from beirut to jerusalem

from beirut to jerusalemWell, I finished off From Beirut to Jerusalem this week, which as it turns out seems to have been, sadly, a rather appropriate week.

I went into this book heavily inclined to not like it. I’m not a huge fan of the Tom Friedman that I knew as a NYT columnist. I found him a little too quick to lose himself in a convoluted, oh-so-clever metaphor to make a point, and I didn’t agree with his eagerness to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003. I expected From Beirut to Jerusalem to be similarly meandering and blustery, but I was wrong:

The book is part history, part autobiography – the last century of Israeli and Lebanese history wrapped in the 20-some years that Friedman spent as a correspondent in both Beirut and Jerusalem. He starts with Lebanon, and paints a portrait of Beirut as a sort of man-made Hobbesian “state of nature”. While there’s no doubt that Beirut at many times through the last 30 years resembled hell on earth, you get the impression that Friedman thought it was singularly so, and that he was quite a badass for having been there – this despite the fact that there are a lot of places in the world just as fucked up for just as long (if not longer – Haiti, anyone?). But that’s forgiveable.

He does a good job of explaining the strife in Beirut – the struggle between the Shiites, Druse, and Maronites – the minority Catholic sect that was guaranteed control over Lebanon after WWI. This control has persisted, despite the massive demographic shifts in favor of the Shiites, setting the stage for the internal civil war that started in 1975.

This civil war was made even more complex by the injection of the PLO, making their home in Beirut, serving basically as thugs – security forces beefing up attacks against the Maronites, while raising Cain (okay, poor choice of expression) abroad.

The second half of the book is devoted to Israel, Zionism, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Friedman is even-handed in his portrayal of both sides, though he comes down harder on Israel (with justification) than I expected.

Of particular interest and relevance was Israel’s ill-concieved occupation of Lebanon. The brain-child of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, the idea was the invade Lebanon in order to flush the PLO and other palestinian militans from southern Lebanon once and for all – grossly misunderstanding the roots of the conflict and the PLO’s involvement. Instead of sweeping through the country, ridding it of the “terrorist” threat to Israel’s security, and being greeted as liberators, they were mired in the occupation of a country deep in a decades-long communal conflict between rival groups, all vying for power. Sound familiar? For all the parallels between the US invasion of Iraq to the Vietnam War, I think there are a lot more lessons to be learned in Israel’s nightmare in Lebanon.

So, it’s obvious now that Israel learned its lesson. Rather than invade to rid Lebanon of Hezbollah militants, they are instead using their overwhelming air superiority to pound the shit out of Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure. But to what end? Will crippling the water supply, power grid and highways of Lebanon prevent Syria and Iran from funding militants operating in Lebanon? No. Will it breed resentment and further insecurity? Yes. Does it risk plunging the entire area into all-out war? Yes.

Friedman begins the second half of the book focusing on Israel with the following questions, laying out a sort of impossible triad:

On the seventh day of the Six-Day War, amid the jubilation and flag waving, a huge question once again hung over the Israelis: Who were they? A nation of Jews living in all the land of Israel, but not democratic? A democratic nation in all the land of Israel, but not Jewish? Or a Jewish and democratic nation, but not in all the land of Israel?

Nearly forty years later, Israel still has not looked itself in the mirror and answered this question, and its problems won’t go away until it does. Israel’s military action in Lebanon is not just a criminal and immoral act of callousness towards the Lebanese people – it’s criminally stupid.