• U.S.

Vengeance Is Mine

5 minute read
Jill Smolowe

Peace talks or no, the Middle East is once again showing its true color: the blood red of vengeance. The escalation of violence began Feb. 14 when Arab guerrillas infiltrated an Israeli army camp and hacked three soldiers to death. Two days later in southern Lebanon, Israeli Apache helicopters fired three missiles on the motorcade of Sheik Abbas Musawi, leader of the Iranian- backed Hizballah. The long-planned strike killed not only Musawi but also his wife and six-year-old son. From there, hostilities spiraled rapidly. Hizballah launched scores of Katyusha rockets into Israel’s self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon and into the Galilee panhandle of Israel proper. The Jewish state fired back on about 20 Lebanese villages, then sent a column of armored vehicles beyond the security zone toward two Hizballah strongholds, Kafra and Yater, where eight U.N. peacekeepers were wounded in the cross fire.

While no one could say when the dismally familiar spiral of violence might end, Jerusalem maintained repeatedly from the start that its attacking forces were limited in number and that their mission would be short. On Friday the . troops were pulled back to the security zone, but officials promised they would return if Hizballah did not halt its rocket attacks.

Much to Washington’s relief, Israel’s actions seemed to have no disruptive impact on the Middle East peace process. On the day of Musawi’s killing, both Lebanon and Syria announced that they would attend the third round of talks convening this week in Washington, an indication of how little support Hizballah enjoys in the Arab world. Even after Israel’s attack on Kafra and Yater, no parties pulled out. Only the Palestinians, incensed by Israel’s recent detention of two of their delegates, threatened not to show — then reversed course.

In taking out Musawi, Israel’s leaders knew that they risked diplomatic opprobrium — as well as retaliation from Hizballah. So why did they hit him? Before Musawi took command of Hizballah in mid-1991, he was a member of its military command, which Israel holds responsible for such atrocities as the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Still, Israel entertained hopes that he might pursue a more moderate course, since he had close ties to Iran’s more pragmatic leaders. But attacks by his militia on Israeli targets only increased. After two previous failed attempts on his life, the Israelis hit him last week because he was there, just where they knew he would be when he publicized his plans to attend a memorial service in the village of Jibshit. “There is a legitimate principle called settling an account,” says Yossi Peled, former head of Israel’s northern command. “That means eliminating the person who made the decisions to take innocent lives.”

Although the assassination was planned for months, the timing proved especially appealing. The raid on the Israeli army camp two days earlier was carried out most probably by Palestinians, not Lebanese Shi’ites, but it provided the guise of a provocation. The easy infiltration of the army camp humiliated the military and spurred it to demonstrate its competence. Since the U.S. hostages once held by Hizballah were free, there was little concern about a serious outcry from Washington. (Beyond deploring the “rising cycle of violence,” the U.S. State Department warned of the increased danger of terrorist attacks against Americans in the region.) And Israel’s concerns for its missing airman, Ron Arad, who fell into Hizballah’s hands after a 1986 Israeli raid, have shifted; he is now believed to be dead or held by different captors.

Then there were electoral considerations, never far from any Israeli politician’s mind. Coming into the week, the ruling Likud bloc and the Labor Party were both preparing to name leaders to run for Prime Minister in national elections on June 23. For Likud, Sunday’s assault on Musawi was a well-timed reminder to voters that it is implacably committed to the country’s physical security. As expected, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir got the nod from his bloc. In Israel’s first primary ever, Labor members elected Yitzhak Rabin to replace Shimon Peres.

Now Shamir faces a far stiffer battle in June. He could have depicted Peres as a left-winger who would negotiate away too much. But Rabin is a hero of the 1967 Six-Day War who, as Defense Minister from 1984 to ’90, reinforced his tough image by employing harsh tactics to quell the Palestinian intifadeh. While he advocates trading parts of the occupied territories for peace and opposes the expansion of Jewish settlements in those areas, no Israeli mistakes him for a dove. Rabin will try to convince voters that he alone can achieve peace, and he is expected to make so strong a showing that he may force a new national unity government.

In the interim, Shamir will need to keep the peace process percolating so Labor cannot blame him for its failure. At the same time, he will not want the bargaining to proceed to any yea-or-nay decision that might antagonize Likud’s far-right-wing voters. After last week’s show of force in Lebanon, he can probably afford the appearance of a little give-and-take. As disheartening as the renewed hostilities are, perhaps they will underscore for negotiators how acute the need is to achieve a lasting peace.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com