Israel must weigh the risks of war or peace

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2006, 12:00am

Israel enjoyed unprecedented support from its principal allies when it launched its recent offensive against Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice articulated the partisan view that the root causes of the crisis were to be found on the Arab and Muslim side, that Hezbollah was an arm of global terror and Islamic fanaticism and an agent of Syria and Iran.

However, the situation in which Israel now finds itself falls far short of the aims of its military operation, which were to destroy Hezbollah's military infrastructure in southern Lebanon and to remove the threat of rocket attacks on Israeli citizens. Because of these shortcomings, the operation has not only failed to reassert Israel's deterrent military power, it has undermined it.

The world is now contemplating a shift in the regional balance of power.

Hezbollah has announced that it will not disarm or withdraw its guerillas from its political heartland. Six years after Israel ended its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, the Shi'ite south remains fiercely dedicated to the organisation. It is now inextricably woven into the social fabric of a region that is home to some of Lebanon's poorest citizens. It has underpinned its military presence with a vast social network that finances health care and education and other services.

Thus Israel is now confronted on its borders with two enemies with solid local support. The other is Hamas, which easily won Palestinian parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Little wonder the outcome has sparked a sense of crisis in the Israeli political and military establishment, or that there are calls for an official inquiry into the conduct of the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's recent election mandate for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank along with the annexation of major Jewish settlements on occupied land is now looking shaky. There will be opposition from those who believe that withdrawal invites even closer rocket attacks and weakens the army's deterrent power.

He will also be under pressure from the left to begin overtures for peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr Olmert's main coalition partner, the Labour Party, insists that Israel at least try to negotiate. This would represent an attempt to return to the internationally backed road map to peace through negotiations on a two-state solution. But Hamas would first have to renounce violence and lay down its arms and recognise the right of Israel to exist.

Israel and the US, meanwhile, need to recognise that the root causes of the crisis are not only to be found on the Muslim side. Israel may not have caused global terror and Islamic extremism but its military strikes can only inflame them. The 34-day war is a reminder that Israel must be prepared to take risks for peace, because the danger of future wars could be greater.