Friday, July 14, 2006

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is the first Israeli leader to get the nomenclature right. It is no longer Palestinian terrorism. It is “an act of war.”

The capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas fighters three weeks ago, snatched into a tunnel dug from Gaza into Israeli territory, while two other Israeli Defense Forces troopers were killed, and two more Israeli soldiers abducted July 12 in a Hezbollah raid into northern Israel, when eight more were killed, all are no longer labeled acts of terrorism. War is where it’s at.

Terrorism has been a lethal weapons system from time immemorial, most frequently as weapon of the weak against the strong. If Palestinians had aircraft, tanks and warships, they would doubtless be using them, suicide mode, against Israel’s overwhelmingly superior forces.

The switch from terrorism to open warfare gave Mr. Olmert carte blanche to order the bombing of Beirut airport and impose an air and sea blockade of Lebanon at the height of the tourist season. The first Israeli soldier taken prisoner triggered Israeli retaliation throughout the Gaza Strip with gunships, fighter bombers, artillery and tanks. Israeli targeting appeared designed to destroy all vestiges of Palestinian government, including the Foreign Ministry. Among the many civilian casualties was a family of nine — all dead.

Thousands of Israeli reservists were called up to respond to what began to take on the trappings of a two-front war. Residents of small Israeli towns near the Lebanese border were ordered to take cover in bomb shelters.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also changed the verbal signals when he called Israel’s massive reprisals in Gaza and southern Lebanon wanton acts of “terrorism.” Whatever the description, the Israeli government had approved massive retaliation.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz held Lebanon responsible for the loss of Israeli soldiers near its southern border. The bombing of Beirut airport’s runways at the height of the tourist season was a classic case of overkill. Fact is, Lebanon does not control much in that region. Hezbollah, a Shi’ite organization funded and equipped by Iran’s mullahocracy, like Hamas, the Sunni extremist group that won fair and square last January’s elections in Gaza, now control their respective turfs. Hezbollah also benefits from covert Syrian support.

With the U.S. bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, there wasn’t much the administration could do to convince Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities or North Korea’s missile testing pads would only trigger wider wars. Iran has transferred several thousand missiles that can reach towns and cities in northern Israel. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also bragged about wiping Israel off the map. The ingredients for a larger regional conflict are present.

Hezbollah and Hamas quickly made clear they had taken Israeli prisoners to bargain them for some 1,500 Palestinians, now in prison camps in Israel, that would be selected from 8,500 Palestinians currently held in Israel. Jerusalem has released a disproportionate number of Palestinians on several previous occasions, but this time the Israeli government announced it would not happen again. The policy is to continue military punishment until the Palestinians cough up their Israeli prisoners.

After years of denial — and denunciations of “cowardly” acts of terrorism — Israel was now at war with the two organizations that speak for some 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza and another 3.5 million in the West Bank.

Recent events have erased the illusion of the “contiguous and viable” Palestinian state in the West Bank, as pledged by President Bush and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, living peacefully cheek-by-jowl with Israel. Saul Bellow must have had Palestinians and Jews in mind when he said a great deal of intelligence could be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion runs deep.

The myth of a Palestinian state in the West bank satisfies the craving for illusion harbored by the coercive utopians on both sides of the divide — a 456-mile physical barrier, erected for $2.5 billion in soft loans from the U.S. But the Israeli leadership is recognizing, belatedly, that an independent Palestinian state would become a haven for the Hamas and Hezbollah militias to lob missiles over the barrier while their tunnel rats burrow away to pop up behind Israeli defenses.

Evacuating Gaza last summer was already a major traumatic shock for Israel’s body politic. And Gaza, with 8,500 Jewish settlers in 21 heavily guarded settlements, wasn’t even something the Israelis wanted to keep. Unlike the West Bank where some 60,000 settlers in some 60 smaller colonies, caught between the barrier and the Jordan River, are completing a network of security roads that will enable them to come to each other’s aid. They’re digging in for the long haul.

Israel occupied a strip of southern Lebanon for 18 years before finally concluding in 2000 its IDF presence there, coupled with a surrogate army of Lebanese mercenaries, was counterproductive. IDF forces pulled back inside Israel’s northern frontier and Hezbollah have long since appropriated this strategic redeployment as a major victory for the liberation of Palestine.

The region also contains any number of spoilers for whom peace is tantamount to surrender. They will be darting in and out of this grim picture for many more years to come. Some over-the-parapet strategists can even see the faint outlines of a bilingual, binational state emerging down the road. Another Lebanon? Or a Palestinian state further east, beyond the Jordan River, in Jordan proper, where 65 percent of the people are Palestinian, and their capital is Amman?

But that’s a very long way off — if ever. The Hashemite throne, now occupied by young King Abdullah with the backing of his fiercely loyal Bedouin army, is an impregnable bastion of enlightened government. Meanwhile, blood will continue to flow — on both sides.

Those who live by the crystal ball usually wind up eating crunched glass. But it isn’t palmistry to divine a regional calamity howler.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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