If not now, when?

If I hadn’t lived in Israel during most of the 1990s, I probably would be more sympathetic to those who claim Israel is overreacting in its current military operation in Lebanon.

I remember Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996– both efforts by Israel to stop Hezbollah from launching rockets at northern Israel and to weaken or destroy it as a threat. In both cases, Israel succeeded temporarily in the first objective but not in the second. Hastily-arranged ceasefires stopped both operations before they could do much damage to Hezbollah’s leadership or military capacities.

At the time Hezbollah and its apologists could claim– with some apparent justification– that the root cause of the fighting was Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, a misbegotten effort to create a buffer against attacks after the 1982 war. All Israel needed to do, some commentators assured us, was to withdraw from Lebanese territory and the military arm of Hezbollah would lose its reason for existence.

Israel did withdraw in 2000. But Hezbollah used the subsequent years of relative calm on the border to reinforce its presence in southern Lebanon and to obtain thousands of longer-range and more dangerous missiles from Iran and Syria.

(In 2003 Robert Fisk wrote that reports of these missiles were a myth because “I travel the roads of southern Lebanon every two weeks and there are no such missiles, as the UN force there will confirm…” If Fisk and the UN didn’t see them, I suppose they don’t exist– which will be a relief to Israelis currently sitting in air raid shelters. One good result of this is that nobody will take seriously anything Fisk ever writes again– will they?)

Some on the Israeli right have recently been saying “I told you so” to those of us who supported the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. But as Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic:

Those of us who have supported unilateralism didn’t expect a quiet border in return for our withdrawal but simply the creation of a border from which we could more vigorously defend ourselves, with greater domestic consensus and international understanding. The anticipated outcome, then, wasn’t an illusory peace but a more effective way to fight the war. The question wasn’t whether Hamas or Hezbollah would forswear aggression but whether Israel would act with appropriate vigor to their continued aggression.

The Israeli withdrawals have been been– for me and I suspect many others– a great clarifier. Now that occupation is no longer an issue in these two instances, Israel’s right to oppose aggression on its territory should no longer be in doubt. If not now, when?

It is possible of course to take issue with Israel’s tactics, to say that it is doing too much damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure and needlessly killing civilians. (But Hezbollah uses much of that infrastructure to resupply; and if Israel really wanted to “slaughter” Lebanese civilians, the death toll would be in the tens of thousands instead of between 100 and 200.)

However I don’t doubt that many of these critics sincerely believe in Israel’s right to self-defense. Those who have better ideas on how Israel can respond to the attacks are welcome to put their suggestions in the comments or to email me– the more detailed the better. (One effort appears here.)

I can sort-of sympathize with those who throw up their hands and suggest both sides are equally to blame for the “cycle of violence,” but I think they are refusing to face unpleasant facts.

Those who believe Israel has no business responding to attacks other than by agreeing to whatever the attackers want are welcome to join like-minded people at the Stop the War Coalition or the ANSWER Coalition.