Donald Macintyre: Lessons of Lebanon return to haunt Israel

Livni adopts hardline stance against truce as candidates seek votes in Israeli elections

Thursday 01 January 2009 01:00

Although their proposals differ in detail, two of Israel's best-known writers, Amos Oz and David Grossman, have joined the calls for a ceasefire after several days of Israel's offensive.

But Mr Grossman's article in Haaretz, which draws inescapable parallels with the 2006 Lebanon war, is especially poignant for a reason which he is far too dignified to mention. Had the war not been fruitlessly prolonged, his own tank-commander son, who was killed during its last days, would probably still be alive.

For there was a moment, back at the end of July 2006, when the second Lebanon war might just have ended five or six days after it began. We now know that Tzipi Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister, expressed serious concern that Israel might be missing a chance to reach a peace agreement at least as good as the one which would come a full four weeks and many hundreds of casualties – on both sides – later.

It is fairly clear that Ms Livni was right then. Yesterday, however, more than two years on, she was closely involved in the Israeli government's decision to reject the French proposal for a 48-hour humanitarian halt to hostilities in Gaza – one that her own ministry briskly described as "unrealistic" – and with it the possibility that it might have created a window for wider mediation on a possible durable ceasefire. Of course, there are differences between that conflict and this. But some of the confusion that emerged on Tuesday within the highest reaches of the government, about whether to pursue a ceasefire or prolong an operation which may include ground forces, is strikingly similar.

Quite a lot has changed since then, however. On the one hand, the international consensus in favour of a ceasefire – including, by all accounts, some fairly tough criticisms levelled behind the scenes at Israel's strategy by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice – is much more powerful than it was then. To be parochially British for a moment, on Lebanon, Prime Minister Tony Blair famously did not support the early ceasefire calls. On Gaza, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has done so, and so, as it happens, has the Quartet's Middle East envoy, Mr Blair.

On the other hand, Israel's political scene is much more complex now. Each of the main players in yesterday's decision will have to make heroic efforts if they are to remain unaffected by next month's election. Ms Livni is confronting a powerful challenge from the right in Benjamin Netanyahu. There have been dark media hints, however unjustified, that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might be able to secure a postponement of the election – as happened at the time of the Yom Kippur war though not when the intifada had begun to rage in 2001 – and prolong his own premiership, if the conflict drags on for long. The Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, also the Labour leader, apparently overruled for now at a meeting on Tuesday night, has shown the greatest interest in the French proposal. It isn't yet clear whether he sees it as a tactical prelude to a ground offensive once the truce is over, or as the opening to a ceasefire which will prevent one happening at all. But, while he too has incurred passing charges of electoralism, could it just be that, as the one pivotal minister with repeated first-hand experience of war, he has less taste for extending one now?

Which is not to say that rejection of the 48-hour truce proposal lacks a rationale. This is that Hamas is being exposed to a "learning process" about the inadvisability of firing rockets into Israel which has not yet been completed. But, what if it cannot be completed by military means, at least without the kind of mission creep which would end in the reoccupation of Gaza that Israeli ministers – sensibly – say they do not want? Hamas has elevated "martyrdom" to an ideal. Nothing suggests it is easily deterred by the loss of life among its own adherents, let alone Gaza's stricken civilian population, caused by continuing to fire rockets into Israel which have inflicted genuine fear and misery on the population of the western Negev, on and off, for eight years.

In fact, "quiet" cannot easily be achieved without an agreement. This is almost certainly available, and it would involve Israel agreeing to reopen crossings for commercial goods and Hamas would give up its frequent demands for the truce to be extended to the West Bank. Maybe this falls short of the obvious "victory" with which every war is supposed to end. But Israel would be entering, from a position of demonstrably enhanced military strength, into a deal which is in its interests. Leaving aside its dire humanitarian consequences, the economic blockade of Gaza has been, to put it mildly, counter-productive. It is hard to see how Israel's wholly legitimate security interests are served by prolonging an economic meltdown which leaves a generation of young Gazans no future except to join Hamas's burgeoning military and political payroll.

Such a deal may be needed to end the war even if, ground offensive and all, it is prolonged with potentially great loss of life not only among Palestinians but some, perhaps many, of the young Israeli soldiers on full alert round Gaza's border. Ministers repeatedly insist they have learnt the lessons of 2006. The danger, as Mr Grossman suggested this week, is that they may not have learnt the most important lesson: when to call a halt.

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