Israel's four battle fatalities in Lebanon last week were unusual - a brigadier general, a journalist, and two soldiers-though not different in kind from the 897 prior Israeli deaths in that country: Every one of them took place in the context of the Jewish state trying to cordon itself off from the violence emanating from its northern neighbor. Still, these four deaths seem to have struck a nerve in Israel's body politic, suggesting that Israelis are facing a crisis not unlike the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War and further back Britain during the Boer War.
In a much-noted advertisement in a leading Tel Aviv newspaper, the father of one 21-year-old soldier serving in Lebanon made a dramatic appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Unilaterally pull all Israeli forces back to the border. "I don't want my son to be a hero. I want him home for the Sabbath." The mother of another recruit told the media, "Enough is enough, we don't have the strength for this any more." The "Four Mothers," a grassroots parents' movement, exists solely to persuade Israel's government to bring the boys home.
Nor are parents the only faint-hearted Israelis. A poll conducted by the Dahaf firm last week found that to win some quiet on the Lebanon border, 75% of Israelis are agreeable to their forces partially withdrawing from the Golan Heights (valuable territory seized from Syria in 1967). Politicians have picked up on this defeatism: Also last week, the leader of Israel's opposition, a highly-decorated former general named Ehud Barak, promised to unconditionally to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon within a year if he wins the May election.
To the outside world, this mood of weakness and appeasement may come as a surprise, for Israel has a well-deserved reputation for daring-do and heroism. Its forces pulled off some of the most spectacular acts of espionage and counterterrorism of our time; its population won wide admiration for toughing out life under siege-everything from children sleeping in underground bunkers to reserve military service for men that continues well into middle age.
But Israel's heroic reputation is sadly out of date. As recent developments in Lebanon demonstrate, much of its population now places the highest priority on avoiding confrontation and violence. A newly prosperous country enjoying a per-capita income now comparable to Italy's giddily prefers the pleasures of late 20th century life to the tedious exigencies of war with the Arabs.
In practical terms, this means that the splendidly equipped Israel Defense Forces are no match for the irregular Lebanese troops of Hezbollah. Superior armaments and clever strategies cannot overcome Israel's irreducible weakness: Whereas Hezbollah wants victory, and is ready to pay the ultimate price for it, many Israelis aspire to nothing more than getting back home in a single piece.
Nor is this weakness unique to the problem in Lebanon. Other symptoms of Israeli demoralization include:
- Defeatism vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Polls consistently show 80% of Israelis wanting to push forward with the "peace process," even though Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority show little readiness to live in harmony with Israel. As in Lebanon, Israelis beg to be left alone by an enemy that seeks to destroy them.
- Fear of terrorism. Although Mr. Netanyahu built his political career on tough counterterrorism, when he actually had a chance to extradite Musa Abu Marzook, a Hamas leader, from a New York jail, he took a pass, preferring to arrange for Mr. Marzook to live (and organize more terror) in Amman, Jordan.
- Anti-Zionism among the Israeli elite. Mr. Barak, the Labor Party leader, has stated that if he were a young Palestinian, he would be a terrorist fighting Israel. A whole school of thought has developed that blames Israel for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The country's newspaper of record publishes a poem that ends with the hero "lowering his pants, and urinates on the dying bonfire of Zionism."
Arabs note this crisis of confidence and are beginning to exploit it. Shortly after Israeli troops killed his son, Hasan Nasrullah, Hezbollah's leader, replied to a skeptical interviewer who asked if Hezbollah was not in over its head in directly challenging Israel. No, Mr. Nasrullah said, it is not, and his observations deserve quotation at length:
You do not seem to be watching what happens. . . . How do you interpret the Zionists' behavior after each military debacle in the occupied territories in southern Lebanon? The lamentations in Zionist society can no longer be ignored. Netanyahu said recently: 'I am prepared to withdraw from southern Lebanon, if someone guarantees that Hezbollah does not follow us to northern Israel.' Just think what these words means-coming from a head of state of what you consider as one of the biggest military powers in the region. . . . Netanyahu no longer demands a peace agreement with Lebanon. He no longer demands a security zone, he only wants us to leave him alone.
A turning point of sorts may have come during the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein boldly launched missiles at Israel, and Israel, at U.S. urging, failed to retaliate. The current situation in Lebanon both symbolizes and deepens Israel's demoralization. Unless the country rediscovers its Zionist soul - not "Enough is enough!" but "Never again!" - it is heading for serious trouble.
Specifically, if Israeli troops retreat from Lebanon, Hezbollah and the other instruments of Syrian aggression will turn their guns on Israel proper. As civilian casualties rise in the towns of the northern Galilee (and they have been almost non-existent in recent years), Israelis will relearn the old lesson that appeasing tyrants does not work. Instead of retreating from Lebanon, Israelis would do better to take a lesson from the Turks. Faced with a terrorist campaign not unlike the one Israel confronts, Ankara last fall leaned on the Syrian ruler, Hafez al-Assad, and threatened to invade unless he behaved. Within days, the dictator of Damascus caved. It's the sort of lesson many of us learned in the schoolyard. It offers a simple and useful model for Israelis too.