Michael Walzer has a piece in the New Republic which addresses the question of how Israel may legitimately prosecute its war in Lebanon. There’s much to agree with in the piece, especially since Walzer is clear about the impermissibility of deliberately killing civilians and deliberately destroying the infrastructure necessary to support civilian life. There’s also much with which I disagree. Walzer tends to take IDF claims about the extent to which they actually do seek to minimize civilian casualities at face value; the reports from Lebanon would seem to support a more sceptical stance. I was, however, brought up short by this:
the Israeli response has only a short-term aim: to stop the attacks across its borders… Until there is an effective Lebanese army and a Palestinian government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled to act, within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.
Now I don’t dissent from the proposition that Israel is entitled to act to stop attacks across its borders. But Walzer’s linkage of that claim to the capacity of the Lebanese government is surely perverse. The claimed legitimacy of many of the Israeli actions has hinged on the failure of Lebanese government to act and on its legal responsibility to do so. Attacks on facilities outside the Hezbollah zone of control have been conducted with this explicit justification. But if it is part of the case for action that the Lebanese government actually lacks the capacity to act—as it surely does—then those operations were wrong.
Israel can’t simultaneously base its justification for action on the responsibility of the Lebanese government to act and on its incapacity to do so, except insofar as it limits itself to actions that an effective Lebanese government would be duty-bound to perform, namely, suppressing Hezbollah. But Israel hasn’t limited itself to such actions, it has attacked other Lebanese targets.
The Walzer justification could surely only be offered in good faith by a party that was also committed to enabling the Lebanese government to exercise effective sovereignty over its territory. The Israeli attacks aren’t strengthening the post-Cedar-revolution government, they are increasing the probability that Lebanon will once again descend into being a failed state.
Trying to make sense of what Israel is actually doing is hard, in my opinion. I don’t believe that Israel can destroy Hezbollah by direct military action, and I’m sure they don’t believe so either. The point of their action can’t be to get the Lebanese government to act, because, as the Walzer justification insists, they lack the capacity to do so. So what are they trying to do? My guess, is that they are trying to exploit the US commitment to a post-Syrian Lebanese order to bounce the US into acting against Syria and Iran. “Take action Condi, or we’ll screw an important plank of your Middle East policy” is the message, and this might indeed be an effective way to get Hezbollah to stop firing rockets. If Iran or Syria pushed Hezbollah to provoke Israel (and I think it very likely they did) then presumably they’re also trying to pressure the US to make a deal in some way whilst they can. Lebanese civilians are expendable chips in what looks like a high stakes game of diplomatic poker.