Leading Article: Why more bombs are no solution

Click to follow
This is war, says the Israeli president Chaim Weitzman; war with a view to talk. In that connection between conflict and conversation lies the puzzle behind Israel's escalating aerial and artillery attacks on Lebanon. Sooner or later the effort will have to be made to renew contact with Hizbollah or their surrogates and supporters in Syria. The glittering prize is a peace more solid and stable than the stand-off which ruled on Israel's northern border until last week.

Whether the talk takes place at first-hand or through intermediaries, a restoration of the cease-fire in southern Lebanon and northern Galilee is a necessity. (No one, least of all the Israelis, can believe that this campaign will extirpate the terrorists.) The question becomes: will this military activity impede or hasten that inevitable resumption of talk.

The answer must be that action on this scale is a mistake. Of course that is an easy enough judgement to make at such remove from Israeli border settlements within rocket reach of terrorist bases in Tyre. It is a judgement which has, too, to recognise that Shimon Peres is preferable as a winner of the national elections to be held in Israel at the end of next month and that this action undoubtedly has a short-run party political context to it. Yet the Israeli government has miscalculated.

One reason is tactical. Air power is not forensic. There is enough evidence of that from theatres of open war. Planes and howitzers cannot be trusted to eliminate guerrillas on the ground. Shells produce "collateral damage". However much the Israelis may protest about misinterpretation of pictures of civilian casualties, they must take the public reaction in allied and friendly countries into account.

Another is strategic. Some 400,000 refugees on the boulevards of Beirut fleeing from the south of Lebanon do not count as a victory. That movement of people will make an already ineffective Lebanese national government lamer still, crippling economic recovery. Lebanon becomes even less fit as a partner in peace. In a rational world, maybe fleeing civilians would pressurise the Lebanese government into taking action against Hizbollah. But on past evidence it will not happen. The Israelis, moreover, are fatally ambiguous about Lebanese sovereignty. A stronger, more authoritative Beirut government must be in Israel's longer-run interests. This action diminishes the prospect.

A third reason is diplomatic. This action threatens to destabilise the region. The Israelis have eventually to come to terms with Syria. To President Assad the Israeli attacks are a humiliation which can only retard the process. If, as seems likely, the United States gave tacit approval for this military action, its role as the broker of renewed conversations leading eventually to a peace treaty between Israel and Syria becomes difficult to pick up.

Faced with rockets and bombs in its towns and cities the Israelis probably had to respond. But was there not an option that would have contained the conflict within the border corridor? Instead of proportionality, Mr Peres has gone for a big bang. He seems to have calculated that a huge and sudden escalation - this is the biggest operation in Lebanon since the invasion in 1982 - would demonstrate his strength. Yet this is a political gamble as well as a terrible risk for Israeli citizens for this is a game of bloody tit for tat. The Israelis have mobilised and shown their armed prowess. Further bombardment will achieve nothing.