Israel was right to hit back at Hezbollah provocation

A lot of myths surround the release of the Winograd commission report into the Olmert Government’s conduct of last year’s war on Islamists  

By Colin Rubenstein

The Australian – May 9, 2007


THE release of a preliminary report by the Winograd commission into Israel’s conduct of last year’s Hezbollah-Israel war has commanded global attention.  

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, along with Olmert’s Defence Minister and former military chief of staff, were heavily criticised for setting objectives that were impossible to achieve and for moving too quickly without adequate planning. As demonstrated by the enormous protest in Tel Aviv last week, the Israeli public is deeply disenchanted and political change in Israel looks likely within a few months, if not sooner.  

The public outrage and the frank nature of the Winograd report has revealed an essential difference between Israel and its neighbours. Israel is a democracy, and its transparency and willingness to confront and correct errors are a source of strength in a dangerous neighbourhood. But what does the report say? What does it mean for Israel and Australia’s Middle East policy?  

Despite roundly criticising the decision-makers’ actions, the report doesn’t criticise their decision to wage war against Hezbollah.  

On July 12, Hezbollah rained rockets down on an Israeli town, and later raided across the border, leaving eight Israeli soldiers dead and kidnapping two.  

For six years before then, Hezbollah had sporadically fired rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and small-arms fire across the Israeli border. Its fighters also frequently infiltrated the border to ambush Israeli troops and civilians within Israel. Between 2000 and June last year, such attacks killed 24 Israelis. Moreover, Hezbollah was building up a vast infrastructure of rockets and fortified bunkers in southern Lebanon designed to be used against Israel whenever convenient for Hezbollah and its political masters and sources of funds, training and arms: Iran and its ally Syria.  

The July 12 attacks were the last straw for Israel. No country could tolerate constant cross-border attacks without reacting, especially when only worse could be expected in the future.  

The legality and morality of Israel’s decision to wage war was never questioned by the Winograd commission or by serious analysts. The commission merely looked at the decision-making process that led to that decision and the tactics used, so that when Israel’s enemies force its hands in the future, the country will be better prepared.  

Most analysts in Israel agree this preparation is likely be vital sooner rather than later. Despite UN resolutions forbidding this, Hezbollah has been rapidly rebuilding its rocket capacity with arms imported across the Syrian border and will likely escalate matters soon.  

Meanwhile, Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, especially Hamas, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, have been emulating Hezbollah’s methods for some time by giving rockets and logistical support to Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Although these rockets have been hitting Israeli towns and cities just outside of Gaza for years, technological and financial help from Hezbollah and Iran have dramatically improved their range and deadliness in recent months.  

The constant barrage of rockets on Israeli towns will ultimately bring about an Israeli incursion, and Hamas knows it. Like any other self-respecting country, Israel cannot allow its towns to be endangered because the Palestinian Authority refuses to stop, and indeed often collaborates with, terrorist groups in its midst.  

Hamas, preparing itself for this eventuality, is arming and fortifying Gaza neighbourhoods, which can result only in Palestinian civilian casualties when Israel inevitably goes in to locate the rocket factories.  

What should Australia’s position be on these problems, in light of the Winograd report? In Lebanon, the goal should be for existing UN Security Council resolutions to be effectively enforced, with Hezbollah disarmed and the illegal arms flows stopped. And, of course, Australia should seek to promote an Israeli-Palestinian two-state resolution. This does not require a useless and morally bankrupt attempt to be balanced, as some have urged, but an effort to do what we can to create the genuine preconditions for peace.  

Given that opinion polls and recent election results amply demonstrate Israel’s willingness to relinquish land for peace, efforts are needed to create a Palestinian peace partner able and willing to deliver on their side of any deal.  

Such a partner must permanently recognise Israel’s right to exist and have an effective monopoly on the use of force to prevent rejectionist terror groups from using land ceded to attack Israel.  

This requires countering the forces promoting radicalism in the Middle East, which are radicalising and dividing Palestinian society. These forces are led by Iran and include Syria and Hezbollah, all of which help bankroll, arm and train Hamas and other Palestinian rejectionist groups.  

These radicals argue that Israel is a passing phenomenon and can be destroyed through constant terrorist pressure. Moreover, they use every extreme Western criticism of Israel or one-sided UN resolution as proof the West will eventually also support this goal. And they are making inroads.  

A few years ago, most elites and intellectuals in Arab countries had reluctantly conceded that Israel was a permanent reality they would have to learn to live with. In recent years, however, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have convinced many regional intellectuals that Israel’s destruction is indeed achievable.  

The Winograd report was critical of Israeli decision-makers primarily because their decisions failed to adequately demonstrate to Hezbollah and its cheerleaders that this is not the case.  

If we want peace, the West must weaken the radical case by demanding Iran and Syria stop funding these groups and by supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. And we must ensure that recipients such as Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority use the generous Western aid properly and transparently.  

Australia is one of only a few nations that can rightfully claim that its position on these matters in recent years has consistently supported the conditions that will eventually open the door to genuine Middle East peace.

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. Previously, he taught Middle East politics at Monash University in Melbourne.