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Israel's wars of choice push its politics further to the right

Each time it starts a war for reasons short of existential necessity, its jingoistic right wing is strengthened

July 22, 2014 3:00PM ET

In the late 1980s, when I started applying a strategic-studies approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s own numerous smart scholars in the field would refer sagely to the fact that their still-young country had fought in two wars of choice. Their argument was that the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 were all somehow forced on Israel. But, they argued, Israel’s participation in the 1956 war against Egypt and its initiation of the 1982 war against the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon were much more clearly wars of choice, that is, wars that Israel’s leaders chose to enter rather than were forced to fight. Back then — remember, in the late 1980s Israel’s continued occupation of much of Lebanon was looking increasingly like a quagmire — there was a broad consensus in Israel that such wars were bad for Israel.

How times have changed.

Since 1982, Israel has engaged in seven additional wars of choice with its neighbors, with its current assault on Gaza being the seventh. Because these wars have aimed to achieve substantial change in the governance of its neighbors’ polities, I call them wars of forced regime change. Here is the list:

Year Target Strategic aim(s) Result
1982 Lebanon (1) To oust the PLO's forces from Lebanon and (2) install a pro-Israeli government in Beirut. Aim 1 achieved; aim 2 precariously and temporarily achieved
1993 Lebanon To inflict such pain on Lebanon that its people would turn against Hezbollah and its allies Not achieved
1996 Lebanon To inflict such pain on Lebanon that its people would turn against Hezbollah and its allies Not achieved
2002 Palestinian territories To dismantle the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza and the ability of the PA to exercise any meaningful functions of governance in either territory Partly achieved
2006 Lebanon To inflict such pain on Lebanon that its people would turn against Hezbollah and its allies Not achieved
2008 Gaza Strip To inflict such pain on Gaza that its people would turn against Hamas and its allies Not achieved
2012 Gaza Strip To inflict such pain on Gaza that its people would turn against Hamas and its allies Not achieved
2014 Gaza Strip To inflict such pain on Gaza that its people would turn against Hamas and its allies Unknown

We can draw several conclusions from this list. One concerns the way that Israel has fought each of these wars. From the get-go, it has intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure — usually under the pretext that such buildings were somehow connected to the military operations of its opponent. But anyone who has witnessed (as I have) the destruction of homes and businesses in Gaza or of vital roads, utilities and bridges in Lebanon can see that in none of these wars have Israeli commanders abided by the requirement of the laws of war that they take care not to inflict unnecessary harm on civilians or on objects vital to the survival and well-being of civilians.

Indeed, in all these wars, it has been clear from Israel’s military actions and the declarations of its political leaders at the time that the infliction of pain on civilians has been deliberate — usually in order to persuade the targeted population to rise up against the political group that is opposing Israel (though in 2002, the goal was more just to humiliate and tame rather than overthrow the Palestinian Authority). And though Israeli leaders claimed loudly that they warned civilians to get out of the way before launching these attacks, the issuance of such warnings does not exculpate Israel from the resulting fatalities. Plus in many cases, especially in Gaza, there has been no place safe where civilians could flee.

Also notable is that of the eight wars of choice listed, only in two of them — the wars of 1982 and 2002 — did Israel succeed in winning even a portion of its war aim. In five it failed to topple its opponent from power. Add to this a development from June 2000, when the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon the last of the Israeli forces, which had been in the country since 1978. That withdrawal was widely popular in Israel at the time and represented a tacit recognition by Israelis that all the deadly attempts to defeat Hezbollah in the preceding 15 years failed completely.

If so many of Israel’s wars of choice since 1982 have been failures from the political and strategic points of view, why has the Israeli political elite continued to launch them — and in recent years at an increased frequency?

War for other reasons

The first reason Israel launched these wars is simply that it could. This is also a part of the reason George W. Bush’s administration launched its war of choice against Iraq in 2003. When a leader makes the decision to launch such a war, he does so because the expected costs appear to him paltry enough that even fairly trivial factors, such as an expected gain in political prestige, can tip the balance in favor of the decision to launch.

Generally in earlier eras, national leaders have abided by some version of the classic just-war theory — that because war is always a terrible, inhumane and unpredictable thing, starting one should be the last option, after all other avenues for conflict resolution have been exhausted. But this was not, apparently, the case for Bush in 2003 or for a succession of Israeli leaders over the past 32 years.

Shimon Peres' rush to war against Lebanon in 1996 represented a massive cave to the forces of the right in Israel and provided further validation for their arguments.

These leaders judged that they could launch their wars with little appreciable downside; as a result, other factors in favor of starting the war — factors that fall far short of existential necessity — have been allowed to come into play. These include desires felt by many Israeli leaders to stave off a seemingly imminent domestic political threat from the country’s right wing or to be able to present themselves to the public as military hard-liners. 

The lesson of 1996

In the case of Shimon Peres, architect of the terrible 1996 assault on Lebanon, both of these factors were present. Peres, in early 1996, was an “accidental” prime minister who stepped into the role only after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (by the Jewish-Israeli ultrarightist Yigal Amir) the previous November. Peres had a clear choice: He could attempt to complete the negotiations on a final peace with Syria, for which Rabin had laid much of the groundwork, or he could opt for early elections. With characteristic indecision, he tried the first of these tracks before veering onto the other one. That February and March, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which were both still strongly opposed to the Oslo Accord, launched a series of suicide bombings in Israel. Peres, rattled (and evidently fearful that right-wing forces might outflank him in the elections), decided to launch a salutary war against Lebanon.

There wasn’t any valid casus belli, or cause for just war. When I interviewed Peres about the incident two years later, he seemed decidedly confused, telling me, “There were bombs in the south, so we had to reply militarily in the north.” The war could make sense only as a way for Peres to buff up his militaristic credentials as the election date approached. (He was almost the only member of that generation of Israeli leaders who had never served in the military.)

His ploy backfired. Israel’s ethnic-Palestinian voters were disgusted by the belligerence of the attack against Lebanon and stayed home from the polls in droves. Likud, the major right-wing party, won the elections, and Benjamin Netanyahu got his first time in the prime minister’s office — a development that dealt a significant blow to the Oslo process (though it was nonetheless in the U.S.’s interest to keep the charade of Oslo alive).

Peres’ experience in 1996 remains relevant. Netanyahu similarly senses a political threat from parties further to the right that he feels he must deflect. Additionally, for him, launching this war probably seemed like a good way of bulldozing right through the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement.

But it is also important to look at the effects that Peres’ 1996 rush to war had on the Israeli body politic. Here was Israel’s vaunted “Mr. Peace” arguing vociferously that Israel had no choice but to go to war in Lebanon. (Even when a war really is a war of choice, the leader who initiates it tends to feel obliged to claim he has no choice.) His rationalizations were a massive cave to the forces of the right in Israel and provided further validation for their arguments.

Conflict costs

And so it has ever been in Israel. Each time a leader has launched a war of choice while claiming he had no choice, the forces of the jingoistic right wing have been strengthened.

In the U.S., Bush’s launching of the Iraq War did not have the same outcome. The main reason: By 2006 it had become clear to U.S. voters that the war costs to Americans had become unacceptably high. War fever thus largely abated; this was visible both in the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president and in the broad resistance to U.S. military action in Syria last year. And though I’d like to think that the growth of war-weariness in this country has also been motivated by some concern for the effects of those conflicts on the people living in, for example, Afghanistan and Iraq, it has more likely stemmed from the financial and human costs Americans bore for those wars.

In Israel the voting public has felt little burden of any such costs from the wars its leaders have initiated against populations in the Palestinian territories. Only in the case of their campaigns against Hezbollah in Lebanon have they felt any costs — in those cases, overwhelmingly in the form of Israeli soldiers killed and wounded. But Israeli taxpayers have not had to bear much of a financial burden, since so much of their military costs are borne by American taxpayers instead.

The conclusion from this analysis is grim. The two main things that might shift the cost-benefit analysis for Israeli leaders contemplating wars of choice are that the U.S. stop bailing them out — financially and diplomatically — every time they launch a war and that resistance groups in the Palestinian territories inflict human losses on the Israeli military analogous to what Hezbollah did in Lebanon. If neither of these things happens, Israeli leaders will continue not to see any significant costs of their wars of choice and carry on periodically launching them. And as the past 32 years should show us, each time they do this, their society will shift — or lurch — even further to the right.

Helena Cobban is the founding owner of Just World Books, a Charlottesville, Va.-based book publisher. She is the author of seven books on international issues and has reported and written extensively about the Middle East for nearly 40 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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