Israeli Left and Right United on War

While it has been incredibly controversial around the world, Israel’s war in Lebanon is enthusiastically supported by Israelis of all political stripes. Steven Erlanger reports,

As Israel’s war with Hezbollah finishes a fourth difficult week, domestic criticism of its prosecution is growing. Yet there is a paradoxical effect as well: the harder the war has been, the more the public wants it to proceed. The criticism is not that the war is going on, but that it is going poorly. The public wants the army to hit Hezbollah harder, so it will not threaten Israel again. And while Israelis are upset with how Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has run the war, they seem to agree with what he told aides this week — that given the weaponry and competence of Hezbollah and the damage already done to Israel, “I thank God the confrontation came now, because with every year their arsenal would have grown.”

Abroad, Israel is criticized for having overreacted and for causing disproportionate damage to Lebanon and its civilian population and even for indiscriminate bombing. But within Israel, the sense is nearly universal that unlike its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, this war is a matter of survival, not choice, and its legitimacy is unquestioned.

Even the bulk of the Israeli left feels that way. There is no real peace camp in Israel right now, says Yariv Oppenheimer, the secretary general of Peace Now, which has pressed hard for a deal with the Palestinians and on June 22, before this Lebanon war, called for a halt to air raids over the Gaza Strip. “We’re a left-wing Zionist movement, and we believe that Israel has the legitimate right to defend itself,” Mr. Oppenheimer said. “We’re not pacifists. Unlike in Gaza or the West Bank, Israel isn’t occupying Lebanese territory or trying to control the lives of Lebanese. The only occupier there is Hezbollah, and Israel is trying to defend itself.”


Mr. Oppenheimer of Peace Now said the only dispute in his group was over timing and tactics. Some feel Israel hit Lebanon’s infrastructure too hard in the beginning, trying to punish Lebanon to hurt Hezbollah, and in the process hurt too many civilians, he said, but now the army has shifted its sights more directly at Hezbollah. The real debate, he said, “is whether this is the right time to stop the fighting and get a good agreement that accomplishes our goals, or do we have to keep hitting Hezbollah harder in order to get a good agreement.”


There have been weekly demonstrations against the war from smaller, more pacifist groups, but they have rarely drawn more than a few hundred supporters.


The fiercest critics of Mr. Olmert and Mr. Peretz, the head of the Labor Party, have come from the right, especially from the Likud Party that Ariel Sharon and Mr. Olmert left behind when they formed Kadima, now the ruling party. The Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been a loyal supporter of the government and the war, but most expect him to be scathing about the government’s performance after the conflict is over.


Yuval Steinitz of Likud, head of the parliamentary subcommittee for defense preparedness, is already loaded for bear. “Doubts?” he asked. “That’s an understatement. People are talking of failure. “The bombardment of Israeli cities was supposed to be over after 48 hours. The fact that only now the government is ready to even start the real ground campaign is overwhelming.”

The criticism from the Left will be meaningless if Israel manages to somehow defeat Hezbollah, or even to weaken them substantially and get a useful peacekeeping force patroling their border. The cries from the Right, however, will get louder very soon if the war drags on, especially if Hezbollah is able to continue to wreak havok on Israeli cities.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.