The talk, which was held Thursday evening, Aug. 31, at the UA, was titled "Israel, Lebanon and a 'New Middle East?'" Six scholars--from fields including political science, history and anthropology--gave their opinions at the event, sponsored by the UA Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
Shlomo Aronson, a visiting professor at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies who teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, often sparred with some of his colleagues, and he elicited strong reactions from the crowd.
Aronson started off by saying there was "complete national consensus" in Israel over the decision to invade Lebanon in order to deal with Hezbollah. "Only the very far left was divided among themselves whether the Israeli action was justified," he said.
Current political debate in Israel is therefore focused on the tactical efficacy of the military in Lebanon, not on the correctness of waging war in the first place, Aronson said.
However, David Dunford, former U.S. ambassador to Oman and former deputy ambassador to Saudi Arabia, gave a different assessment of public opinion in Israel, describing the mood as "bleak."
"Israelis are angry at their government, because the attempt to destroy Hezbollah yielded disappointing results," he said, noting the final outcome of the war is not yet obvious. "Israelis don't feel safe; Gaza's a mess, and disengagement from the West Bank has pretty much come to a halt."
However, Aronson asserted that the outcome of the war has "not been that clearly negative," because Hezbollah has come under heavy criticism from figures inside Lebanon after losing "complete control" over the southern reaches of the country.
This drew a rebuke from Faten Ghosn, a UA associate professor of political science who studies Lebanese politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. She said Shiite Muslims, who constitute the majority in the south, "consider themselves to be part of the political, social and militant branch of Hezbollah. So to say these people are no longer there--it's inaccurate. They are the people of the south."
Ghosn said polls she's seen have shown about 80 percent of the Lebanese population supporting Hezbollah in its fight against Israel. At the same time, only 53 percent oppose disarming the party, indicating divisions on that issue.
Closer to home, Richard M. Eaton, a professor in the UA Department of History, directed his ire at the Bush administration for failing to embrace policies that he believes could lead to a more peaceful Middle East. Specifically, he cited the administration's refusal to enter into bilateral and multilateral negotiations with "regimes or parties with which it disagrees" as contributing to the Lebanese war.
"Here we have a conflict involving six parties, four of which the United States won't even recognize: Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran," Eaton said. "It's kind of a no-brainer: You cannot resolve conflicts without negotiation; you can't negotiate without talking, and you can't talk without recognizing the people you're talking to. So we are left with the sole option of sending out the Air Force, or threatening to do so. And along the way, diplomacy has been effectively redefined as pressuring our allies to isolate our adversaries.
"The irrelevance of the State Department is most dramatically seen, I believe, in the specter of (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice flying to the Middle East in the midst of the carnage in Lebanon. Though warmly received in Israel, she was unable to land in a single Arab capital. In effect, we might as well not even have a State Department, since real policy now flows out of the Defense Department," he said, prompting applause.
Ambassador Dunford also suggested there should be "a better balance between force and diplomacy."
"We rely too much on our excellent military," he said. "Increasingly, we're asking the military to replace our diplomats, our intelligence agents, our dispensers of economic assistance. When all you have is a hammer, every problem seems to be a nail."
According to Eaton, support for U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been used as a cudgel for beating back critics by both the Bush administration and Zionist ideologues, such as Alan Dershowitz. This prevents the usefulness of the Israel-U.S. alliance from being objectively evaluated, he said.
"In short, U.S. policy has become both politicized and racialized," Eaton said. "Bush says that if you don't support his wars, you're unpatriotic, while Dershowitz says if you don't support Israel, you're anti-Semitic. As a result, discussions of the alliance sink into a discursive black hole."
Tensions boiled over when Aronson used time meant for answering an audience member's question to refute, one by one, a list he had been jotting down of points made by colleagues.
He talked for five minutes, and then a handful of audience members angrily shouted that he should answer the question, which asked, "If history is irrelevant, as you insist, why is Holocaust denial important to the current situation? Isn't history very important for all parties involved?" Aronson had earlier said the history of past animosities between Lebanon and Israel wasn't germane to the current conflict.
A displeased murmur ran over the crowd as the flustered moderator attempted to regain control, and people told each other to shut up.
"Well, the disappearance of 6 million from the face of Earth is not history--OK?" Aronson cryptically answered after the moderator repeated the question. Many applauded.
The Iranian leadership's denials of the Holocaust puts that country on a collision course with an Israeli public whose worldview is dominated by the Holocaust's legacy, Aronson said. Israelis, he continued, view Hezbollah as an extension of Iran's power.
Aronson provoked one last outburst of enthusiastic applause mixed with cries of scorn when he called Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah secretary general, "a little, small Hitler."
"We are the products of the Holocaust," he said, "and he or she who won't touch on this, and talk about wiping us (off) of the map--like Hezbollah--is our dead enemy."