We name this war . . .

Observations on the Middle East

What with a special commission investigating last summer's disastrous conflict with Hezbollah, you'd think the Israeli government had enough on its plate. But a committee of politicians, generals and legal experts has been hard at work divining a no less politically sensitive matter: what to call it.

On 21 March the thorny issue was finally resolved with the announcement by the Ministerial Committee for Symbols and Ceremonies that the exchange of bombs which took place last July is to be known as the Second Lebanon War.

Although the idea of such a committee existing at all is faintly ridiculous, symbols and ceremonies are important to a nation that puts conscripts in the line of fire as often as Israel has. The decision to give the most recent war a name came in response to pressure from relatives of the 117 Israel Defence Forces soldiers killed fighting in it, who were nonplussed at official epitaphs such as "killed filling his role" or "killed in a military operation".

Some of the more grandiose options included the War of the Shield of the North and the War of the Captives. The name chosen last month reflects the country's sober mood about the whole thing. Israeli pundits have dubbed the conflict "Olmert's Flop" and "Last Tango in Lebanon". This downbeat sentiment is echoed in Lebanon, where, despite Hezbollah's insistence that the conflict be called "the Divine Victory", it is simply "the summer war" to the shell-shocked Lebanese.

Conceding that the conflict was a war at all is probably the most significant aspect of the committee's decision. When the fighting was at its height, it was embarrassing to witness the verbal gymnastics that Israeli politicians, as well as Tony Blair and George Bush, were prepared to perform to avoid calling it a war.

Israeli government lawyers have been particularly put out by the name because, technically, there was no first Lebanon war. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which led to the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, and which claimed the lives of more than 500 Israeli soldiers, is officially called Operation Peace for Galilee.

It has not gone unnoticed, however, that there is a distinct advantage to the iterative form. When it comes to the next Lebanon war - an event widely predicted to take place sooner rather than later - there will be no need to appoint a naming committee.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?