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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE MIDDLE EAST

Israel Needs Realism to Find Its Way in an Arab World

New forces, no longer subject to outdated regimes or outside meddling, will decide the region's future.

May 31, 2000|EDWARD W. SAID | Edward W. Said is an English professor at Columbia University and author of "The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After" (Pantheon Books, 2000)

Israel's defeat in southern Lebanon, its hasty withdrawal and the still-turbulent situation created after 20 years of a wasteful, incredibly destructive and, in the end, useless displays of military power requires sober analysis free of the distortions imposed by the U.S. media. The Israeli military presence in Lebanon was never really about the "defense" of Israel's northern border but about political objectives designed originally to defeat the Palestine Liberation Organization, then to change Lebanon's political structure to its advantage and finally to pressure Syria into accepting its diktats.

The first of these succeeded partially, and in 1993 ended up delivering an exiled and sidelined Yasser Arafat as a docile partner with Israel in ending the intifada, policing the still-occupied Palestinian territories and attempting (so far unsuccessfully) to conclude the Palestinian quest for self-determination to Israel's advantage. The other two policy objectives were abject failures, as witness the crumbling of Israel's mercenary South Lebanon Army (routinely described by the media as "Christian," whereas it was equally if not predominantly Shiite), the emergence of Hezbollah with a successful policy of resistance and counterattack and the continued refusal of Syria to accept Israel's terms on less than complete withdrawal before making any peace deals.

The stranglehold on U.S. media perspectives maintained by the supporters of Israel has produced an astonishingly reductive view of reality. Consider the use of the word "defense" to describe Israeli tactics, when it has the Middle East's only offensive air force, nuclear arsenal and a military-political apparatus totally supported by the world's only superpower. How can it be "defense" when for 22 years Israel has persisted in its military occupations, in bombing Arab capital cities, in destroying civilian infrastructures and, in Lebanon alone, causing at least 20,000 deaths and uncounted thousands of wounded? Or take the terms "peace" and "peace process." Israel has tried to force "peace" on subjugated leaderships in the Arab world, and at the same time has continued aggressive policies of colonization and annexation that have earned it opprobrium everywhere, except in the U.S. media, where its ethnic cleansing and systematic discrimination against non-Jews are either overlooked or justified cynically by exploiting Holocaust memories.

There is a wider and wider gap between U.S. supporters of Israel and Israeli citizens, a sizable majority of whom know that in the end Israel must acknowledge a realistic view of its own history and actuality before it can even nominally be accepted in the Arab and Islamic world.

No matter how many times deflating phrases like "Iranian-backed" or "terrorist" are affixed by Israel and its media allies to the militias that beat the fabled Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon, there is no way to explain away that entirely local campaign that Israel so conclusively lost. Israel's retreat from Lebanon was clearly the result of a determined popular resistance willing to take punishment and make sacrifices. Hezbollah was mobile (where Israel's huge armored and air preponderance were both cumbersome and ineffective, despite the damage they caused), braver and far more resourceful than the disillusioned and frightened foreign troops they faced alongside their treacherous local allies.

Since the U.S. media concentrated so one-sidedly on Israeli travails in Lebanon, it was forgotten that Israel had for more than 20 years defied the U.N. resolution enjoining it to leave and had for years imposed a dreadful regime of torture, collaboration and pillage on the Lebanese citizens there. Rid of this reign of terror at last, liberated southern Lebanon is the first challenge to the region's future that neither Israel nor the Arab regimes are likely to meet successfully.

The notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict might be ended has so far been based exclusively on what Anwar Sadat openly expressed and embodied, the idea that charismatic official leaders could negotiate a new peace between old enemies. This has been disproved by the examples of Egypt, Jordan and the PLO, whose leaders have gone all the way toward Israel without persuading their populations to follow suit. With only an insignificant number of exceptions, no cultural or political figure of independent national stature, no popular or really autonomous nongovernmental organization among those Arabs whose leaders have made peace with Israel has in any serious way accepted the peace. Israel has remained "unnormalized" and basically isolated at the only level that counts in the long run. Resistance to its presence (not to its existence--the difference is important) is still strenuously displayed.

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