Democracy in Action

The Grey Lady gives us this comprehensive round-up of what seems to be going on in the Israeli part of the Middle East. At the moment, things are “calm”, insofar as the pattern of Hizbollah lobbing rockets at Northern Israel and Israel launching air strikes all over Lebanon with an emphasis on Hizbollah targets continues. Israeli spokesmen indicate that Israel has some kind of “plan” that will take “a few more days”. Since I don’t know what that is, we’ll just have to wait.
I’m still trying to figure out what brought all this about. Somebody appears to have miscalculated something, and I’m still guessing who it was. For a broader analysis that sheds some light, we give you Professor Cole’s takes here and here, basically noting, inter alia, that the Saudis of all people have condemned (Shia) Hizbollah’s “adventurism”, and Israel is (as usual) overreacting in a self-defeating ham-handed way that will just solidify the already staggering opposition to it, but more notably, Israel is bombing the Lebanese economy up north and not the Katyusha rocket launch sites hitting its own people down in the south.
Do you have all that? Here’s what I think is going on: Hamas, which has shown frequent rashness and incompetence, acted rashly and incompetetently in its little adventure on the Gaza border, killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. Hamas has no cover anymore: it is the Palestinian government. Actions like that will rightly be considered acts of war, whether the leader is the wizened and battle-tested Ariel Sharon, or the relatively green newcomer Ehud Olmert. By winning the Palestinian elections, Hamas failed to realize that it has less option to act as the cold-blooded terrorist group that it, of course, is, because it presents nice, juicy targets for Israeli retaliation should it so behave.
Hizbollah, of course, has less of a problem so behaving, because it is not the Lebanese state, though it is a member party of the governing coalition, and the best armed force in Lebanon (probably better armed than the Lebanese state itself, c/o its quite open Syrian and Iranian support). Ironically, Syrian forces in Lebanon were a counter-weight, and kept Hizbollah somewhat better behaved! OTOH, given how Israel reacted to the soldier being kidnapped in Gaza, doing exactly the same thing the very same week should have been perceived as drawing a similar reaction. OTOH, Hizbollah is a lot smarter and more effective than its fellow Iranian/Syrian surrogate terrorist group Hamas… it has not, historically, made gross miscalculations… which makes me wonder if, in fact, it made one now.
I suspect that what we are seeing is a test of “democracy”. Certainly, the non-sensical fantasy that simply expanding the vote in the Arab world, in no other context, will magically make its problems disappeared has proved a sham. Iraqis elected religious Shia extremists with close ties to Iran; Lebanese elected Hizbollah (not outright, but with a big enough presence to sit in the government); Palestinians elected Hamas. And here we are. But, let’s face it: terrorists like to test newly democratically elected leaders. Even the Islamists who attacked New York City did so early in the Clinton Administration (the first WTC bombing was just weeks after Clinton took office) or the Bush Administration (9/11 took place less than 8 months into Bush’s term).
And so we are early in the Olmert era. While Hamas might, Hizbollah certainly would not have bear-baited Sharon… the reaction would have been just too predictable, and Sharon, while he has a reputation for nastiness (especially in Lebanon), also has a reputation for effectiveness. But Olmert? Who knows? The thought was to see what Olmert would do, and now we know: escalate. Now, one might think that in a democratic country such as Israel, given how vehemently (and dare I say it, emotionally, Israel reacts to attacks on its soldiers as opposed to its civilians– the complete opposite of how, say, we would react)… it wouldn’t be hard to see this reaction coming.
And there’s the rub. Is that what Hizbollah intended? Was it hoping that Israel would take the mickey and blow up Lebanon writ large, so that Hizbollah could draw a broader pool of support against Israel than its usual Shia constituency in the south of Lebanon (rather than take on more obviously “Hizbollah” as opposed to “Lebanese” targets)? If that is their game, then they have already won it, and now its just a matter of playing out the hand in an already decided game…
Of course, if this was just a ready excuse for Israel to mobilize in preparation for an assault on Syria and/or Iran… well, stand-by. I’m coming to the conclusion, however, that it is probably not… This was driven by perceived Israeli domestic political necessity… and maybe some cooler heads from Cairo, Amman and even Riyadh can intervene and calm this down before it does