Thursday, August 2, 2007

Heart-to-heart with Israel/ cont’d

Of Facts and Truths (Part One)

“Sometimes facts threaten the truth.” Amos Oz told me this two weeks ago in his Tale of Love and Darkness. True, I thought, facts, like the parents of an unwanted child, oftentimes just ignore it. Alas, we have so many unwanted children in these parts.

We can live with facts, however painful they are. We even collect and display them as trophies of grief to console a broken spirit or stoke dimming ire or justify indescribable cruelty. But the truth…the truth is something special. However mild its rebukes they can shatter the heart. If unshackled and allowed to walk free, it can suck the life out of age-old myths and puncture gaping holes into the steeliest pretensions. At its most kind, it can bring light into our night and cajole the humane out of the inhuman.

I know you’re getting antsy but if you stay with me for a few more lines, you will see the light.

The dance between fact and truth in Oz’s memoir first swings onto the page in the death of his grandmother: The fact is that she passed away while scrubbing herself in the bathtub, but the truth is that she died from a life-long obsessiveness with germs. Benign, isn’t it, and yet so seductive to the susceptible mind because from it spring a thousand different beats about this burning Arab-Israeli expanse. For practice, one can set the tone quickly with a couple of very simple ones: The fact is Gamal Abd al Nasser expired from an exhausted heart, but the truth is that he died from a twenty-year friendship between high promise and abysmal failure; the fact is Saddam Hussein was brought down by the US and Britain, but the truth is he perished from a twenty-year antagonism between his brain and sanity.

Once the oppressiveness of conventional wisdom recedes in the mind’s calculus, the trickier blends become easier to make: The fact is Israel and Islamism are real enemies, but the truth is they are good friends; the fact is Hezbollah won last summer’s war, but the truth is it lost; the fact is Hamas won, fair and square, in the last Legislative Council elections, but the truth is it lost. You get the rhythm now? If you are even slightly versed in our realities, the arguments implied in these combinations should not be unfamiliar to you. But stop at the facts and you are just looking in through the peephole, reach for the truth and you are stepping into the room with the door wide open.

To move from Hezbollah’s triumph to its loss, you need to understand the ground rule that delivered the former and chew slowly over the paradox that explains the latter. In the history of Arab-Israeli military face-offs, the ground rule has always been thus: If it is not an absolute, swift and resounding victory for Israel, it is a defeat; and if it is not an absolute, swift and humiliating defeat for the Arabs, it is a victory. Simple. For stamina, this peculiar formula has long depended on an unyielding, deeply entrenched temperament--that of Israeli arrogance and Arab defeatism. Whatever the score is at the end of every contest, it is this attitude that separates the victors from the vanquished.

Not surprisingly, with such a crude yardstick the bar becomes unsustainably high for the mighty and hilariously low for the little guy. Trip up the mindset of a triumphalist Israeli militarism that thinks squashing its Arab enemy is akin to twisting the life out of a spent cigarette and you’ve got yourself a winner. Economies wrecked long after the gunfire has stopped, death tolls, villages wiped off the map, entire neighborhoods flattened, killing fields torched and littered with cluster bombs, a childhood denied its innocence, whole generations heading for the door, are for the history books; for us, a slap on Israel’s red face will do just fine, thank you. You saw it in 1973, when the Arabs rejoiced over a victory that wasn’t; and you saw it last July, when 33 days of combat in Lebanon left Israel tongue-tied and fuming.

Hands down, Hezbollah won because it was never muscle that was going to win the fight, it was psychology. Over a million Israelis forced to hide for weeks on end in shelters, a stubborn barrage of Hezbollah rockets and katyushas that spread panic deep into Northern Israel, Israeli soldiers outwitted on the hills and narrow streets of the Lebanese South, a Hezbollah leadership that stayed alive and remained intact, and, lo and behold, we got ourselves an unqualified champ. Simple. Simple and also uninteresting because this is the least revealing part of the war. The more compelling bit is the one that most pundits—even the best of them—keep glossing over in fits and starts before their analysis finally sputters into a predictable stop.

In the first few days of the war, Ehud Olmert announced to the world that Israel’s objective was to devastate the infrastructure of Hezbollah, disarm it, expel it from the South and return the two abducted soldiers (see his speech before the Knesset on July 17, 2006). That Olmert’s goals, as the Israeli Winograd Commission concluded, were “over-ambitious and not feasible” is patently obvious. Dwell on it and you end up (like so many still are) running in your place. Digest it and then ask yourself this question, Why would Israel publicly set for itself a mission it knew it could not fulfill, and you might just be getting somewhere. After all, Israel was very well aware that Hezbollah, as a powerful and pervasive political presence above the ground but a stealth military force under it, would be far less vulnerable to air strikes that typically bring standing armies down. Of course it could be harmed, but it could not be devastated, nor disarmed, nor expelled, nor forced to return the two Israeli soldiers. Moreover, Hezbollah entered the latest round with a consistently impressive performance against Israel. As a disciplined, highly focused grassroots guerilla movement, it succeeded where Yasser Arafat and his band of pot-bellied, lewd, ersatz revolutionaries had always failed: It wrestled with Israel over Southern Lebanon for eighteen years and won in 2000, when Israel unilaterally ended its occupation of the South.

However, till this very day, in explaining Israel’s loss, both its critics and supporters skip over motive, as a given, and focus on malfunctions and miscalculations. Both expend all their energies over the nuts and bolts of failure because both have taken Israel’s declared objective at face value. Both believe Hezbollah was combatant and target. And both are wrong. The fact is Israel was fighting Hezbollah, but the truth is it was after Lebanon. Its arrogance was not directed at a well-tested Hezbollah, it was directed at the infinitely more fragile Lebanese polity. It did not think Hezbollah would break in the first few days of the war, it thought Lebanon would. But it did not (and you will be pleased to know that the reasons will make an appearance here soon). Therefore, it was poor, feeble Lebanon—and not majestic Hezbollah--that first tripped up Israel’s mindset.

Interesting? A tad bit over the top? Yes, but you haven’t read the last of it yet. And this is the juncture where you need to cross from the realm of basic ground rules into that of mirrors and paradoxes.

Stay tuned.