By Gerald Steinberg, July 17, 2006.
In early 2000, the European Union was an enthusiastic supporter of unilateral
Israeli withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon.
Paris was about to take over the EU presidency in July and played a
dominant role in the discussions. The French foreign and defense ministers
pressed Israel to return its military forces to the international border. In detailed
talks that took place at the French ambassador’s residence in Jaffa, in which I
participated as an academic consultant, the Europeans assured us that once
Israel retreated, Hezbollah would lose its raison d’etre as a “militia” and
transform itself into a political party.
France and its partners would send peacekeepers to prevent terror and
missile attacks against Israel, help the Lebanese army take control of the
border, and disarm Hezbollah.
In May that year, the Israeli military left Lebanon. The United Nations certified
that the withdrawal was complete.
But Europe did nothing. Hezbollah’s leaders celebrated a great “military
victory,” and Iranian “advisers” provided intelligence, training and thousands
more of missiles, some with ranges of 75 kilometers and more that could
penetrate deep into Israeli territory and for the first time hit Haifa, Israel’s third
Instead of the promised transformation, Hezbollah took positions right across
Israel’s border and prepared for the next round of the war.
Fearing international and particularly European condemnation, Israel did
nothing to prevent this dangerous buildup. Emboldened by Israeli restraint,
Hezbollah staged the first cross-border attack and kidnapping only five months
after Israel’s withdrawal, in October 2000.
Europe’s reaction back then was limited to repeating the usual mantras, calling
on Israel to “act with restraint” and to “give diplomacy a chance.”
Now, after steady escalation and attrition to which Israel is particularly
vulnerable, Hezbollah triggered a full-scale confrontation by firing another round
of missiles at Israeli cities and staging a kidnapping attack, in which eight Israeli
soldiers were killed.
In tandem with Palestinian assaults from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which
also featured missiles and kidnapped soldiers to be traded for terrorists, this
opened a two-front war.
This time, though, Israel moved quickly to finally dismantle the strategic threat
in Lebanon. No state can simply stand by while its citizens are being killed and
abducted, its cities routinely shelled, and part of its population forced to live in
fear and sleep in bomb shelters.
Hezbollah erroneously thought its missiles and the support from Iran and
Syria would allow it to continue attacking Israel with impunity.
Europe’s role, once again, is limited to repeating the same old tired phrases.
The EU called Israel’s response and attacks on Beirut and in Gaza
“disproportionate” and violations of international law. France in particular was
outraged. “For several hours, there has been a bombardment of an airport of an
entirely sovereign country, a friend of France… this is a disproportionate act of
war,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said.
It may have escaped the minister that the initial act of war originated
from Lebanon and that the target of this unprovoked aggression is supposedly
also a “sovereign country” and “friend of France.”
The knee-jerk condemnation of their country was not lost on Israelis who recall
the broken promises from 2000 and the visceral antipathy toward them when
they had to fight Arafat’s terror war. Beyond the rhetoric, European officials
offer no framework for a proper and “proportionate” level of force in response
to mass terror aimed at the ultimate goal of “wiping Israel off the map.”
Few in Europe probably realize that the EU’s failure to act in response to Iran’s
nuclear weapons efforts, and the three years that were wasted in negotiations
while Iran began enriching uranium, only strengthened Israel’s decision to act
forcefully against the terror threats posed by Hezbollah and Hamas, who act as
Israel’s strategy is twofold. The immediate goal is to remove Hezbollah’s acute
threat by crippling its military capabilities and driving their troops from the
border zone. Attacks on Lebanese infrastructure are designed to prevent the
resupply of Hezbollah and to pressure the Lebanese government to establish full
sovereignty over the country.
It is Lebanon, not Israel, that is in violation of international law as Beirut
still has not implemented U.N. resolution 1559, which demands that Hezbollah
At the same time, and this is Israel’s medium-term goal, going forcefully after
Iran’s prodigy in Lebanon sends a powerful message to Tehran. It restores
Israel’s deterrence capability, a crucial move in preventing future confrontations
with Iran on a much larger scale.
But many idealistic European policy makers cannot see that a small war stopped
prematurely now may only pave the way for a much larger war later.
In order to understand Israel’s military actions, it is imperative to
consider the two powers standing behind Hezbollah. The larger strategic threat
to Israel is the Damascus-Tehran axis. To view Israel’s actions in Beirut and
Gaza as “disproportionate” means ignoring the radical Islamic regime in Tehran,
which threatens to destroy Israel and is bent on acquiring the weapons to
actually carry out its threat.
At the same time, Europe — particularly France — has invested heavily in the
reconstruction of Lebanon and the international isolation of the Syrian regime.
From this perspective, the damage to Beirut’s airport and infrastructure and the
strain on the Lebanese government are justifiably worrying.
But if European leaders are serious about preventing instability and promoting
their own economic and security interests, they will also have to share the
costs of containing terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
To help resolve the immediate crisis and prevent further damage to Lebanon’s
fragile economic and political structure, Europe’s leaders can stiffen Beirut’s
backbone by conditioning aid to the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers.
Cease-fire initiatives must lead to Hezbollah’s disarmament. By tying further
economic assistance to an end to terror attacks, Europe can actually help create
the basis for long-term stability.
And of course, it must pressure Tehran and Damascus. Instead of reflexively
labeling Israel’s belated use of force as “disproportionate,” the leaders of the
EU must learn to make their own security policies proportionate and realistic.