I sucked in my breath when I read of the latest Israeli spectacular--the abduction to Israel of a Shiite cleric and radical political activist in Lebanon. We recognize this pattern of audacious, usually successful Israeli operations to pay back their opponents in kind. But the seizure of a Muslim clergyman crossed a new line, one that seemed particularly dangerous. Indeed, this action may at least have contributed to the killing of the U.S. Marine officer, William R. Higgins. Even more serious confrontations and more killing may lie ahead as Israel challenges the radical Shiites on their own turf with their own techniques. Not that such clergymen, especially those directing the Hezbollah organization, are all holy men. They are deeply enmeshed in their ideological war against Israel and the West. But Israel escalated that war and thus challenged the deepest instincts of the Shiite psychology.
Israel has consistently demonstrated a willingness to declare no instruments off- limits in its fight against terrorism. Such a policy suggests that there is no higher value than combating terror. But if other values are to be temporarily suspended, they should at least work. That premise is deeply in doubt in this case. There is no question that Israel itself has been consistently provoked by terrorist action--although in recent years there have been few Israeli losses to Hezbollah terror. Nor is there any doubt that Israel knows how to play hardball; witness the assassination last year of key PLO leader Abu Jihad and Israel's consistent willingness to use high-performance jet aircraft against Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in response to Palestinian terror anywhere. But this time Israeli forces have seized the initiative with uncertain motives: to swap Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid for Israeli and Western hostages, or to distract world attention from the agony of the West Bank uprising and policy conflicts with the United States.
Why will this Israeli operation probably fail? Because there is an almost unbridgeable cultural chasm between the mentality of the radical militant Hezbollah and the Western mentality that seeks to use rational, "legal" instruments of state against it. In the end, few frontal techniques will deter the zealot mentality. The character of Hezbollah represents the extreme end of the spectrum--even among Muslim fundamentalists. The Shiite branch of Islam is a culture founded on the very premise of oppression, suffering and martyrdom as basic characteristics of life under un-Godly rule. Never mind that Hezbollah's antagonism toward the Israeli state invites an Israeli response; in its Shiite vision, Hezbollah expects to undergo suffering and martyrdom, which the Israelis--among others--are apparently willing to provide.
Israel cannot inflict pain to a level where Hezbollah will quit. That is the dilemma that Israel's leaders now face. Any effort to "out-fanatic" their Shiite enemies may engender a great deal more regional rage in the process. The tougher the Israeli response, the more Israel conforms to its expected role of oppressor. The only consolation for Israel is that Hezbollah cannot really operate inside Israel, and it is not about to undermine the security of the Israeli state, short of a regionwide shift to fundamentalism bred of frustration.
One can appreciate that Israelis feel uniquely pressured as they simultaneously struggle to come to terms with the \o7 intifada--\f7 again confronted by an adversary that draws some solace from suffering for a sacred nationalist cause. They now only dimly recall the heady quality of their own role of David against the British Goliath at the time of the foundation of the Israeli state. Now those roles are reversed--as so many Israelis are painfully aware.
So what can be done to prevent further such terrorist acts in Lebanon? The frank, depressing answer is: not very much. Lebanon presents a unique situation, a lawless jungle of competing, warring sects in which the zeal of the fanatic is an almost unstoppable weapon in the alleyways of religious and sectarian warfare. It is here that Lebanon differs so sharply from other states in the region: There is no state that can be held responsible, no "address" upon which a response can be visited.
For the United States, the dilemma is even greater. We are less able even than the Israelis to play with suspended rules of international conduct in these distant wars. There may be only one painful reality: that some minor degree of terrorism is the cost of doing business as a great--and conspicuous--power in the region.
We are troubled; we cannot simply turn our backs and allow this kind of evil to go unpunished. Yet the environment may be compared with that of our own inner cities. Dozens of lives--many completely innocent--are taken daily there. Some degree of rage helps fuel that violence, along with a healthy dose of plain old criminality. We are appalled, we struggle to improve the situation, but we cannot declare all-out "war" because we are dealing with an amorphous guerrilla force. We can only continue our police and intelligence work and maintain our vigilance toward a better day when a hopeless political environment evolves into something more amenable to traditional rules of law and order.
The same holds for the jungle that is Lebanon. If peace can come to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Lebanon should not lag too far behind. But in the interim, the jungle fighter knows his turf better than we--or even the Israelis--do.