Multilateralism and its Limits


A strange, thin, but visible thread runs through a number of our major news stories of this week in Israel: the terrible impact of the war between Russia and Georgia; the internal debate on the situation in Lebanon; the stalled, indirect talks with Hamas on the release of Gilad Shalit; and the increasingly bitter struggle for the leadership of Kadima, now that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced that he will not contest the party leadership. In varying degrees, all have to do with the merits, and problems, of relying upon the “international community,” and multilateral relations and institutions, to be of real help at a moment of crisis.

The lessons of Georgia seem straightforward—and distressing. Insofar as President Mikheil Saakashvili had counted upon international help when he challenged the existing order in South Ossetia, he was quickly and bitterly disabused. Left to fend for themselves against an all-powerful and vindictive neighbor, the Georgian troops quickly folded, and, in fact, the war took on a peculiar twist: the Russians belittling their own achievements on the ground, the Georgians reporting a vast invasion (in the forlorn hope that the brutality of the Russian actions would trigger a Western counter-intervention). Amid all this, the UN Security Council did meet and the French did mediate—but it was the Russians’ harsh fist that determined not only the specific outcome but a much broader range of consequences. Sympathies aside, the West—even the U.S.—could do little to help. A nation poorly able to defend itself or deter a strong neighbor paid a frightful price.

Meanwhile, a highly troubling legacy of ineffectual international action also lies at the root of the present predicament in Lebanon. Two years after the war ended, Hezbollah is—frankly—as strong as ever. It has violently imposed its will on the Lebanese political system (and in the process, provided the Syrian leadership with effective immunity against international prosecution for the assassination of Rafik Hariri and other Lebanese leaders; Hezbollah is now well-positioned to veto any attempt by the anti-Syrian “Fourteenth of March” camp to move in that direction). Following the exchange of prisoners with Israel, and the celebrations that attended the release of the child-murderer, Samir Quntar, who appeared in Hezbollah uniform and promised to carry on with the struggle (to the dismay of a small but honorable section of Lebanese society), Hassan Nasrallah and his Iranian masters no longer need to explain to the country they hijacked, or to the world, the reasons for their conduct. A huge pile of new weapons, obtained in blatant breach and disregard of UNSCR 1701 (let alone of Lebanese sovereignty) now gives Hezbollah the capacity to put an ever-growing number of Israeli citizens within range of their rockets and missiles.

In Gaza—again in open breach of international norms—Gilad Shalit is being held by Hamas and its allies without access to Red Cross visits or any other contact from the outside world beyond the letters he is allowed to write, occasionally, to his family. No amount of international pressure or persuasion has been able to moderate Hamas’s stance, let alone create a minimal framework of negotiations based on recognition of past agreements. The international consensus over sanctions may be fraying, and even if it holds, it has yet to bear significant fruit.

How does all of this tie in with the ongoing Kadima leadership contest? As it happens, the questions of multilateralism vs. unilateralism (in the Israeli case, bringing in the UN and Europe vs. relying on our own strength and upon the “special relationship” with the United States) is fast becoming a key element in the bitter exchanges between the two leading contenders: on the one hand, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, for whom 1701 is a proud diplomatic achievement and proof of the value of multilateralist approaches, and on the other, Shaul Mofaz, now the minister of transportation but formerly chief of staff of the IDF and minister of defense, who seems to enjoy the backing of another former top soldier, Labor Party leader and present Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. (The theory is that Barak fears that Livni, if general elections are held, would bite into Labor’s electoral base, whereas Mofaz would pull in voters from the right.) Both Mofaz and Barak have taken strong, occasionally abrasive positions on 1701 and the failure to implement it—undermining Livni’s credibility and claims of statesmanship.

This underlying debate, reinforced by various forms of evidence and argumentation, about “self-reliance” vs. “internationalism” began many years ago. Students of Israeli history will recognize echoes of Foreign Minister (and later, for a short while, prime minister) Moshe Sharett’s disagreements with David Ben-Gurion. And it will continue to rage, having once again acquired specific political relevance. And yet the truth (if this is the relevant term) lies at neither extreme. In fact, Ben-Gurion, who reportedly coined the phrase “Um—Schmum” (UM being the Hebrew acronym for the UN), had always been careful to arrange for proper backing at a moment of peril, as he did with the French in 1956; and even the fervent advocates of respect for “world opinion” always knew that Israel must constantly sustain the capacity to stand alone.

Where the ultimate test may come is over Iran. Interestingly enough, it was Israel—under former prime minister, and famous warrior, Ariel Sharon as well as under Olmert—which took the lead in advocating international measures and UN sanctions as key tools in the effort to prevent Iran from getting the bomb; and the message (despite wild speculations by various op-ed writers) has not changed. But if it does become clear, over time—and not much time is left—that the international community has simply fallen short, the verdict on multilateralism will be in, with far-reaching ramifications not only for Israeli conduct and strategy on Iran, but also on policy, and politics, in general.

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