This post is an introduction to help explain the "why" of the current war in Lebanon from a largely Israeli perspective. It's pretty basic realist theory, but it is helpful to have it laid out when looking at recent events. Readers, of course, should not infer that I support this war by any stretch.
Israel, as a state, was created at the expense of others. Since that time, for almost 60 years, Israel has been in a relatively constant state of defensive war varying between very low and very high intensity with various attempts at internationally brokered peace initiatives taking place in the meantime. None have been successful due, in my opinion, to bloody-minded non-negotiables on all sides of the peace equation. These non-negotiable include a refusal by Israel to decolonise and give back territory it took in the 1967 war; a refusal by various terrorist factions to give up arms and negotiate; a refusal by some in Israel to negotiate any possibility of concession on Israel’s part. All parties are guilty of spoiling ceasefires and committing atrocities.
Israel, especially under its current government, is a realist state. It is, by construction and location, an insular society concerned with its own survival as a state and little else in the international context. Though Bush may preach such liberal ideas as spreading freedom and democracy in the middle-east, Israel will only tolerate these as long as they does not threaten its security.
Hamas and Hizbollah refuse to give up their ultimate quest for the destruction of Israel, so Israel can never trust them. Syria does not recognise the Israeli state, so constant potential for war there too. They cannot trust Israel for much the same reasons. All parties are armed and think themselves righteous. All parties play dirty.
From a realist perspective, there are problems with war and peace as they both create situations that threaten the military and economic security of the state. They are explained below.
The problem with war
War is a costly drain on Israel and her neighbours. A heavily militarised society surrounded by enemies is not a society that can sustain itself indefinitely. Likewise, constant attrition campaigns by Israel against Palestinian and other groups are not something they will tolerate indefinitely, as they too are heavily militarised societies. So here, peace agreements would appear to be in everyone’s interest, but…
The problem with peace
…six years of unoccupied Lebanon appears to have allowed Hizbollah to dig in and rearm. Its arsenal of rockets has increased vastly, and it now employs anti-ship missiles. It has never relinquished its goal of destroying Israel. It likely viewed the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon 6 years ago as a battle in a war it never stopped fighting. It created a strategic pause where it could re-org and re-arm. Iraq has likely provided a training ground for its fighters. It is not interested in peace with Israel and represents a real existential threat to Israel.
Aside from allowing Israel’s enemies to rearm, peace also creates an environment where Israel’s neighbours can grow and prosper economically. To some, this also creates an existential threat to Israel the same way some believe Chinese and Indian economic growth represents an existential threat to the United States and the West.
Underpinning this war and peace equation, is the concept that in order to safeguard its security, Israel must maintain full spectrum (military, social, economic) dominance over its neighbours. The neocons in the Bush administration have adopted this same logic.
The current Israeli campaign against Lebanon is founded on the correct assumption that Hizbollah has only grown more powerful in a stable and peaceful state - especially since the Syrians withdrew. Lebanon has being doing well for itself of late (compared to its recent history), and Hizbollah is now an institution there. When it snatched the two Israeli soldiers, Israel attacked Lebanon (the de facto state enabler of Hizbollah), by destroying the environment that allowed Hizbollah to grow stronger (I think Israeli intelligence probably had a good idea of how strong Hizbollah had grown) and then sent its army in to destroy as much of Hizbollah as it could on the ground. It is pre-emptive war.
To further emphasise the "why", I’ll quote a friend of mine who lives there: “…at the end of the day, we have to think of ourselves.” What this means, is that Israeli governments will do what ever they think they need to protect the territorial integrity of the state. Tragically, the current crop of hardliners under Olmert, feels the way to this is through obscene military power projection. Rulers such as these see everything as a zero-sum game where a gain of any kind for the Palestinians, Lebanese, etc is a loss for Israel because it makes their enemies stronger. This is why they apparently do not give a damn about world opinion, or anything else that impedes their protection of Israel, such as the lives of Lebanese civilians and viability of their state, or the lives of UN observers.
This is not a defence of Israeli crimes in Lebanon or a defence of anyone’s crimes against Israel, but rather an explanation of the cold realist logic applied to Israeli security. Peace is not the goal, state security is and too bad for international law, innocent life and neutral forces if they get in the way – the campaign against Lebanon clearly demonstrates this.
I hope to keep posting various interpretations like this as the war unfolds.