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Lebanese Identity and Israeli Security in the Shadows of the 2006 War

Shibley Telhami

When Israel launched its major assault on the Shiite militia Hezbollah and other Lebanese targets in July 2006, following a Hezbollah attack that left several Israeli soldiers dead and two taken hostage, one presumed objective was to reestablish Israeli deterrence. The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected on a platform calling for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank following a similar un-negotiated withdrawal from Gaza. Israel had also pulled out of Lebanon before the Lebanon War, without an agreement in 2000. But the thought that these withdrawals would bring about Israeli security was already evaporating in the Israeli body politic, as Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza escalated and as militant Palestinian groups launched brazen attacks, including an operation against an Israeli military post that ended in the abduction of an Israeli soldier. The Israeli reaction to that June 25 attack was a largescale targeting not only of the Islamist governing party Hamas, but also of Palestinian infrastructure such as an electricity generating plant.

Thus, when Hezbollah launched its raid in July, the Israeli government’s primary plan for disengagement from the Palestinian territories was already in trouble. Perhaps more important, Israelis, especially in the military establishment, were worried that deterrence—that is, a reluctance to provoke Israel, based on the fear of military punishment—which the Israelis had managed to project toward their neighbors over decades had significantly eroded.

No doubt there will continue to be debates about the fact that both Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were leaders without major military experience, and whether this figured into what many regarded as an overreaction in Lebanon. The fact that the Israelis were already concerned about the buildup of Hezbollah’s military capabilities and had prepared contingency plans to attack these capabilities was also seen by many, especially in the Arab world, as evidence that Israel was not merely reacting to Hezbollah’s July 12 raid. Since the war, there have been debates within Israel about the lack of preparation, poor intelligence, and unwise decisions throughout the 34-day conflict with Lebanon. Indeed, an Israeli commission has been formed to investigate the war’s mistakes.

A public opinion survey that I conducted in Lebanon with Zogby International, between November 11 and 16, 2006, highlights the impact of popular opinion on perceptions of deterrence and prospects for peace between Lebanon and Israel. It also underscores the depth of divisions within Lebanon, which in turn affects prospects for political stability.