LEADING ARTICLE : Path of peace perverted

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Shimon Peres, we were asked to believe last week, had no choice but to turn the Israeli armed forces loose on Hizbollah in southern Lebanon. Unless he wins next month's election, this argument runs, the peace process is dead, and without this show of machismo, Israelis will not vote for him. It was for the sake of peace, then, that innocent families were slaughtered by bomb and shell, and for the sake of peace that the sanctuary of the United Nations was violated. It is hard to imagine a worse perversion of the idea of peacemaking than Operation Grapes of Wrath, or a greater insult to the idea of democracy than killing foreigners to win votes. And the consequences? Hizbollah, an organisation that thrives on martyrdom, is both nourished and provoked, so that we must now fear a revival in its international activities. Lebanon, which for once was enjoying some stability, is shaken, divided and humiliated. Egypt and Jordan, partners in the peace process, are alienated and their sceptics are reinforced. Syria's cage is rattled and its authority augmented. International sympathy with Israel is eroded. And Mr Peres's chance of winning the election is barely improved. The architect of all this is, paradoxically, a genuine peacemaker by instinct, with a proud record in the pursuit of settlements with Israel's neighbours and with the PLO. That there has been a peace process at all is owed in considerable measure to him, and it has long been a cliche to describe him as "doveish". He has been brought to this path of war by the killing of Yitzhak Rabin, his predecessor, whose personality and military record had offered Israelis more reassurance than he can. The suicide bombers of Hamas, too, have played their part, leaving Israelis angry and all the more unsure of peace. And in a small way the Katyushas of Hizbollah, launched from southern Lebanon, have helped to make a hawk of Mr Peres.

It may have seemed clever at first: bomb and shell south Lebanon to prove he can be tough, but send no ground troops in, thus avoiding Israeli losses. Hizbollah, not much more than an irritant to Israel in recent times, thus becomes a scapegoat on whom the national rage against Hamas is vented. The Peres government may not be able to crush the Palestinian bombers at home, but it can show those Lebanese fundamentalists a thing or two. As for repercussions abroad, the calculation was that nobody would make much fuss for the sake of such sworn enemies of peace. These calculations, for a few days at least, proved accurate. There were no Israeli losses, and the offensive was popular with Israeli voters. Moreover the United States, Britain, the European Union and even the Arab nations were conspicuously slow and muted in their protests. Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, who was visiting Israel, behaved with astonishing crassness. "It is the right of every country to have security and defend herself," he declared. "I don't believe that Israel wishes to kill any civilians and for that reason civilians have been withdrawing for their own security." Few would have gone that far (the Foreign Office did not, for one), but Western governments see themselves as the friends of peace, of Mr Peres and, in most cases, of Israel. So they kept mum. But Mr Peres was not playing his part, as a dove, when he went to war, and they were not playing their parts, as friends, when they failed to reprimand him. Had they acted firmly or quickly, they might have stopped him and prevented the calamity that has ensued.

The Israeli Prime Minister emerges from this at best as a tragic figure, lacking the courage of his peaceful convictions and undone by the consequent misjudgement. The belief, often expressed, that if a Likud government were elected it would destroy all hope of peace, may be correct and it may not be. (It was a Likud prime minister, we should remember, who made peace with Egypt.) It is certainly a legitimate piece of electoral rhetoric. But it does not give Mr Peres a licence to act in any way he likes to prevent a Likud victory. What he has done is to behave as Likud would and endanger the peace process in precisely the manner he says that they will. And still Likud may win the election. Those governments which claim to be Mr Peres's friends, and to be supporters of peace, must make up for lost time now and salvage what can be salvaged.