Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Part I: Talking to Israel

Flipping through the thousands upon thousands of pages of commentaries, news articles, blogs, and editorials from a wide spectrum of view points I’ve tried to really understand how and why there seems to be such disagreement on everything! What I’ve really taken issue with is the following: the Israeli moderate public’s opinion about the war, and statements by Lebanese people supporting what Hizballah did and the celebratory mood of Hizballah’s supporters following the cessation of hostilities.

The biggest damage done to Israel as a result of this war has been that done to the Israeli people’s psyche. These people have reconciled themselves with living in the most turbulent part of the world – with emigrating to this place – by convincing themselves that their military has the will and the power to crush any threat that emerges to their existence. For them, the concept of a military loss to a neighboring party – especially Hizballah, given the damage its resistance efforts had already inflicted on the Israeli public’s psyche – has been traumatizing. Dr. Ronnie Berger, a clinical psychologist and founder of Psychologists Without Borders, is quoted in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz as saying:

"It's not only that we didn't prepare for this war…but that people here are still harboring a feeling that the army will be victorious, and when they acknowledge that this mock army of Hezbollah is not so weak, they snap. All the primeval fears about the world seeking our destruction surface, the connection to the Holocaust is subsequently made, and this causes people to sink into despair."

It is this mentality that has been a major obstacle in Arab-Israeli relations, not on the state-to-state level, but on the popular level. Despite years of peace and economic trade, it would still be nearly impossible to find an average Egyptian man/woman capable of understanding the reasoning process of an average Israeli man/woman when it came to politics and security. This condition is a symptom of the political mentality present in both populations. In relations with their Arab neighbors, the Israeli public strongly believes that they must approach any talks or dealings with a superior hand, with an ability to dictate – and not negotiate – terms. This view has dominated Israel’s regional politics since the death of their greatest peacemaker, Yitzhak Rabin. It has also dominated their judgement and analysis of other countries’ actions on the ground.

Reading comments and posts found on some Israeli blogs I found that the most recurrent theme amongst their moderates was that Lebanon should assume its responsibilities and deploy its army to the South, and that the Lebanese had a chance to disarm Hizballah and didn’t. This second point took two forms depending on the authors knowledge and understanding of Lebanese and regional politics; those more familiar with the situation argued this was the case after the Cedar Revolution and Syria’s withdrawal from the country in 2005; others contended that that action should have been taken after Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. What all of these people failed to realize was that the Lebanese government was in fact working towards that goal – since the Cedar Revolution – but that it was working towards it in a way that was different than the one advocated by Israel (and the U.S.). They failed, and still fail, to realize that even if moderates in Lebanon want the same thing as those everywhere else, the actions taken in Lebanon can’t be dictated or done in the manner that Israel (or any other country) would wish them to be done. Lebanon is a country with a unique set of circumstances, and one through which actions only work when they are purely Lebanese in nature.
Through this war Israel had a chance to really push forward both its own and Lebanon’s wish to live in peace. The fact that this didn’t happen is a symptom of this chasm in the psyches of the two populations! In Lebanon, there was a thrust, by the moderate government in place, to capitalize on the abduction of the two IDF soldiers and move against Hizballah, to disarm the group, and assert the government’s sole sovereignty over the entirety of Lebanon’s territory. This is exactly what the Israelis claim they have always wanted from Lebanon and what they thought they would achieve through this offensive. To them, however, this war was a valid method of achieving this goal! To me, the best policy might have been for the Israelis to have given the government a chance to intervene to secure the release of those abducted soldiers under threat of a war, but to the Israeli public – the IDF believed – any lack of immediate military action would look like weakness in the face of Israel’s enemies. There had to be a maintenance of the military upper hand, of the dictation. So even though in this case both the majority of Lebanese and the majority of Israelis both wanted the same thing, this difference in how each perceives the world led to a massive loss of life and property.
I know it’s a bit weird reading this, for me it’s a bit weird writing it as I personally don’t like making generalizations. But I don’t think this is a generalization, what I’ve been talking about is a sort of general psychological culture that has been bread throughout the Israeli population that helps them deal with everyday life. Some people adhere to it more than others, some in Israel completely reject it, but I think its fair to consider this as being an affliction of the national psyche.


  1. I am an israeli you invited to comment on this article thru jean souc blog.

    First of all i think that taking somebody from Haaretz as an authority on the Israeli public opinion is unwise.

    Israel is an extemely pluralistic society to the point of freakiness. For example the wife of olmert is a well known leftist supporting meretz. His daughter is openly lesbian and leftist too and took part in anti war demonstrations staged in front of the olmert's office during the war . By the end of the day they all meet at home to have a dinner together.

    Consider fot example the follwoing tips from the economists guide to tel aviv:

    "Israelis hold extremely diverse opinions, love to argue, and are adept at maintaining working relationships, friendships and even marriages with people with radically opposed political views...


    Don’t assume anything about your contacts’ politics from their religious or ethnic background. Often there is no correlation."

    Israel had its share of leftist people who like to play the role of the consiounce of the nation and blame the Israeli society in shovinism , racism or whatever. This is not necesarily true or representative of general opinion. The person you are quoting presents a lop sided and inaccurate account of the current mood in Israel.

    Specifically Hezbollah was always considered in Israel as the best arab military force and Nasrallah is considered universally as a smart person. The rage is fully against the government and the army. People here dont see it as a military defeat , more like a moral , or media defeat and think that the government started ground offensive too late, was afraid of casualties and should nt have agreed to any ceasefire without getting the two soldiers back.


    To your main question about why israeli politicians did nt see that the lebanese government is not trying to achieve the same goal of disarming nasrallah

    I have little idea of how exactly the israeli leadership sees the situation in lebanon but practically i doubt they had any other way to respond.

    In terms of how much israeli politicians understand the balance of forces inside Lebanon and the real power of the lebanese government consider these two peaces of information.

    1) By the end of the war Shimon Peres was interviewed on the tv and said something like this - we ve been thinking that there is a hezbollah state inside the state of Lebanon , but as we see now apparently the opposite is true

    2) by the end of the second week there were still ministers who during the meetings of the cabinet were demanding to bomb more of the lebanese infrastructure to pressure the lebanese government to disarm Hezbollah.

    Make your own conclusions

  2. Hi nobody,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with you on the point that there is a wide variety of viewpoints and political opinions in Israel and I've tried to promote that view through other posts (e.g. ...IDF for short posts).

    In this post I tried to highlight what I saw as the set of presumptions or priors on which much of the logic underlining the arguments I encountered from Israeli people I debated with. Whether the person uses the logic to steer their political opinions left, right, or center is not in question.

    I think the IDF had to take strong action because of these currents in internal domestic opinion, I think the government mishandled the war in that they didn't take a definitive stance, they let the IDF be aggressive to the point of counterproductivity on the Lebanese state-to-state level while holding them back enough for it to be counter-productive on the domestic opinion front.

    There are forces for peace in Israel as there are in Lebanon, but these forces seem to be continually marginalized by the more determined hardliners.

  3. Anonymous6:33 AM

    I live in Mid-continental North America. I have read your blog and enjoyed it. You seem like a basically sensible person. North America used to be far away from the Middle East before 9/11/2001. Since Osama proved North America is really NOT very far from the psychopathologies of the Middle East, we have taken more interest in Middle Eastern affairs.
    My perceptions from this side of planet Earth are:
    - Israelis have treated Palestinians wrongly. And the Palestinians have responded with absolute, utter, craven, bloodthirsty insanity.
    - A very large, important, and highly influential number of Arabs hate Israelis not because of sympathy for Palestinians, but because of a primal hatred that will not cease unless the Israelis cease to exist.
    - The main thing Israelis want from non-Palestinian Arabs is peace. (For the last 50 years they really didn't know WHAT they wanted from the Palestinians, but recent events have made it clear that simple separation and lack of explosions would be enough.)
    - Lebanon warred on Israel in 1948, and if my history is correct, was the first Arab state to do so. And despite the passage of so many years, still no Lebanese efforts to recognize Israel as a nation and make a formal peace.
    - Hezbollah is a very large, important, and highly influential organization. It is not committed to peace with Israel, it is committed to its destruction. Moreover, events have shown it is, or was, well-armed, with good fighters, and eager to attack whenever it sees advantage. If I were Israeli, I would consider Hezbollah a dangerous enemy. I would be very interested in destroying Hezbollah.
    - Lebanon not only harbors Hezbollah, it encourages it. Therefore, Lebanon, since 1948 never having committed itself to peace with Israel, is also Israel's enemy. If I were Israeli, I would NOT be very interested in Lebanese excuses for harboring Hezbollah.
    - If I were Israeli, and I could destroy Hezbollah by razing the Lebanese countryside and killing many Lebanese, I would do that. If there were a peaceful way to destroy Hezbollah, I would prefer that. If there were a way to simply make a Hezbollah only a peaceful social service organization, I would prefer that above all. But whatever the method, I would not wait until Syria or Iran gives Hezbollah chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons to put in the nosecones of their missles that have proven they can reach most of my cities.
    - If I were Israeli, I would be dissatisfied with the results of the recent unpleasantness in Lebanon. And unless the Lebanese promptly excise their Hezbollah cancer, I would be back in Lebanon again, soon, with more force.

    But I am not Israeli, I am not even Jewish, so I will not do any of those things. But I will not condemn them for doing what I myself would do. Hell, if Hezbollah were in Cuba and launched even one dud missile at Florida, I'd be in favor of immediate invasion and destruction of Hezbollah, and decapitation of the Cuban government that allowed it, no matter what hardship it caused the Cubans.

  4. Hi Ticonderoga2HB (is that your name?)

    Thanks for your comment, I'll definitely reply in full asap...

    ...Briefly, I found your Cuba analogy pertinent, and useful in helping understanding American general opinion.

    More later!

  5. Putting the Lebanese issue aside for a second, I think you’re completely wrong on the point of unbridled Arab hate for Israelis. There have been clear and undeniable movements towards peace on the Arab side for the past 30 years. For instance, witness the peace treaties in Egypt and Jordan, the trade, tourism, and normalization agreements in Mauritania, Morocco, Tunis, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain, and the continued pursuit of peace by the Syrians and Palestinians through secret negotiations (I’m currently typing up some quotes from Bill Clinton’s My Life detailing the extent of the secret negotiations between the Syrians and the Israelis).

    The reason for these movements is that Arabs genuinely want to live in peace with their neighbors. There main obstacle to the advancement of these agendas among the populations of those countries has been the empathy felt for the Palestinian cause. I guarantee you that if there were an equitable and just peace between the Israelis and Palestinians (i.e. no settlements, no weapons outside the authority of PA, return of Palestinian refugees in a manner reasonable to both sides, and the sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of both states – not even the U.S. recognizes Israel’s claim to a united Jerusalem as its capita, and other lesser matters) then you would have solved the Middle East problem.

    The Israelis really have had a number of opportunities to capitalize on Arab-initiated peace drives, most notably the secret negotiations with the Syrians in 2000 which they backed out of at the last moment, even after a draft agreement had been worked out, and the Saudi 2002 peace plan for a wide-reaching peace with all Arab states in exchange for Israel’s return to its 1967 borders.

    As to your desire for the destruction of Hizballah, I’m gonna refer you to the following post about how I think they can be effectively dismantled:


    But I’ll say here that they are a guerrilla army and by definition they really can’t be defeated militarily, there must be a political solution.

    Finally, its cruel to cruel to simply characterize the Israeli aggression against Lebanon this past July as ‘unpleasantness’. It was a brutal campaign that resulted in the destruction of civilian infrastructure across all of Lebanon – and not just regions inhabited and controlled by Hizballah. For the 3,000 inaccurate missiles Hizballah launched into Israel – resulting in the deaths of 50 Israeli civilians – the IDF shot over 20,000 precision and scatter-munition missiles resulting the death of over 1000 innocent people, so its important to try and keep things in perspective.

  6. Anonymous11:44 PM

    I'm not sure I'm highly representative of "American general opinion", any more than I'm sure you're highly representative of "Lebanese general opinion". In fact, I strongly suspect you are NOT very representative, because if your profile and posts are correct, you are an investment banker, you live in Montreal, and you are a Christian. So we have a lot in common--we are professionals, live in North America and worship Christ. I can imagine that given some time, and the authority to implement our solution, WE could reach a reasonable agreement on all these matters regarding Lebanon and Israel.
    How would we do so?
    1. We would have formal, PUBLIC peace negotiations. Words spoken in secret can be easily denied in public.
    2. We would recognize that we can negotiate only about those things that we can be responsible for. The status of those called "Palestinian" may be a concern, but ultimately, we are trying to achieve peace between those called "Lebanese", and those called "Israeli".
    3. We would affirm that the state called "Lebanon" is responsible for the actions of Lebanese within Lebanon, and that called "Israel" for the actions of Israelis in Israel. People being who they are, we recognize that some of our people may work against the spirit of our peace negotiation, but that our nation will firmly move to minimize the disruption those persons cause while the negotiation continues.
    4. Being diplomats, we would understand the power of words, not just those spoken in formal conference, but those spoken by the authorities and powers of our nation in other places, especially words spoken in public places. For ME to say in conference that I want peace, but others with power to say they want something else is not helpful.
    5. We would always keep in mind that time is precious and failure means war.

    Of course, my perspective on the issues is very limited, but I think that many in the Middle East would not use this method. They prefer secrecy. They prefer to negotiate about things outside their real control. They deny responsibility. They do not really understand the power of words spoken in truth. They are in no hurry to accomplish great things. They do not really understand what failure looks like. They do not hate war.

    With regard to the power of words, it seems that even blog posts can sting. I meant no cruelty in characterizing the war as "unpleasantness". But "if I were Israeli", I would now be well into my own war psychology and verbal defense mechanisms. These would allow me to begin earnestly preparing war measures that I might otherwise characterize as cruel. It really doesn't take all that long, any longer than it takes a "war" to become an "unpleasantness".

    With regard to cruelty, it is impossible to value human life. If we believe that algebraic rules apply, and agree that all human individuals have the same finite real value, then we can agree--killing 1000 innocents is worse than killing only 50. We must also agree that the 1050 innocents killed in the war so far is a very small number compared to most other wars, and perhaps consider it a blessing to be awakened by a small prick.

  7. Sorry for the delay, I will respond shortly. Thanks

  8. Hi Anonymous,

    Sorry again for the delay. I'm actually working on something that might help familiarize a lot of people with how negotiations are actually conducted - I've compiled comprehensive excerpts from Bill Clinton's book My Life about the Syrian-Israeli negotiations he helped broker...I found the passages interesting.

    So anyway I think that will help change your mind quite about negotiations in the middle east (here i'm refering the paragraph directly under your point 5).

    With respect to your negotiation points, they're OK. They're broad and don't go into much detail but thats understandable since you haven't been following the issue too long. They're hard to disagree with because the principles they underline are ones we can all get behind. But, of course, as in all negotiations once you agree on the principles it starts getting tricky...how to actually go about implementing the principles.

    There are specific points of contention between Lebanon and Israel involving territory, water rights, maps of landmines left behind by the IDF, and POW's. But I guarantee you those would be easily solved through negotiations. The Palestinian issue is a tough one because Lebanon does not want those refugees to remain on its territory. Due to the complexity of the Lebanese domestic politics and the historical significance of armed Palestinian groups in Lebanon, there are sensitivities about their presence on Lebanese soil. At the same time we support their right of return to their homes and villages in Israel (although we wouldn't fight Israel for that). So its a bit tricky but I think international help could help resolve this issue...if a percentage of them are allowed to return to Israel, and a percentage go to third party countries, and a percentage stay then everyone would be happy. Hardliners in either country don't want any percentage to be there so those are the kinds of positions one might be faced with.

    OK, thanks for your comments and I hope you stick around!

  9. Anonymous9:52 PM

    So let me get this straight: The Jews fear another Holocaust. The Palestinians, Lebanon*, Iran and Syria deny the Holocaust as a pretext for proposing a new Holocaust (The destruction of Israel). How can we expect anything positive to come out of any peace talks when these are the preconditions?

    *I'm of the opinion the Lebanon is under the effective control of Hizballah in that Hizballah makes the decisions about when to go to war.


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