the SLA had experienced a military defeat.
ON MARCH 5, 2000, the Israeli government decided to withdraw from south Lebanon, and committed itself to implement the pull out by the middle of 2000. When the decision was made, what reasonable person would even have thought that we would be given anything in return for something that we had already said that we were going to do?
Barak’s mistaken logic of that period is clear to me. He was always used to setting target dates and then “commanding” the establishment to act according to the outline that he presented. But it is important to explain how this was perceived in the Arab world which saw it as a desperate act. It saw Israel retreating, regardless, from Lebanon without ensuring future security arrangements, without anyone taking responsibility for the region and without anyone making a commitment that the northern border would remain secure. This is not how a strong country behaves. This is how a state that does not respect itself behaves and the Arab world seized the situation as if it has found a trophy.
Six days after this strange government decision, the Arab League went to Lebanon. While according to our logic, our government’s decision should have obligated the Arab world to support our actions and be part of the solution, the exact opposite happened. The Arab League expressed solidarity with the Lebanese people and support it against Israeli aggression.
Barak was right on one thing. It is worth understanding and absorbing the fact that we are in the Middle East and not in Finland or in Holland. If you give something away for nothing in return, it is a sign that you must be desperate and nobody will appreciate you or look after your interests or security.
A unilateral act in which you relinquish assets without anything in exchange, promises or guarantees, is illogical. It is perceived as an act of distress and will certainly bring about the opposite results of those intended. Implementing additional unilateral steps in the future will bring about a continuation of the erosion of our deterrence capability. It will not bring us any closer to peace, will strengthen the motivation of extremists in the region and might even lead to war.
The State of Israel is not Finland and certainly not Holland. The Middle East is a region that respects only those who respect themselves. It is important that we realize that we are living in this neighborhood, which has a unique logic, culture and philosophy and its own codes of behavior. If we don’t, we will continue making the same mistakes.

The writer is Chairman of the Smart Middle East Forum.