With all the media attention paid to the recent 40th anniversary of the Munich Olympic massacre, another anniversary – this one related to something far more consequential in terms of Israel’s history – slipped by relatively unnoticed.
It was thirty years ago this past June that Israel invaded Lebanon in an attempt to deal the PLO a death blow and thirty years ago last month that Lebanese Christian militiamen slaughtered Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. The two events, fairly or not, will forever be linked in the public mind. But even if Israeli troops had prevented their Lebanese allies from entering the camps, the Lebanon War would have become Israel’s Vietnam and – again, fairly or not – changed the way much of Israeli society viewed itself and the way much of the world viewed Israel.
Like Vietnam, the Lebanon war became increasingly unpopular in elite media circles. Both wars became rallying cries for forces eager not just to protest the conflict but to disparage the country, its leaders, its history. And both were initiated or inherited by politicians who had long been anathema to liberal journalists.
First and foremost there is the Nixon-Begin parallel and the question of perceived legitimacy. Mainstream American liberals had begun souring on the Vietnam war in 1965 and 1966, but it wasn’t until Democrats lost the 1968 presidential election and Richard Nixon took office a few months later that antiwar sentiment exploded in establishment circles.
Suddenly it was Nixon’s war, not John Kennedy’s or Lyndon Johnson’s, and Democrats were acting as though the 500,000 American troops already on the ground in Vietnam had appeared there at the instant of Nixon’s inauguration.
As difficult as it was for many of Nixon’s ideological foes to swallow the notion of Nixon as a legitimate commander in chief, so too did Menachem Begin’s political enemies view Begin as an unworthy interloper when in 1977 he broke the Labor Alignment’s long electoral hegemony in Israel.
That sense of illegitimacy remained largely under the surface during Begin’s first term in office, when the only two military operations of consequence were a limited incursion into Lebanon in 1978 and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
But when Begin, a year into his second term, signed off on the invasion of Lebanon, his opponents dropped even the pretense of civility. For many Israeli leftists, inside the media and out, the very thought of the reviled Begin presiding over the largest Israeli military operation since the Yom Kippur War was nothing short of intolerable. Israeli newspapers were filled with indignant letters from parents, many of whom openly identified themselves as Labor loyalists, cursing Begin because their sons were now at mortal risk in Lebanon.
A month or so into the fighting, with Israeli soldiers still engaged in battles in and around Beirut, Yitzhak Rabin and other Labor politicos could be seen on television newscasts around the world voicing open disparagement of the Begin government.
Another parallel between Vietnam and Lebanon involved the emergence or reinvigoration, in both the U.S. and Israel, of movements hostile to the prevailing social and political order. In the wake of Lebanon, left-wing Israeli academics (relying heavily on concepts and terminology popularized by their American counterparts 15 years earlier) began to formulate the negative interpretation of Israeli history that by the middle of the following decade would come to be called post-Zionism.
The wars were also similar for the hostile international media coverage they inspired. The Europeans had been vicious to Israel since the late 1960s, but it took Lebanon to bring out the animosity that had been building for a number of years in the American media, as witness the syndicated columnist Nicholas von Hoffman’s statement that “atrocity by atrocity, Americans are coming to see the Israeli government as pounding the Star of David into a swastika”; or the Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett’s claim that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon “seems designed to make civilized man forget or depreciate the Holocaust”; or the print and television pundit Carl Rowan’s insistence that “Israel’s leaders are imitating Hitler.”
Three decades later, Israel’s metamorphosis in the eyes of the media – from valiant underdog to regional bully – stands out as the lasting legacy of the 1982 Lebanon war.