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Israel-Lebanon: No Horizon

08/16/2006

Why I ask myself. Why does the death of a twenty year old Israeli soldier who I never knew have such an overwhelming impact on me? Why out of all the deaths in the second Lebanon war does the loss of Uri Grossman bring tears to my eyes? Why is it the same for people across the world, from America through Europe to Israel? I haven't found anyone who is unmoved by this, and all of them, like me, never knew Uri.

Is it because we can imagine, for we do not know, what it means to lose a child? Is it because we can identify with the empty space he will leave this coming and every future Friday night?

I had the great fortune to meet and spend a little time with his father this year, when David came to London. I found an instant rapport with a complete stranger -- well not so complete a stranger. I already had a sense of David from his books, many of which I have read, and from his many newspaper articles. In the short hours before and after his appearance at a Peace Now evening in London we shared many views. And at the end of the evening when I returned him to his hotel, this almost stranger returned the complement of my instant willing to share my thoughts and feelings by wishing my wife well in her recovery from illness.

When I called him a few weeks later on a rest and recuperation visit to Israel we spoke at length by phone and again we shared much as if we'd always been friends, even though I didn't know the names of his wife and children then. I didn't know of Uri.

Perhaps the emotional blow of Uriís death is because his father had spoken out against the widening of the scale of the war in Lebanon and with Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua had called for a cease fire only days before. Perhaps it is the fact that Uri died only hours after the government of Israel had agreed to the cease fire and hours before it came into effect, that makes his loss so painful.

Many are saying it is too soon to reach conclusions about this war that may now just be over. In Israel the questions and public debate and, yes, the recriminations, are yet to be given their full rein. There is a rumbling just under the surface, like the sound of distant gun fire, threatening to break out. That within hours after the kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers the Chief of Staff sold his portfolio of shares, says as much about his state of mind as it does about the army under his command.

The cease fire wasn't a whole day old when already all colours of the Israeli political spectrum were asking for a Commission of Inquiry into the management of the war. Was there one after 1967? I don't believe so, and maybe that was because the Six Days War was seen as a victory, the word we are not using about the war that may now be over, the Four Weeks War, the Second Lebanon War, the First Mid East War of the 21st Century.

I remember the Agranat Commission of Inquiry into the Yom Kippur War. Its interim report was published in April 1974 almost five months after that 'close run thing' which left over 2,500 Israeli soldiers dead. I still have the official IDF memorial book listing the nations' fallen. I remember too the dark days of that war and the bleak psychological landscape its aftermath created across Israel. I remember the costs of the war that were felt for months afterwards, the war tax we all paid out of our salaries. And I recall the bemusement and then the exaltation that swept the country with Anwar Sadat's visit, the US shuttles to reach a deal with Egypt, the 'on again off again' atmosphere that was almost as stressful as the war itself.

The relief after the final signing of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement was an anti-climax. By then we had experienced the return of the p.o.ws - a cousin of mine amongst them. What else but anti-climactic could it have been after the realisation of how close the war had been to a real defeat, and how much it had cost in life to the country? For decades afterwards I could not enter the annual ruminative spirit of Yom Kippur without finding time on the fast day to either revisit the war via a few minutes of tape recordings I made of radio programmes during it or by reading one of the myriad books on the subject.

But there was something momentous about the Israel-Egypt agreement. It came about only as a consequence of war. The US was integral to its achievement. It seems that there is no other way in the Middle East neighbourhood for peace to emerge. With all the changes in the way we live in this world since 1973, must it really be this way?

In the wake of this war it seems that we can only project more of the same for Israel and Lebanon, involvement for the rest of the region directly or vicariously, impacts on the rest of the world in economic after effects and radicalisation of Moslem communities in the West. An American TV interview with Iran's President and then the speech by Syria's Assad suggest that at best they are convinced that Israel has been defeated and are playing up what this means for the region and for the world's leading power.

At the time of writing, the Lebanese government appears unwilling or unable to disarm Hezbollah in the south. Prime Minister Seniora is between a rock and a hard place. His original seven point plan is in jeopardy and not only that so is his government. Eroding its authority from the inside is Hezbollah behind which is Iran with its own regional ambitions, for which more Lebanese martyrs are an easy sacrifice to make. But next door is Syria, whose President, angry at being scorned by just about everyone still sees a role for his country in Lebanon's future, tacitly or not.

Western donor nations considering a package for the reconstruction of blasted Lebanon have to decide whether what they give will really be of enduring purpose. If the prospects are for a return to hostilities, the alternative to them must be explored. Where then, are the statesmen locally and internationally who can step into the limelight to begin the process of seeking a peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon? Will Seniora come to address the Knesset and Olmert speak in the Beirut parliament?

And if we are asking this question of the two sovereign states most adversely affected by the war that may just be over, what of the state in waiting -- Palestine -- with whom war is still being fought?

For every absent place at a Friday night family gathering in Israel, there will be countless empty places in homes across Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. To avoid those terrible voids again, we have to appeal to the spirits of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and urge that they haunt Ehud Olmert into emerging as a man with a different horizon for his country than the one he and the current government are vaguely proposing. The alternatives, including a return to power for Israel's hard right, will be to consign successive generations of young Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians to early graves.

Paul Usiskin


Paul Usiskin is Chair of Peace Now-UK and a former serving officer in the IDF in the West Bank

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