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Posted: 4/17/2001 9:06:52 PM EDT
The Wall Street Journal
April 18, 2001

Israel's War of Attrition

So, after repeated warnings, Israel retaliates against Syrian forces for their role in harboring and supplying Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pronounces himself "especially dismayed." Then the Russian foreign ministry chips in with "categorical condemnation" and France with "strong preoccupation." And this was before the news that Israeli troops, reacting to a Palestinian attack, rolled into areas in the Gaza Strip, a step Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday lambasted as "excessive and disproportionate."

That's too bad, because so far the Bush Administration had been alone among Western governments in keeping a cool head. After the Syrian raid, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer issued a routine call for restraint on all sides. But by also blaming Hezbollah for provoking the attack, the Administration had provided some moral accountancy. After eight years in which the Arab-Israeli conflict was viewed as a typical feud between two equally wounded, equally guilty and equally neurotic step-siblings, this was long overdue. No less important, the U.S. was beginning to treat Israel as it would any other nation: A sovereign state that can defend its legitimate interests without first having to prove to everyone from Buenos Aires to St. Petersburg that it's as morally stainless as were the victims of the Holocaust.

These are, of course, early days for the governments in both Washington and Jerusalem, and the road ahead is certain to be marred by further ugliness and confusion. The situation now calls to mind the period between 1967 and 1973, when Israel was engaged in what came to be known as the War of Attrition. Back then, the object of the Arab states was to wear down Israel's power and will to resist. Only a decisive -- albeit close-run -- war managed to restore a tenuous stability.

Today the game remains pretty much the same. Yasser Arafat's intransigence at Camp David and his now undisputed role in sponsoring the second intifada make clear that he has not come to terms with Israel's right to exist. Nor has the Hezbollah, despite Israel's U.N.-certified withdrawal from Lebanon, or Syria, despite the Clinton Administration's efforts to convince itself that the elder Assad had made "a strategic choice for peace." Egypt, it's true, is no longer playing host to Soviet troops. But in its place Israel must now reckon with the threat of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction from Iraq and also Iran, which reportedly has missile crews stationed in Lebanon.

This column has been making these points for ages, and it's nice to know that at least some people are getting it. Dennis Ross, the tireless former U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, recently concluded that Mr. Arafat was not a man Israel could make peace with. The same, it seems, goes for much of the Israeli left.

Yet the baneful role played by the so-called "peace camp" must not go unexamined. To take the most obvious example, those who urged Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon must now be asked why they did not anticipate the predictable result: Hezbollah attacks into Israel, hence Israeli attacks into Lebanon, hence an increased chance of fighting between Israel and Syria rather than their proxies, hence a return to exactly the circumstances that first brought about Israel's 1982 invasion. Just how far did the politico-
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