And Now, For A Different Opinion

Last Friday, I linked to a piece by David Morley in the Washington Post, in which he compared coverage of the war in Arab, European, and American media. My friend Jonathan Edelstein, who describes himself as “pro-Israel, pro-Lebanon, anti-indiscriminate slaughter” sent me this note in response, which I’m posting with his permission:

The link about the difference in media coverage between the US, Europe and the Arab world was interesting, but I think the bottom-line difference involves attitudes rather than geography. The difference is between three propositions: (1) Israel is fighting justly in a just cause; (2) Israel has a just cause but is fighting unjustly; and (3) Israel is unjust in both its cause and its tactics.

The American media, with exceptions, tends to support proposition (1). I don’t think its support of this proposition has much to do with Israel, though; it’s more because American thinking tends to conflate the concepts of just cause and just tactics. The default American opinion is that if someone starts a fight, the other party has the right to finish it by any means necessary, which means that to many Americans, the only significant fact is that Hizbullah struck the first blow.

Most of the European media seems to favor proposition (2) – e.g., the recent Guardian editorial suggesting that Israel’s tactics are unacceptable but that its war aims vis-a-vis HA are reasonable. This is my opinion as well, which may be why I often find myself agreeing with the western European war coverage.

The Arab media – again with exceptions – centers around proposition (3), arguing that HA’s actions were justified by Sheba’a Farms or support for the Palestinians, or that Israel is an aggressor nation by definition. There has, however, been some criticism of HA’s irresponsibility even within this framework.

For what it’s worth, I’m hearing that Israel made three major mistakes. The first, which may not be entirely Israel’s fault, is that it got a lot of bad target intel regarding Hizbullah, resulting in many places being bombed in the mistaken belief that they were HA-related. The second, which is Israel’s fault, is that the IDF has been trigger-happy in attacking targets that might be Hizbullah – e.g., attacking truck convoys on their way to and from HA-controlled towns. The third is that the IDF was seduced by the air-power doctrine, which may be the biggest tactical mistake of all – not only isn’t it possible to win a war from the air, but it also isn’t possible to strike surgically from the air. The IDF essentially committed itself to a tactical doctrine that was guaranteed to lead to major civilian casualties, and has begun switching tactics only in the past few days.

To this, I’d add at least one other mistake and one inescapable fact. The mistake is that Israel didn’t have a well-thought-out diplomatic plan to accompany, or better to pre-empt, the use of military force. The inescapable fact is that nobody has yet developed a good way to fight against a non-state militia, if “good” is defined as minimizing death and destruction to civilians.

All this is by way of saying why I’m not cheering either side in this war. I’d like to see Hizbullah lose, and I’d like to see some mechanism put in place to prevent it from committing further acts of aggression, but that doesn’t mean I want the IDF to win. I’d prefer some kind of multilateral diplomatic solution in which both the UN and Israel support the Lebanese government and in which Israel helps in the rebuilding.

My real concern is for the civilians on both sides of the border, and for the Lebanese nation. I’m concerned for Israelis as individuals but I’m not really worried about Israel’s future: Israel is a strong country and will come out of this with the state intact. I’m far from sure that this is true of Lebanon, where the state is much more fragile. A failed state in Lebanon would be a disaster for both the Lebanese and the entire region, and preventing this must come before anything else.

I don’t agree with the way in which Jonathan’s argument is framed, i.e. whether or not Israel is right. There are, after all, at least three parties here, and confining the discussion to the righteousness of only one party doesn’t seem to me to cover the issue. I am also not convinced that Israel’s bombings of certain Lebanese ‘targets’ were simply ‘mistakes’ due to ‘bad intel.’ Some of the targets included a milk factory (a milk factory, for crying out loud), red-cross ambulances, and far, far too much general infrastructure for it to have been due to bad intelligence. To the Lebanese, the bombings look like the systematic destruction of their nation by a neighbor.

I do agree with Jonathan that there isn’t a very thought-out strategy at work here. I am mystified as to what Olmert thinks he can achieve. Destroying Hizbullah? The destruction of Lebanon and the deaths of so many civilians have virtually guaranteed that Hizbullah will have plenty of recruits at this point. This war is a disaster for Lebanon and politically also for Israel, and the only ‘winning’ party that I can see here would be Hizbullah, since it will likely gain in strength. I also agree that there is no serious threat to Israel here; it will survive this war as it has others before it. The biggest loser this time around is likely to be Lebanon, a country that has already suffered two brutal occupations and a civil war, and was just barely getting back on track. And I share Jonathan’s concern for civilians, although since the U.S. and Britain are stubbornly refusing to back a ceasefire, I do not hold out much hope for them.

Do you agree? Disagree? If you’d like to share your opinion, send me a note at llalami AT yahoo DOT com.

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