STATE OF THE UNION Europe's Disproportionate Criticism
By GERALD M. STEINBERG July 17, 2006
JERUSALEM -- In early 2000, the European Union was an enthusiastic supporter
of unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon.
Paris was about to take over the EU presidency in July and played a dominant
role in the discussions. The French foreign and defense ministers pressed
Israel to return its military forces to the international border. In
detailed talks that took place at the French ambassador's residence in
Jaffa, in which I participated as an academic consultant, the Europeans
assured us that once Israel retreated, Hezbollah would lose its raison d'etre
as a "militia" and transform itself into a political party. France and its
partners would send peacekeepers to prevent terror and missile attacks
against Israel, help the Lebanese army take control of the border, and
In May that year, the Israeli military left Lebanon. The United Nations
certified that the withdrawal was complete. But Europe did nothing.
Hezbollah's leaders celebrated a great "military victory," and Iranian
"advisers" provided intelligence, training and thousands more of missiles,
some with ranges of 75 kilometers and more that could penetrate deep into
Israeli territory and for the first time hit Haifa, Israel's third biggest
Instead of the promised transformation, Hezbollah took positions right
across Israel's border and prepared for the next round of the war. Fearing
international and particularly European condemnation, Israel did nothing to
prevent this dangerous buildup. Emboldened by Israeli restraint, Hezbollah
staged the first cross-border attack and kidnapping only five months after
Israel's withdrawal, in October 2000.
Europe's reaction back then was limited to repeating the usual mantras,
calling on Israel to "act with restraint" and to "give diplomacy a chance."
Now, after steady escalation and attrition to which Israel is particularly
vulnerable, Hezbollah triggered a full-scale confrontation by firing another
round of missiles at Israeli cities and staging a kidnapping attack, in
which eight Israeli soldiers were killed. In tandem with Palestinian
assaults from Hamas-controlled Gaza, which also featured missiles and
kidnapped soldiers to be traded for terrorists, this opened a two-front war.
This time, though, Israel moved quickly to finally dismantle the strategic
threat in Lebanon. No state can simply stand by while its citizens are being
killed and abducted, its cities routinely shelled, and part of its
population forced to live in fear and sleep in bomb shelters. Hezbollah
erroneously thought its missiles and the support from Iran and Syria would
allow it to continue attacking Israel with impunity.
Europe's role, once again, is limited to repeating the same old tired
phrases. The EU called Israel's response and attacks on Beirut and in Gaza
"disproportionate" and violations of international law. France in particular
was outraged. "For several hours, there has been a bombardment of an airport
of an entirely sovereign country, a friend of France... this is a
disproportionate act of war," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy
said. It may have escaped the minister that the initial act of war
originated from Lebanon and that the target of this unprovoked aggression is
supposedly also a "sovereign country" and "friend of France."
The knee-jerk condemnation of their country was not lost on Israelis who
recall the broken promises from 2000 and the visceral antipathy toward them
when they had to fight Arafat's terror war. Beyond the rhetoric, European
officials offer no framework for a proper and "proportionate" level of force
in response to mass terror aimed at the ultimate goal of "wiping Israel off
Few in Europe probably realize that the EU's failure to act in response to
Iran's nuclear weapons efforts, and the three years that were wasted in
negotiations while Iran began enriching uranium, only strengthened Israel's
decision to act forcefully against the terror threats posed by Hezbollah and
Hamas, who act as Tehran's proxies.
Israel's strategy is twofold. The immediate goal is to remove Hezbollah's
acute threat by crippling its military capabilities and driving their troops
from the border zone. Attacks on Lebanese infrastructure are designed to
prevent the resupply of Hezbollah and to pressure the Lebanese government to
establish full sovereignty over the country. It is Lebanon, not Israel, that
is in violation of international law as Beirut still has not implemented
U.N. resolution 1559, which demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.
At the same time, and this is Israel's medium-term goal, going forcefully
after Iran's prodigy in Lebanon sends a powerful message to Tehran. It
restores Israel's deterrence capability, a crucial move in preventing future
confrontations with Iran on a much larger scale. But many idealistic
European policy makers cannot see that a small war stopped prematurely now
may only pave the way for a much larger war later. In order to understand
Israel's military actions, it is imperative to consider the two powers
standing behind Hezbollah. The larger strategic threat to Israel is the
Damascus-Tehran axis. To view Israel's actions in Beirut and Gaza as
"disproportionate" means ignoring the radical Islamic regime in Tehran,
which threatens to destroy Israel and is bent on acquiring the weapons to
actually carry out its threat.
At the same time, Europe -- particularly France -- has invested heavily in
the reconstruction of Lebanon and the international isolation of the Syrian
regime. From this perspective, the damage to Beirut's airport and
infrastructure and the strain on the Lebanese government are justifiably
But if European leaders are serious about preventing instability and
promoting their own economic and security interests, they will also have to
share the costs of containing terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. To
help resolve the immediate crisis and prevent further damage to Lebanon's
fragile economic and political structure, Europe's leaders can stiffen
Beirut's backbone by conditioning aid to the release of the kidnapped
Israeli soldiers. Cease-fire initiatives must lead to Hezbollah's
disarmament. By tying further economic assistance to an end to terror
attacks, Europe can actually help create the basis for long-term stability.
And of course, it must pressure Tehran and Damascus. Instead of reflexively
labeling Israel's belated use of force as "disproportionate," the leaders of
the EU must learn to make their own security policies proportionate and
Mr. Steinberg directs the conflict management program at Bar Ilan University
and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.