Israel's American Gamble
Twenty-four years ago, in the summer of 1982, Israel, led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, invaded Lebanon. The enemy then was the Palestine Liberation Organization, and ostensibly, Israel's goal was to drive Yasser Arafat's terrorists away from the northern border. But Begin also believed he had a green light from the United States to demolish the PLO and establish a friendly, pro-western government in Beirut.
Begin misread the sign; what he had was a yellow light that turned red as soon as Israel got bogged down in Lebanon and TV screens began displaying scenes of Israeli guns pulverizing Lebanese cities. President Ronald Reagan, who had made propaganda films during World War II, thought that the American public couldn't stand this kind of gory footage, and he was right. By mid-August, six weeks into the battle, the great majority said Israel had gone too far.
Today, Israel is back in Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert understands, as Begin did not, that looking bad on television is what happens to the stronger side in asymmetrical warfare. A twisted image is presented, where the victim is presented as an aggressor.
By the numbers. In truth, Olmert has nothing to complain about in the American media's coverage. U.S. public opinion has been running strongly in Israel's favor. Reporters have taken pains to present both sides and add context.
Despite the claims of the U.N. and European statesmen, Israel's military reaction to the rocketing of its cities has not been disproportionately harsh; in fact, it has been rather mild. Not many reserves have been mobilized. Artillery and air bombardments have been largely focused at empty buildings and fortifications, and they have not been very effective. As Israel's former prime minister, the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu, has pointed out, Israel has used only a tiny fraction of its military might.
The proof of this is in the numbers. In the first 15 days of fighting, according to Lebanese authorities, around 400 Lebanese were killed by Israel. An unknown fraction of these were Hezbollah fighters and their accomplices. The rest were civilians caught in the crossfire--a lamentable toll but low in local terms. In contrast, on the fourth day of the 1982 war in Lebanon, the PLO announced that 10,000 civilians had been killed by Israel. This was an absurd lie, but it does give a sense of what passes for an impressive body count in the political culture of the Middle East.
The relatively small number of those killed to date raises the question: Why has Israel put on a sound and light show in Lebanon, knowing that war footage doesn't play well on American television?
First--and cynics will smile--Israel simply doesn't have the stomach for mass killing. Hezbollah says it is a grass-roots movement, which is probably true, but it isn't easy for an open society like Israel's to contemplate a scorched-earth policy. That will change only if Katyusha rockets start hitting Tel Aviv, or Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, surprises Israel with even more lethal weapons.
What Israel does want is to project a sense of force to Arab audiences. Once considered an unbeatable juggernaut, Israel lost prestige (and military deterrence) by doing nothing when Saddam Hussein hit Tel Aviv with Scud missiles in the first Gulf War, unilaterally leaving south Lebanon in 2000, and withdrawing from Gaza last September. These were judged by Israel's enemies to be acts of weakness, and in Israel's neighborhood weakness doesn't go unpunished. Olmert wants to send a message--no more Mister Nice Guy. If he can do it without causing massive casualties, so much the better.
This strategy has been made possible by George W. Bush. The president enjoys unprecedented confidence in Israel, a country not known for trusting outsiders. Begin brought Reagan along reluctantly but lost him in the clutch. Bush stands up better to pressure, and--more important--regards Israel's victory as an American interest.
Nasrallah says the war in Lebanon was prearranged by the Americans and the Zionists. In fact, what's going on in Lebanon is part of the larger American war against Islamic fascism. Bush and most Americans understand that. That's why Olmert isn't afraid to have the war broadcast, prime time, on U.S. TV.
Zev Chafets is an author working on a book about evangelicals, Jews, and Israel. He is a former director of the government press office of Israel.
This story appears in the August 7, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.