Recent events in Gaza and on the Israel-Lebanon border reveal the extraordinary value of symbols in the region.
News of kidnapped Israeli soldiers prompts rejoicing in the streets of Gaza City and Beirut as Arabs revel in the blow delivered to the powerful Israeli Goliath. Meanwhile, for Israelis, and many Jews around the world, the image of captured soldiers induces a kind of tribal rage that demands the use of overwhelming force. This force is intended, first, to return the soldiers, but no less important, to send a message that Israel's military might remains as potent as ever.
And so the power of symbols brings Israel and its Arab foes together again in a deadly dance. Driven by the need to protect these symbols, the competing sides have entered into yet another cycle of violence that threatens to plunge the region into a new abyss. Indeed, the current pair of conflicts could easily expand from two to four fronts, if Hamas' and Hezbollah's patrons, Syria and Iran, are lured into the battle.
On the eve, then, of a potentially dramatic escalation, the question arises: Is it worth it? Must the script be followed once again - according to which the two sides enact an almost ritualized series of violent actions and reactions in order to protect their symbols, knowing full well that these deeds will only deepen hatred and mistrust?
Israel, in particular, must weigh these questions before acting further. It was goaded into action by the two sets of kidnappings and accompanying rocket attacks. Instead of adopting a "more restrained and level-headed policy," as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz counseled, Israel swallowed the bait of the terrorist groups that wanted nothing more than for it to react with massive force and propel the region into chaos.
The evidence suggests that the reaction has been strategically counterproductive. Israel's military response in Gaza has been disproportionately harsh, injuring or killing scores of innocent civilians, and its chief Palestinian foe, Hamas, appears to have been considerably strengthened as a result.
On the Lebanese front, Israel's initial attacks on the Beirut airport and elsewhere not only incurred the wrath of Arabs throughout the region but also brought down a rain of rockets on Safed, Nahariya and even Haifa.
Israel has the right to protect its citizens from attack. No self-respecting state would stand idly by while rockets fall on its cities. But a measured, targeted and finite response - and not necessarily an immediate one borne of wrath - would seem a far more prudent course.
Especially mystifying in the current escalation is why Israel seems to be driven more by the symbolic impact of the soldiers' abduction than anything else. Israel did not respond with the kind of massive force it is now marshaling after the bomb blast in Tel Aviv in January in which nine civilians were killed. Why, then, react so disproportionately now?
The short answer is an absence of leadership. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert understands all too well the symbolic logic of the Middle East, where an attack always demands a greater counterattack. He forgets that Israel has used backroom diplomatic channels in the past to gain the release of its abducted citizens and that such an approach might work again now (especially because Israel still has some high-profile Arab prisoners in its possession).
Of course, Israel is not solely to blame for the escalating violence. But as a sovereign state with a major army, it has to be the most responsible party. What, after all, can we expect from Hamas or Hezbollah? Before plunging even further into the darkness of war, Israel must weigh carefully the consequences of its actions, lest the force of symbols overtake sound reason.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.