(Published on Haaretz Web site, June 2004)
News from Lebanon on Monday suddenly interrupted the media's focus on the political aftershocks of the government's decision to approve an ambiguous version of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to disengage from some of the territories conquered in June 1967. It seems that some tremors from another important June in Israel's history - June 1982, when then-defense minister Sharon led the IDF into Lebanon – also continue to reverberate.
The initial reports filed from international news agencies spoke about rocket or mortar fire from Lebanon that fell short of Israel's northern border. The IDF Spokesman's Office later said that the rockets were aimed at an Israel Navy ship operating within the country's territorial waters, south of the Lebanese border. Another army source later claimed that the rockets were directed against land targets in Israel.
Despite this apparent uncertainty over the intended target, the IDF identified the source of the rocket fire as Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front organization, a Damascus-based Palestinian group operating in southern Lebanon. Later in the day, Israel responded with an air strike against some abandoned buildings near Beirut that had served as a base for Jibril's group.
What prompted the Popular Front to unleash this rocket fire? Haaretz commentator Zvi Bar'el does not attribute any particular significance to the timing of the rocket attack. "The timing was just as good any other," he says. That is, the group identified an opportunity to flex its muscles and took advantage of it.
But there was nothing so arbitrary in Israel's response, according to Bar'el. Rather than strike against the area where the rockets were launched, Israel decided this time to conduct a bombing raid further north, just 20 kilometers from Beirut, the heart of the country's resurgent economy. It was Israel’s first such military operation near Beirut since the IDF’s pullout from Lebanon four years ago.
This "extraordinary" decision to strike near Beirut reflects a new political strategy adopted by Israel, Bar'el explains. "Israel has made a strategic decision to hold the government of Lebanon responsible, rather than pursue separate campaigns against Hezbollah and other groups operating in Lebanon."
Indeed, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared after the air strike Monday night: “This is a signal to the Lebanese government. There is a government in Lebanon and it is responsible for what goes on in its territory."
But this is not the first time that government spokesmen have talked about holding Lebanon responsible for any attacks against Israel emanating from Lebanese territory. Nonetheless, Bar’el discerns a difference this time. “While this may have been Israel’s declared policy in the past, the government now seems to have decided to implement it.
In an interview with Army Radio Tuesday morning, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, said that this message also extends to Lebanon’s overlord in Damascus. Israel’s action in Lebanon Monday night was intended as “a warning that there will be a high price to pay if terrorist activity continues,” Steinitz said.
But Lebanon, not Syria, is the primary address. Israel did conduct a bombing raid inside Syria last year in the wake of the Maxim Restaurant attack in Haifa, but this was more of a one-time response aimed at pressuring Damascus to shut down the headquarters of terrorist organizations in Syria, Bar’el notes.
Lebanon is also more likely to be responsive to the “message” Israel is seeking to impart. “They have a problem,” Bar’el explains, noting that Lebanon’s free press makes the government more susceptible to public pressure to prevent the type of incidents that occurred on Monday – especially as the summer tourism season approaches.
It is interesting to note that the skirmish on the northern front Monday apparently did not involve Hezbollah, Israel’s main foe in southern Lebanon. But the militant Shi'ite organization got into the act the next day, firing volleys of mortar and rocket shells at IDF positions in the disputed Shaba Farms (Har Dov) border area on Tuesday afternoon.
Besides seeking to demonstrate its presence, Hezbollah may also be interested in trying to heat up the northern border as a means of pressuring Israel to complete the second half of the prisoner exchange initiated earlier this year. However, Bar’el says, Hezbollah clearly understands that it would lose political clout in Lebanon if it acts against the country’s economic interests. For this reason, it has been careful to confine its attacks against Israel to the Har Dov area.
In any case, Israel’s response Monday was clearly intended as a reminder to Lebanon to rein in Hezbollah, and not just the Palestinian splinter groups.
Finally, is the escalation in Lebanon related to the government decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip and several settlements in the West Bank? Opponents of the plan like to cite the precedent of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon as the inspiration for the Palestinian intifada. According to this thesis, the retreat from Lebanon severely damaged Israel’s deterrent strength, which is being further eroded by talk of evacuating Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Bar’el does not subscribe to this theory of erosion – at least as far as Lebanon is concerned. “In Lebanon, Israel has not lost its deterrence,” he decisively states. Israel’s demonstrative response to the rocket attack on Monday was clearly intended to underline and bolster this deterrent threat, especially after a dramatic government decision Sunday that some might interpret as a sign of battle fatigue.
(Published on Haaretz Web site, June 20, 2004)
The last several weeks in Israel have been relatively quiet on the security front. Stories about killer dogs and court battles between biological and adoptive parents are filling the headlines - almost like a normal country. Without horrific terror attacks splashed on the front pages, making the blood of Israelis boil, perhaps it's an opportune time for Yasser Arafat to mount a comeback.
Some readers may suspect that Haaretz has taken upon itself the mission of rehabilitating the Palestinian leader, whom the government has declared "irrelevant" and marked for deportation. Indeed, the lead articles in the weekend supplements of Haaretz during the past two weeks have focused on Arafat and raised question marks about the popular conception that he is not a partner for peace.
The first article (Popular Misconceptions by Akiva Eldar, June 11) exposed dissension within the ranks of Israel's army intelligence regarding Arafat's intentions. On one side, Amos Gilad, the former directory of army intelligence, insists that Arafat never intended to make peace with Israel. Gilad's former commanding officer, Amos Malka, offers a different assessment, arguing that Arafat is a potential partner for peace. Moreover, Malka - as well as other intelligence experts interviewed in follow-up articles - contend that army intelligence never compiled evidence supporting the conclusion that Arafat is still hell-bent on destroying Israel.
This article sparked considerable debate within Israel and this prompted a decision by Haaretz to request an interview with Arafat to hear his own first-hand account. "What's the point of having a controversy about someone who lives down the road, let's go and ask him," explains Haaretz editor David Landau. So Landau and Akiva Eldar traveled last week to Arafat's compound in Ramallah - the Muqata. This meeting resulted in the second of the front page articles about Arafat in Haaretz. (A Jewish state? `Definitely', June 18)
It was Landau's first interview with the Palestinian leader and it seemed to leave him with more questions than answers. "I now understand better why there's this controversy...because he's very difficult to fathom - he's deliberately opaque." What are Arafat's real intentions? "I think that he himself doesn't know...it depends on how things turn out," Landau suggests.
The text of the interview contains something for everyone, Landau says. Right-wingers can interpret some of his comments as confirming Arafat's bellicose intentions, while those on the left can find encouraging words to bolster their confidence in his commitment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Nothing has changed
One strong impression Landau took from the meeting was that Arafat believes the intifada has not fundamentally changed his role. "He speaks as though negotiations are in recess...he knows all the minutiae of everything and he's still engaged...in his mind, nothing has changed," Landau says.
Landau denies that Haaretz is on a mission to rehabilitate Arafat, but is convinced that the policy of isolating the Palestinian leader in his Ramallah compound is counter-productive from Israel's perspective. "I came out terribly depressed. Israel is doing itself an historic disservice which is going to take its toll on us for a long time to come by treating him in this demeaning way, keeping him in these conditions."
Landau notes that Arafat is also taking full advantage of this situation to win points in the battle for world opinion. "The place is in ruins - they're carefully preserving the ruins. The place stinks. His own office needs a coat of paint - but they want it to look as miserable as possible so when people come they can say: 'Look what the Israelis are doing to me.' And this, I think, will come back to haunt us."
Eldar had already met with Arafat a number of times in the past, including two previous visits during the intifada. If Arafat's comments are ambiguous, this is because he is trying to maneuver between the expectations of his Israeli guests and the demands of his own constituency, Eldar says. Nonetheless, Arafat made some very significant statements during the interview, according to Eldar, especially in regard to the central issue of Palestinian refugees.
The newspaper's role
According to Eldar, Arafat paid a price by stating that he "definitely" recognizes Israel's concern with maintaining its identity as a Jewish state. But Eldar did not expect Arafat to reveal all his "cards" in a newspaper interview. It's up to the Israeli government, not Haaretz, to determine how much Arafat is willing to pay for a final accord with Israel, Eldar says.
Eldar also believes it is not Haaretz's role to lead a "crusade" to rehabilitate Arafat. The newspaper's role, he says, is to "help people ask the right questions" and recognize the complexity of the issue. He believes the series of articles on Arafat during the past two weeks "have created doubts" in the minds of Israelis. More people now understand that the question of whether or not Arafat is a partner is not such a simple one.
In Eldar's view, Arafat is not a perfect partner, but the alternative is the status quo. "There's no third alternative. It's either Arafat or nothing," he says. But in the end, Eldar reiterates, this fateful decision is up to the readers and the Israeli government to decide.