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Waltzing With Beirut

The Jerusalem theater lights came on, and no man between the ages of 25 and 35 moved. We had just watched Waltz With Bashir, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's animated documentary about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent Sabra and Chatila massacre. The film deals with Folman's struggle with the surreal trauma that many veterans of that conflict retain. For me, it was being strafed by Syrian MiGs and Israeli Skyhawks in a single day, diving for cover into a ditch where a dead Syrian colonel sat staring at me with crystalline eyes; or shoveling up the entrails of a puppy that had just been crushed by an IDF tank while Lebanese children looked on and laughed. Nominated for a Golden Palm and Golden Trailer awards, Waltz With Bashir follows another Israeli production, the Academy Award-nominated Beaufort, about soldiers in a beleaguered bunker in the weeks leading up to Israel's final withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Having spent many months in similarly larval conditions, I couldn't budge at the end of that movie, too. Neither could my contemporaries.

Waltz With Bashir and Beaufort serve as bookends to what Israelis now call the First Lebanon War, a conflict they have labored to forget. In contrast to the annual ceremonies commemorating the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, there is no national marking of Israel's longest military engagement and its more than 1,300 dead. And the reason is hardly obscure. The war is regarded as Israel's Vietnam, a monumental waste of material and human resources, the product of a harebrained plot that could never have succeeded and disastrously didn't.

Yet, as films like these begin to revisit Israelis’ lingering nightmares, now might be the time to reevaluate their Lebanon incursion. Were its goals irredeemably ignoble and its costs too exorbitant? What lessons might be gleaned from the war and applied to the current crises in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East? The roots of the war stemmed back to 1970, when Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), driven out of Jordan, relocated to Lebanon. The PLO proceeded to galvanize the country's politically disenfranchised Palestinians (mostly Sunni)--and, by so doing, upset the fragile power balance between the Maronites, Sunni Muslims, and Druze. Attacks on Christians by Palestinian gunmen and on Palestinians by the Maronites' Phalange militia escalated into full-blown civil war in which myriads died and many more were displaced. Exploiting the chaos, Syria occupied northern and eastern Lebanon while the PLO transformed the south into a launching area for terrorist strikes against Israel.

Such perils could scarcely have passed unaddressed by Israel's hardline prime minister, Menachem Begin. Having previously ordered the destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant, Begin prepared to purge southern Lebanon of Palestinian terror. His defense minister had vaster plans, however, which were not entirely presented to the government: Ariel Sharon envisioned an Israeli thrust to Beirut where, in conjunction with the Phalangists, the PLO would be ousted and a pro-Western government installed. The pretext for the operation came on June 3, 1982, with the attempted assassination--paradoxically by a Palestinian opposed to the PLO--of Israel's ambassador to London. Three days later, Israel invaded.

The campaign was brutal but swift. In contrast to the Second Lebanon War of 2006, in which Israel hesitated to commit ground troops, IDF forces swept up to the Litani River, pitching the PLO into retreat. But having achieved its 40-kilometer goal, the army was then suddenly ordered northward toward the capital and concentrations of Syrian armor. Vicious battles ensued before my jeep turned a mountain curve and showed me panoramic Beirut. "Somebody's made a humongous error," I confided to the driver, "and we are thoroughly screwed."

Yet my pessimism seemed initially misplaced. The charismatic Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel (the Bashir in Folman's Waltz) became president and a multinational force, which included U.S. marines, supervised the PLO's evacuation. The Syrians, bloodied, retired. Israel and Lebanon began treaty talks, presaging a domino-like chain of negotiations culminating in regional peace.

But this irenic picture unraveled, instantly, on September 14 when a Syrian bomb atomized Bashir and his entourage. The Israelis responded by occupying western Beirut, inflicting untold civilian casualties, and allowing vengeance-seeking Phalangists into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. The next day, images of piles of bloated, bullet-ridden bodies circulated the globe and generated immense international pressure on Israel. President Ronald Reagan, who previously denounced the Osirak airstrike, insisted on an immediate Israeli withdrawal. Israelis, too, were outraged; up to 400,000 of them took to the street insisting on an official investigation of the war, which eventually recommended Sharon's resignation.

Yet the Lebanon War's wounds were only beginning to hemorrhage. Amin, Bashir's brother and successor, suspended peace talks with Israel, and the Syrians reasserted their primacy. U.S. troops were ordered back into Beirut only to be pulled out after a car bomb careened into their headquarters, killing 241. Israel, meanwhile, hunkered down in a southern Lebanese "Security Zone" where its soldiers were picked off by fighters belonging to the previously quiescent but burgeoning Shiite community, members of the yet-unheralded Hezbollah. Buckling to domestic demands finally, the Israeli government ordered the army to vacate Lebanon in 2000, but Lebanon would not leave Israel. Hezbollah triggered another armed clash in June 2006, once again frustrating the IDF and appending "First" to Israel's 18-year-long Lebanon War.

Not surprisingly, the First Lebanon War is remembered as a fiasco. Yet the war's original aims of ensuring a Lebanon free of Syria and its terrorist proxies, oriented toward peace and resistant to Islamism, are precisely those desired by the West today. The legacy of Lebanon is not merely anguish, it seems, but also lessons that can help avert such catastrophes in the future.

Trying to impose peace on a Middle Eastern nation by military means can prove calamitous--that is the first lesson of Lebanon as well as, of course, Iraq. But, having embarked on that course, a precipitous pullout can yield even deadlier results. Furthermore, war aims must be fully endorsed by the government and communicated to the public. Winning in the Middle East also means playing by Middle Eastern rules--maneuvering between rival ethnic groups, deterring and incentivizing them, and identifying which of them predominates. Lastly and most pertinently, trust Israel's instincts. The West's forward-most outpost in the Middle East, Israel correctly signaled the danger of Osirak and of a terrorist-dominated Lebanon. Israel is now warning about the cataclysm impending from a rapacious, nuclear-armed Iran. The West would be well-served to listen.

Internalizing these lessons will bring little solace to the veterans of Lebanon--Israeli and American alike. We will continue to sit when the lights come on after Waltz With Bashir and Beaufort, trauma-stricken. Still, by acting prudently, deftly, and resolutely against Middle Eastern threats--and by anticipating them sufficiently in advance--Israel and the United States can salve our sacrifice with peace.

Michael B. Oren, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (Norton, 2007).

By Michael B. Oren