Monday, August 07, 2006

No need to get mushy (August 8, 2006)

India must draw lessons from Israel's response

By Swapan Dasgupta

All over the world, but notably in the Islamic countries and Europe, the ongoing conflict in Lebanon has become the occasion for another outburst of visceral anti-Americanism. The Bush Administration, controversial at the best of times, has been squarely blamed for its failure to force Israel into accepting an immediate, unconditional cease-fire. Televised images of civilian casualties, particularly the death of 19 children in Qana, and the endless lines of refugees have aroused a wave of moral indignation and turned the conflict into a public relations disaster for Israel.

Predictably, India has not been unaffected by the prevailing mood. Both Houses of Parliament, which had failed to agree on a common strategy to counter terrorist outrages like the July 11 Mumbai blasts, shed their differences and passed unanimous resolutions demanding an immediate cease-fire and condemning the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. With a “sense of the house” parliamentary resolution critical of the Indo-US nuclear cooperation programme proving contentious, the Lebanon resolution became the cloak for the expression of the all-pervasive anti-Americanism.

In such a charged environment, a clinical assessment of the lessons the Lebanon conflict holds for India may seem heartless. Yet, having climbed on the bandwagon of liberal outrage, it may still be pertinent for India to consider why the peremptory condemnation of Israel and the US is a trifle rushed.

The immediate provocation for Israel’s bombing and attack on southern Lebanon was the July 11 raid by the Lebanese Hizbollah on a military post in northern Israel. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were abducted and taken to hideouts in Lebanon. The Hizbollah was clear it wanted to use the hostages to secure the release of jailed terrorists, including Samir Qantar, a man responsible for the brutal murder of a 28 year-old Jew and his four-year-old daughter in 1979. Qantar, according to eyewitnesses, shot the father and then smashed the little girl’s skull against a rock with a rifle butt.

The July 11 attack was followed two days later by the Hizbollah launching rocket attacks from southern Lebanon on Haifa.

It has been suggested that Israel’s response to the Hizbollah provocation was disproportionate. In the Indian context, where every terrorist outrage is invariably followed by appeals for tolerance and cross-border amity, this is apparently so. Yet, the undeniable fact is that Israel was pursuing a robust, zero tolerance approach to a problem that is plaguing many countries in the world—the menace of non-state militias.

The Hizbollah is not some rag-tag cluster of wild fanatics operating from tents and dingy basements. It is a formidable non-official army, committed to the destruction of Israel, which was created by elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. Having hijacked the control of southern Lebanon from an effete Lebanese army, the Shia-dominated militia has fast become the leading anti-Israeli force in the region, outpacing both the PLO and Hamas. Now backed by both Syria (which opposed it initially) and Iran, it has demonstrated its fighting capability over the past fortnight by doggedly resisting the Israeli army and firing a daily shower of between 130 and 160 rockets into Israel. Any unconditional cease-fire will be seen as a victory of Hizbollah and establish its claim to be only force of standing up to Israel.

The de-facto Hizbollah takeover of Lebanon is a pointer to the dangers arising from non-state militias going out of hand. The Hamid Karzai Government in Afghanistan faces such a threat from the regrouped Taliban operating from Waziristan and, in time to come, India could well be confronted by a similar danger from either the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan or another jihadi outfit.

Although the authority of the state in Pakistan hasn’t degenerated to the level of Lebanon, there are visible similarities between the LeT and Hizbollah. Both derive military sustenance from organised state power; both are motivated by variants of Islamism; both have elaborate tentacles in civil society; and both have a political presence in the democratic system.

By tacitly endorsing the depredations of the Hizbollah, India has implicitly questioned the right of sovereign states to take military action against cross-border terrorism. This short-sighted and populist posturing is almost tantamount to negating an important defensive option.

However, it is important to acknowledge that Israel could not have exercised its right to defend itself aggressively without the blessings of the only power that really counts. Without Washington’s protective umbrella, Teheran’s threat to wipe Israel from the face of the earth would have acquired even more menacing connotations. Yet, Israel hasn’t acquired its place in the American imagination by guilt-tripping invocations of the Holocaust. In offsetting the natural American inclination to put its oil interests above all else, Israel has had to work diligently over decades. Of course, the Jewish-American lobby has played an important role but far more significant has been Israel’s successful projection of its commonality of values with the US. Considering the historical schism between Judaism and Christianity, the achievement is seminal.

At the same time, Israel is not a client state of the US. Israeli leaders over the years have never hesitated to say No to America when it has been in its national interest. A special relationship has evolved by Israel juxtaposing uncompromising nationalism with strategic commonality.

As India battles against a terrorist assault on its nationhood, it is worthwhile drawing the right lessons from the Lebanon conflict. Mushy sentimentalism is no substitute for hard-nosed diplomacy.

(Published in Times of India, August 8, 2006)

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