Israel, the Model

Posted: Jul 26, 2006 12:00 AM

From the precincts of the European Union to the United Nations to the editorial pages in the United States, it is being argued that Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israelis and firing of rockets into Israel is “disproportionate,” a threat to the region, and could undo the U.S. democracy project in the Middle East. What is disproportion in the Middle East? How should one state respond to multi-state-sponsored terror?

Begin with the fundamentals. Hezbollah, once described as “the A-team of terrorists” by former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, is a terrorist group with a record of killing hundreds of Americans and Israelis (from Beirut to Saudi Arabia to Argentina to inside Israel). Hezbollah is of global reach and extent. It began with the fundamental goals of creating an Islamist state in Lebanon and the total annihilation of Israel. It is armed and supported by Syria and Iran, and it has branches in some 20 countries. It occupies 20 percent of the Lebanese parliament but that percentage does not give it sufficient due. Here is Amir Taheri in the London Times:

Hezbollah is a state within the Lebanese state. It controls some 25% of the national territory. Almost 400,000 of Lebanon’s estimated 4 million inhabitants live under its control. It collects its own taxes with a 20% levy, known as “khoms”, on all incomes. It runs its own schools, where a syllabus produced in Iran is taught at all levels. It also runs clinics, hospitals, social welfare networks and centres for orphans and widows.

The party controls the elected municipal councils and appoints local officials, who in theory should be selected by the central government in Beirut. To complete its status as a virtual state, the party maintains a number of unofficial “embassies”: the one in Tehran is bigger and has a larger number of staff than that of Lebanon itself.

Hezbollah also has its own media including a satellite television channel, Al-Manar (the lighthouse), which is watched all over the Arab world, four radio stations, newspapers and magazines plus a book publishing venture. The party has its own system of justice based on sharia and operates its own police force, courts and prisons. Hezbollah runs youth clubs, several football teams and a number of matrimonial agencies.

In sum, it may very well have the run of Lebanon more than non-Hezbollah factions and institutions. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, brags about this today.

As for Israel’s disproportion, it is worth remembering that Israel is but one state — with a majority of Jews but a substantial Arab population. The Arab states number 22. The land-mass comparison is some 10,000 square miles compared to over five million square miles. That does not include Iran. The Palestinian Authority, situated now in the southwest of Israel, is a Hamas entity — it is more lethal and Islamist than Arafat’s PLO.

President Bush, in articulating the post-9/11 doctrine, stated: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

In some respects it is unnecessary to ask whether Lebanon “harbors” or “harbored” Hezbollah; but one definition of “harbor” is “to provide refuge” and there is no question that at the bare minimum, Lebanon allowed Hezbollah to operate in its country — gave it ministerial portfolios in the cabinet and allowed the seating of its elected officials in parliament. It may, as a fragile, burgeoning, democracy have had no choice but to do this. But the question remains: Was that fragile democracy slowly moving to eradicate Hezbollah from its midst or was Hezbollah growing stronger and stronger?

We know this about terrorists groups: As nature abhors a vacuum, terrorists thrive in them — that is where they grow and empower themselves. And at least since Israel left Lebanon six years ago, Hezbollah has not gotten weaker. Further, if Hezbollah had believed Lebanon was constricting it rather than allowing it to thrive, it would not have launched an incursion into Israel.

Nonetheless, Israel has not deliberately targeted the Lebanese government. Still, the question arises, however, that if the U.S. sides alone with Israel, would that not be a terrible message to send to the broader Middle East democracy initiative. This is the question that is the most lopsided of them all.

We have long believed that, paraphrasing former CIA director Jim Woolsey, democracy is not one vote, one time. Israel is in the Middle East and is a democracy that passes the Woolsey test and has done so for almost 60 years. Lebanon has had one election in recent times and it weaved Hezbollah into that democracy. The PA had an election and it put Hamas in charge. It seems to us that if one wants to further the Middle East democracy project — and not be cynical about it — the U.S. is doing precisely what it should: showing support for the established democracy, not the fragile and inept one that allows, tolerates or — at a minimum — turned a blind eye to Hezbollah in its midst.

At the end of the day, if Middle Eastern democracies are desired, and they are, does one not want models to point to? What model should the U.S. be pointing to to the Iranian dissidents, the Egyptian dissidents, the Saudi dissidents? Would we be right to say, “Vote and behave like they did in Lebanon, and erect a government like that (where 400,000 people live under Hezbollah control),” or “Look at Israel: It comes to the aid of others around the world, it has a minority population with full democratic rights that even serve in government, and its economy, free of oil, works.”

It may be wishful thinking to assume Arab peoples will fully want Israel as their model, indeed it is probably naive. Nonetheless, if the U.S. is to be held accountable for initiating and supporting democracies, the one that is one year old and hosts Hezbollah is not the model we should be propagating. So the next time the question is asked about the Middle East democracy project in light of Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East — the reminder needs to be made: Israel is a democracy and it is in the Middle East. And one final point: If Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran were to be victorious in their military actions and ideology, two things would not exist: 1) Israel and 2) Lebanese democracy of any kind.

William Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute, the author of America: The Last Best Hope, and the host of Bill Bennett’s Morning in America. Seth Leibsohn is a fellow of the Claremont Institute and the producer of Bill Bennett’s Morning in America.

Originally appeared at National Review Online