This week marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the Lebanon War. For more than half of Israel’s citizens, that war is a part of history, mixed in with the wars that preceded it. The Second Lebanon War brought the first one back into relevance, but we’d rather repress that war, too. It is this distance that allows us to look back at the first Lebanon War to see what can be learned from it for the sake of future generations.
Lebanon has a special place in Israel’s strategic perception as a “state surrounded by enemies.” Alongside the Hamas state in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon is the only state with the ability to present a real military threat to Israeli communities along the border. On the other hand, it is considered the Arab world’s most vulnerable state, its central regime fragmented and embroiled in conflict. The possibility of invading Lebanon to “create order,” to clean it of weapons and harm its military apparatus, always felt plausible and tempting.
This is the reason that Lebanon forced some truths, the hard way, upon the consciousness of Israeli policy-makers and citizens. The central truth, about which it seems there is no longer much public disagreement, relates to the perception of a “new order.” This perception was the real motivation for invading Lebanon in 1982, but that idea is fundamentally twisted. Each Arab country has its internal dynamic of government systems and balance of powers, which comes usually with ethnic and ideological conflicts. The notion that you can influence this fabric through a military operation amounts to unbearable arrogance, reliant on a near-mystical faith in military power. Usually, a military operation achieves the opposite: It strengthens the forces hostile to Israel.
When it came to Lebanon, for some reason, Israeli popular opinion thought that this was possible. Sharon wanted to leave his mark with operations in which Maronite Christians would forever rule in Lebanon as allies of Israel, Syria would be isolated from Lebanon and the balance in the region would change.
A nice thought for someone playing chess in an air-conditioned room in Moscow. In practice, the Maronite leader was killed; the PLO was expelled to Tunisia and returned, flourishing, to the Palestinian territories; the Druze began to support Syria; Hezbollah was established and turned into a significant force in Lebanon, grew stronger and more powerful and the second invasion in 2006 enabled it to demonstrate impressive force through missile attacks on the Israeli north. The long-term illusion of a “free Lebanese army,” the SLA, crashed in one day, and crashed too late.
The State of Israel has no business on Arab soil, and its military has no business being on enemy territory in the long term, notwithstanding “tactical penetrations.” The law of warfare, which calls to transfer the battlefield to enemy territory for war’s conclusion, or even for a temporary or permanent occupation, was nice for the big wars of the last century, and worked amazingly well in the Six Day War but has run its course. This is not the path.
What is the path? In the short term, the path entails a balance of terror, deterrent force and clear threats to anyone plotting against Israeli sovereignty. In the medium and long term, there’s only one path that has proven itself throughout history, and continues to prove itself today: agreements, alliances, a cold or warm peace. Israeli society is wounded, its leadership suspicious and ready to fight. It is surrounded by a historically irresponsible right wing, does not at present believe in this path, and certainly refuses to apply it to the most complex of all arenas — the West Bank.