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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON | NEWS ANALYSIS

ISRAEL: Lebanese Involvement Changes How Nation Sees Itself

Lebanon Leaves Its Mark on Israeli Psyche

May 26, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — When then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel first sent troops to war in Lebanon, he assured his people that the mission would last 48 hours and would venture no deeper than "40 kilometers" into the neighboring country.

That was a generation ago, and Israel has occupied parts of Lebanon ever since. Until this week.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Barak quoted the Bible as he contemplated how his nation became mired in the mud of Lebanon for more than two decades, and whether it was worth it.

"When we went in," he said, "there were those who said, 'And peace will reign in the land for 40 years.' But the fact is that our presence did not change the reality in south Lebanon and did not prevent Katyusha rockets from being fired" at northern Israel.

Many Israelis have never known a time when their nation was not entangled in Lebanon, and the legacy of the experience will divide this society and be debated for years to come. The conflict raised fundamental questions about the nature of real security and whether it is best achieved through invasion and occupation, or through negotiation and compromise.

As Americans did with the Vietnam War, Israelis are confronting their first military defeat. The conflict in Lebanon became the first time Israelis seriously challenged the generals and ex-generals who led them. It was an unpopular war that implicated Israel in egregious atrocities and cast it as the undisputed aggressor. It was what citizens here call their first "war of choice"--one that could have been avoided, as opposed to one that, in the Israeli view, was thrust upon the nation.

Ultimately, the Lebanon experience gave Israel the universal lesson of modern warfare: that a standing army cannot easily win a guerrilla conflict. The most enduring legacy here may be an awareness of the limits of power.

"Lebanon has had a sobering effect on the way we see ourselves," said Uri Dromi, who flew air force missions over Lebanon in the 1980s and today is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. "We are seeing that there is only so much a small country can do. We can't go marching into another country, pretend to arrange things there and convince the world it's OK."

Israel launched an initial incursion into Lebanon in 1978. That was followed by a full-scale invasion and war in 1982, aimed at rooting out Palestinian guerrillas who had staged deadly attacks inside Israeli territory. In 1985, Israel established a 9-mile-deep buffer zone along the border in southern Lebanon and built up a proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, to help patrol the area.

Did the occupation make this country safer? Attacks dropped off. But then the enemy changed. Israel's presence gave a raison d'etre to a new guerrilla force--Hezbollah, or Party of God--which, as Barak noted Thursday, "emerged out of nothing" to become the region's leading Islamic fundamentalist movement, determined to drive Israeli troops from Lebanese soil.

Hezbollah, with backing from Syria and Iran, proceeded to launch thousands of Katyusha rockets into northern Israel.

For two decades, Israel justified its occupation of Lebanon as the way to protect its northern communities. Yet today, thousands of lives and millions of dollars later--and beginning within minutes of Israel's withdrawal--huge crowds of angry Arabs are back on the northern border, waving weapons as they look down on Kiryat Shemona, Metulla and other Israeli towns and farms.

Barak says the way to defend the north is not with a buffer zone established in another country, but from Israel's own territory, with the unassailable threat of harsh reprisals if the nation is attacked, combined with redoubled efforts to negotiate a diplomatic settlement.

Barak spoke Thursday at a special session of the Knesset, or parliament, which convened in Kiryat Shemona as a gesture of solidarity following this week's swift exodus of Israeli forces. A poll Thursday showed overwhelming public support for the withdrawal, and Barak, who made leaving Lebanon a key campaign promise last year, was enjoying a rare wave of national accolade.

Ironically, Barak's Knesset speech was followed by one from opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who helped get Israel into Lebanon in the first place.

The Lebanon experience has had a profound impact on the national psyche and prompted soul-searching about the wisdom and motivations of the military adventure.

"The day we crossed the line in 1982, embarking on the first war not forced on us, it took a precious toll, not only in lives, but also in the values of Israeli society," Knesset member Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, daughter of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, said at the session. "It left deep scars. Let's hope the day we crossed the line on the way out of Lebanon marked the beginning of a new era in values and unity."

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