Sometimes the Dog Wags the Tail
[U.S. Role in Israel's War on
by Stephen Zunes
www.antiwar.com, May 23, 2007
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues
to resist pressure that he resign following the publication late
last month of the interim report by a special Israeli commission
on Israel's war on Lebanon last summer. Military chief Dan Halutz
has already been forced to step down, and Defense Minister Amir
Peretz has announced he will also be resigning shortly.
The report from the Winograd commission
concludes that "the decision to respond with an immediate,
intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive,
and authorized military plan." In making the decision to
go to war in Lebanon, the Israeli government "did not consider
the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy
Unlike previous Israeli commissions that
critically examined alleged government misdeeds and were appointed
by the Israeli Supreme Court, the Winograd Commission was appointed
by the Olmert government itself. That makes its harsh criticism
all the more surprising. It is also indicative of how, despite
years of military occupations and war crimes against its neighbors
by successive governments, as well as the systemic discrimination
against the country's Arab minority, Israeli democracy is strong
enough to allow for a rigorous investigation of their leaders'
decision to launch an unnecessary and self-defeating war. It's
more than can be said for the United States.
During the five weeks of fighting in July
and August, 119 Israeli soldiers and 43 Israeli civilians were
killed. More than 1,100 Lebanese were killed, the vast majority
of whom were civilians.
The commission failed, however, to address
the fact that the Israeli government went well beyond what constituted
legitimate self-defense in its response to Hezbollah's provocative
attack on an Israeli border outpost and kidnapping of two Israeli
soldiers by targeting major segments of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure
unrelated to the radical militia. The report also failed to directly
address the large-scale war crimes committed by Israeli forces
in its attacks on civilian population centers.
Bush Administration Exerted Pressure
Nor did the commission directly address
the reason as to why Israel, in the words of the report, decided
to "launch a military campaign and deviate from the policy
of containment." The answer in large part lies in pressure
exerted on Olmert by the Bush administration, which had long been
pushing the Israelis to launch a war on Lebanon to cripple Hezbollah,
the anti-American Shi'ite Islamist movement allied with Iran.
Seven weeks before the start of the war,
in his May 23 summit with Olmert, Bush strongly encouraged the
Israeli prime minister to launch an attack on Lebanon soon, offering
full U.S. support for the massive military operation. Just three
days later, Israeli agents assassinated two Islamic militants
in Sidon, leading to a series of tit-for-tat assassinations and
abductions which eventually led to Hezbollah's July 12 seizure
of two Israeli soldiers, which was then used as the excuse for
a war that had been planned for many months.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh quoted
a consultant with the U.S. Department of Defense soon after the
outbreak of the fighting as describing how the Bush administration
"has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a
preemptive blow against Hezbollah." He added, "It was
our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone
else doing it."
A War Planned in Advance
Rather than a spontaneous reaction to
Hezbollah's July 12 attack on Israel's northern border, as depicted
by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties,
Israel and the United States had been planning the war since at
least 2004. Israeli officials had briefed U.S. officials with
details of the plans, including PowerPoint presentations, in what
the San Francisco Chronicle described as "revealing detail."
Though the Winograd Commission report
cited poor planning on logistics, political science professor
Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University was quoted as saying,
"Of all of Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for
which Israel was most prepared. In a sense, the preparation began
in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal." In
addition, Hersh noted how "several Israeli officials visited
Washington, separately, 'to get a green light for the bombing
operation and to find out how much the United States would bear,'"
soon getting the final approval from Vice President Dick Cheney,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and soon thereafter President
George W. Bush.
Some reports indicated that Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was less sanguine about the proposed
Israeli military offensive, believing that Israel should focus
less on bombing and more on ground operations, despite the dramatically
higher Israeli casualties that would result. Still, Hersh quotes
a former senior intelligence official as saying that Rumsfeld
was "delighted that Israel is our stalking horse."
As Ze'ev Schiff, dean of Israel's military
correspondents put it, "Rice is the figure leading the strategy
of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz."
In an interview with the Israeli newspaper
Ha'aretz, Martin Indyk - who served in the Clinton administration
as assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and U.S.
ambassador to Israel - noted that the United States had no leverage
on Hezbollah except "through Israel's use of force."
As Ha'aretz analyst Shmuel Rosner wrote during the fighting, "the
way has been found for Israel to recompense the administration
for its supportive attitudes during the six year of the Bush administration,"
illustrating "the regional power's importance for the great
"America Is Fully Complicit"
As the fighting continued into its third
week and with civilian casualties mounting, international and
domestic pressure increased on Israel to stop the onslaught, but
Rice flew to Israel to push the government to continue prosecuting
the war. As veteran Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put it, "Rice
was back and forth, dictating when to start, when to stop, what
to do, what not to do. America is fully complicit."
By the first week of August, domestic
pressure was forcing the Israelis to rethink continuing the war
indefinitely. Fearing the Israelis might seek a cease-fire, Bush
reportedly told them, "You can't stop now; you're acting
for all of us." Israel indicated its willingness to accept
a 10,000-member NATO force in southern Lebanon as a condition
for a cease-fire, but the Bush administration was demanding that
Hezbollah accept a 30,000-member force or be defeated militarily
However, by the beginning of the second
week of August, it was becoming apparent to U.S. officials that
Israelis were becoming increasingly resentful of their role as
an American proxy. While the worsening humanitarian crisis and
international outcry was not enough for the Bush administration
to shift U.S. policy, a senior administration official reported
that "it increasingly seemed that Israel would not be able
to achieve a military victory, a reality that led the Americans
to get behind a cease-fire."
That the war on Lebanon was fought primarily
as an effort to advance America's hegemonic objectives in the
Middle East rather than as a defense of Israel's legitimate security
interests is made more apparent by how damaging the war was to
Israel's political and strategic interests.
An Unnecessary War
In the years prior to Israel's July 12
air strikes on Lebanese cities, which prompted Hezbollah's retaliatory
rocket attacks on Israeli cities, the militia had become less
and less of a threat. No Israeli civilian had been killed by Hezbollah
for more than a decade (with the exception of one accidental fatality
in 2003 caused by a Hezbollah anti-aircraft missile fired at an
Israeli plane illegally violating Lebanese airspace landing on
the Israeli side of the border), and there had been no Hezbollah
attacks against civilian targets since well before the Israeli
withdrawal in May 2000.
Virtually all of Hezbollah's military
actions between May 2000 and July 2006 had been against Israeli
occupation forces in a disputed border region between Lebanon
and the Israel-occupied portion of southwestern Syria. Hezbollah's
long-standing policy had been that they would fire into Israel
only in response to Israeli attacks on their political leadership
or on Lebanese civilians. When the Israeli government, in preparation
for the U.S.-backed assault on Lebanon, advised residents in northern
Israel to participate in a drill in May 2006, a number of communities
reported they could not locate the keys to the bomb shelters since
they had been out of use for so long.
Hezbollah was down to about 500 full-time
fighters prior to the Israeli assault, and a national dialogue
was going on between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government regarding
disarmament. As the Winograd Commission report points out, Hezbollah
was not enough of a serious threat to Israel's security that it
required such a massive strike against it, much less against the
civilian infrastructure of Lebanon as a whole. Though Hezbollah
had hardly renounced their extremist ideology, major acts of terrorism
were largely a thing of the past.
War Boosted Support for Hezbollah
The majority of Lebanese had opposed Hezbollah,
both its reactionary fundamentalist social agenda as well as its
insistence on maintaining an armed presence independent of the
country's elected government. Thanks to the U.S.-backed Israeli
attacks on Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, however, support
for Hezbollah grew to more than 80 percent according to polls,
even within the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Within
four months of successfully countering the Israeli invasion, Hezbollah
was in strong enough a position to launch a civil rebellion to
oust Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's moderate pro-Western
Even Richard Armitage, deputy secretary
of state during Bush's first term and a leading hawk, acknowledged
by the third week of the conflict that "the only thing that
the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against
As Israelis began to recognize how deleterious
the war was to Israel's legitimate security interests, a growing
awareness emerged of the American role in getting them into that
mess. Not long after the beginning of the war, reports began to
circulate how a growing number of Israeli leaders, including some
top military officials, were furious at Bush for pushing Olmert
to war. This was also apparent at the grassroots level. A Ha'aretz
article on an antiwar demonstration in Tel Aviv July 22 noted
how "this was a distinctly anti-American protest" that
included "chants of 'We will not die and kill in the service
of the United States' and slogans condemning President George
U.S. Congress Still Backing War
Though Israelis on the streets of Tel
Aviv may have been declaring their unwillingness to "die
and kill in the service of the United States," an overwhelming
bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress passed resolutions
that offered unconditional support for Bush's backing of the war
on Lebanon. The Senate version passed on a voice vote, and there
were only eight dissenting votes in the House. The House version
- co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), whom the Democrats
later named to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee - went
so far as to praise Israel for "minimizing civilian loss,"
despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and to claim that
the attacks were "in accordance with international law,"
despite an a broad consensus of international legal opinion to
A number of the otherwise liberal members
of Congress who supported the July 20 House resolution responded
to constituents' outrage at their vote by claiming they were simply
defending Israel's legitimate interests. In reality, however,
by supporting Bush administration's support for the massive Israeli
attacks and blocking international efforts to impose a cease-fire,
these self-proclaimed "friends of Israel" were in fact
defending policies which cynically use Israel to its detriment
in order to advance the Bush administration's militarist agenda.
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)
- now the front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination -
defended the role of the Jewish state as an American proxy, praising
Israel's efforts to "send a message to Hamas, Hezbollah,
to the Syrians, [and] to the Iranians," for their opposition
to the United States' and Israel's commitment to "life and
At that time, American journalist Robert
Scheer made the far more reasonable observation that "long
after Bush is gone from office, Israel will be threatened by a
new generation of enemies whose political memory was decisively
shaped by these horrible images emerging from Lebanon. At that
point, Israelis attempting to make peace with those they must
coexist with will recognize that with friends such as Bush and
his neoconservative mentors, they would not lack for enemies."
Overwhelming Bipartisan Support
Even Israelis who recognize the key role
the Bush administration had in goading Israel on to attack Lebanon
correctly emphasize that rightist elements within Israel had their
own reasons independent from Washington to pursue the conflict.
And yet, while they certainly believe that Israeli leaders who
agreed to serve as American surrogates and prosecuted the war
so poorly should be held accountable for their actions, there
is still enormous bitterness that the Bush administration - with
overwhelming bipartisan support from Congress - was so willing
to sacrifice Israeli lives and Israel's long-term security interests
to advance American imperial objectives.
Indeed, given the enormous dependence
Israel has on the United States militarily, economically, and
diplomatically, this latest war on Lebanon could not have taken
place without a green light from Washington. President Jimmy Carter,
for example, was able to put a halt to Israel's 1978 invasion
of Lebanon within days and force Israel to withdraw from the south
bank of the Litani River to a narrow strip just north of the border.
The strident condemnation of the former Democratic president by
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean,
and other leading Democrats in recent months in response to Carter's
recent book in which he reiterates his strong support for Israel
but criticizes its occupation policies as contrary to the interests
of peace and security is indicative how far to the right the Democratic
Party has come under its current leadership.
While the Lebanese people, their infrastructure,
and their environment suffered the most from this immoral and
misguided U.S. policy, Israel was a victim as well. Just as ruling
elites of medieval Europe cynically used some members of the Jewish
community as moneylenders and tax-collectors in order to maintain
their power and set up this vulnerable minority as scapegoats,
so the United States is cynically using the world's only Jewish
state to advance its hegemonic agenda in the Middle East, thereby
contributing to the disturbing rise of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish
sentiments in the Islamic world.
Despite the Winograd Commission's shortcomings,
Israelis should be commended for allowing a serious investigation
into their government's actions. But Olmert and other Israeli
leaders did not act alone. Americans who profess to care about
Israel should also demand an independent investigation here in
the United States as well to examine why the Bush administration,
with the support of such a broad bipartisan majority of Congress,
goaded Israel into waging an unnecessary war that cost the lives
of scores of its citizens and emboldened anti-Israel extremists
in Lebanon and beyond.