Think Again: Israel vs. Hezbollah

The recent war revealed neither a vulnerable Jewish state nor a Lebanese militia carrying the hopes of the Arab world. In truth, Israel could never have delivered the decisive victory its citizens expected, and Hezbollah has been left weakened and resented. The conflict was bloodier than anyone anticipated, but it just might set the stage for a new order in the Middle East.

"Israel Lost the War"

"Israel Lost the War"

No. Israel did not decisively win the war against Hezbollah, but nor did it lose. The goal of the Israeli operation was to force Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon and to weaken the militia’s capabilities considerably. In both of these objectives, Israel succeeded. Israeli air strikes destroyed 70-80 percent of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range missile arsenal, and the militia lost hundreds of its best guerrilla fighters. Hezbollah has earned the resentment and suspicion of much of the Lebanese public. Israel also sought the deployment of the Lebanese Army along its border, a move the Lebanese government had long rejected, due to Hezbollah’s dominance in the south. Today, the Lebanese government has taken on this commitment, and UNIFIL, the U.N.-mandated force, is keeping the peace.

This summer’s war was a battle over expectations, and the Israeli public expected too much. The cost of the conflict was higher than the Israeli public anticipated, and the benefits fewer. The war offered few tangible military achievements that could comfort the public: Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah evaded capture or death, no white flags of surrender were flown, and Hezbollah prisoners weren’t thrown into Israeli jails by the truckload. But despite the blistering criticisms of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) performance, Israel did achieve one of its primary objectives. The border with Lebanon is expected to be calm for the foreseeable future.

The war ultimately resembled a minor heart attack: It served as a warning that unless Israel solves its fundamental problems with its neighbors, it will be haunted by troubles on a grander scale. Observers fret that the war reveals a weakened and vulnerable Jewish state. They would do well to remember that military victories often result in historical defeats. Israel achieved a stunning military victory in 1967 with the Six Day War, and it has been cursed ever since with the irresolvable problems of occupation. Israel was handily defeated in the first phase of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but it emerged with the outline of a peace treaty with Egypt. This war provides a similar historic opportunity. Although the conflict was not handled as well as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised, it was no defeat.

"Hezbollah Won the War"

Hardly. Hezbollah wears two hats: Under one, it advocates a perpetual, regional fight against Israel, encouraged and sponsored by Iran and Syria. Under the other, it is an active player in Lebanese politics, representing the Shiite community in government. Nasrallah did an impressive job balancing these roles. He rallied the Arab street to his cause, while insisting that he had nothing but the security of Lebanon at heart.

But the war revealed his weaknesses. It devastated his primary constituency, the Shiite community of Lebanon. More than 700,000 Lebanese, many of them Shiites, were displaced, and the economy of the south is in shambles. He lost hundreds of fighters and much of his Iranian-provided arsenal of arms. Nasrallah’s popularity rose across the Middle East, but he lost ground in Lebanon.

The real challenge Nasrallah faces now is to retain his veto power in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah is making amends with the Lebanese people by distributing tens of millions of dollars provided by Iran. But, despite leading reconstruction efforts, Hezbollah is under attack in Lebanon and around the region. Many Lebanese, including influential Shiites, are furious with the organization for provoking Israel and setting back the country’s hard-won rebuilding efforts for decades. Arabs across the Middle East are increasingly wary of a militia that takes orders from Tehran.

Nasrallah can no longer pretend that he is the great defender of Lebanon. He managed to score a propaganda coup this summer, but he leads a broken and battered force. He has, in effect, been neutralized. To remain a political player, he must lead the rehabilitation effort, distance himself from the mullahs in Iran, and deepen his relationship with Hamas.

"The Israeli Response Was Disproportionate"

No. Israel is guilty of overreacting to the July 12 kidnapping of two IDF soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas, an act of war for which Israel has historically shown little patience. But, given the opportunity and supported by the United States, Israel’s goal became disabling Hezbollah. It accomplished this objective to an impressive degree and, despite many reports in the international press, often with surgical precision.

Reports of Israel’s damage to infrastructure in Lebanon have been grossly exaggerated. During the war, 9,300 Israeli air strikes hit about 5,000 targets inside Lebanon. It sounds excessive. But the vast majority of strikes targeted — and hit — Hezbollah compounds in Beirut’s southern suburbs or Hezbollah strongholds that were being used to launch missile attacks in the Shia south. The Israeli Air Force disabled the runway of Beirut’s airport (but not the newly refurbished terminal building) and several bridges in order to prevent the flow of arms and ammunition. Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, was paralyzed for weeks by daily barrages of Hezbollah rockets, while much of Beirut continued with normal life.

But judging from most media coverage, Lebanon appeared to be destroyed. One burning oil tank on television looks like 50 when played on loop, and a few destroyed bridges hardly presage the demolition of the entire country’s transportation grid. Of course, the loss of civilian life was regrettable. More than 1,300 Lebanese were killed during the hostilities, many of them innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. But the majority were Hezbollah fighters. Compared to the weekly casualty rolls from Iraq, to cite one terrible example, it is a relatively small number.

That did not prevent Israel’s critics from accusing it of some of the worst abuses of war. Amnesty International declared Israel guilty of war crimes for "indiscriminate attacks" against civilians. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested Israel deliberately targeted a U.N. observation post in southern Lebanon. In a speech to the New America Foundation in Washington, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski compared the Israeli actions in Lebanon to the killing of hostages.

These accusations mask a major dilemma that many critics chose to ignore. How can a country under attack from a terrorist organization based in another country defend itself and its citizens? Hezbollah was not only launching military operations from Lebanon’s soil, it was — and still is — a member of the Lebanese government and parliament. It operated from apartment buildings in Beirut and villages in the Shia south, often disappearing into the civilian population and hiding behind human shields. Under these circumstances, who is the hostage, and who is the killer?

"The War’s Outcome Was a Blow to Bush"

Wrong. For U.S. President George W. Bush, the conflict was win-win. If Israel had won the war decisively, he could have argued that it was another victory in the global war on terrorism. If the war ended indecisively, as it ultimately did, Bush could have used the conflict to rally allies to the threat Iran poses for the region. Eventually he chose both, portraying the war’s outcome as an unalloyed Israeli victory and using Hezbollah’s brazen methods as further cause to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear state.

Throughout the conflict, and despite appearances, the Bush administration was torn between two allies: Israel, and the Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Lebanon’s burgeoning democracy and the evacuation of Syrian forces from the country in early 2005 was considered a great success in Washington, one of the few positive achievements of the administration’s Middle East policies. But Hezbollah was always a thorn. Washington’s basic strategy during the conflict was to allow Israel the chance to hit Hezbollah effectively and, at the same time, avoid any fatal damage to the Siniora government.

The strategy worked. Siniora has emerged from the war a stronger, more effective, and popular politician. The U.N. Security Council’s resolution has provided him with the political cover to assert his authority. It appears the damage to Lebanon was, from an American point of view, regrettable but nonetheless worth the cost.

"Iran and Syria Are Stronger Than Ever"

Yes, but only for now. Iran is unquestionably the great regional winner of the past several years. Its worst enemy, Saddam Hussein, was ousted in Iraq, leaving the United States trapped in a political and economic dead end there. Oil prices have soared. Hezbollah and Hamas have won electoral victories. And the rest of the world shows more reluctance than determination to prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Lebanon war was a PR victory for Iran, but it ultimately leaves the Islamic Republic vulnerable. Iran loudly praised Hezbollah’s fighters, but it never came to the aid of its brothers-in-arms when it was needed most. Iran’s oil dollars are now helping Hezbollah make amends with the Lebanese, but governments throughout the region are looking warily at Tehran and attempting to counter its influence. According to Israeli government sources, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan secretly encouraged Israel to confront Hezbollah. Some Israeli officials also claim that Iran planned to use the threat of Hezbollah’s arsenal to deter Israel from launching attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations. That threat has now been largely neutralized, and the installations left exposed. The world has seen how irresponsible and dangerous Iran’s behavior — and the behavior of the militias on its payroll — can be, and it will be unlikely to risk an encore.

Syria, for its part, emerged from the war pleased that Lebanon had found a new regional enemy and scapegoat, having been kicked out of Lebanon in disgrace only a year earlier. But Syria’s complicity with Hezbollah — it allowed rockets from Iran to be smuggled through the country — put it in the cross hairs of Jerusalem and Washington.

Then, in the weeks after the cease-fire, several Israeli cabinet ministers, among them Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, expressed a willingness to negotiate with Syria over the future of the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967. The potential reversal of this policy, no doubt with the tacit support of the United States, is an invitation to Syria to change its behavior and perhaps remove itself from America’s list of rogue regimes. But, as always, there is no free lunch. Either Syria must turn away from its current patron, Iran, and emerge as a legitimate power in the region, or it may find itself the first battlefield in the war to contain the Islamic Republic.

"Israeli Generals Make Better Leaders"

No. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has fought seven wars and battled two Palestinian intifadas. A major problem in most of these wars was not a lack of intelligence on the enemy, but a failure to appreciate the shortcomings of Israel’s own forces. Civilian leaders who don’t have experience in the military cannot differentiate between an impressive slide-show presentation and a strategy that will succeed. Here, and only here, former generals who later went into politics, like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, were better equipped than their civilian colleagues. They insisted on checking and rechecking every detail of an operation and often canceled missions they deemed reckless or vulnerable to failure.

But Israel is not always at war. It needs leaders who understand backroom politics more than the battlefield, and who can approach neighbors not as veterans of bitter battles, but as potential negotiators. Too many times, former generals have failed in the complex field of Israeli politics. Gen. Ehud Barak, elected prime minister in a landslide in 1999, suffered a humiliating loss less than two years later. Gen. Amram Mitzna looked set to lead the Labor Party to victory in 2002. He was handily defeated and had to leave politics altogether.

This summer’s war was not executed well, but it is impossible to say whether a leader with more military experience could have done any better. All of the major military decisions during the recent war with Lebanon were made by three men. The first two, Olmert and Peretz, are both professional politicians who have never marched soldiers into battle. That inexperience led them to rely too much on the advice of their generals. The other figure, Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, is an Israeli Air Force general who has little experience in full-scale war. His influence led the government to have too much faith in the effectiveness of an extended air campaign. A skeptical voice was needed to question the war plans. None of them could provide it.

But Olmert and perhaps even Peretz stand a chance of surviving the domestic political fallout of the war because they are seasoned veterans of Israeli politics. The popularity of generals as politicians wanes with the slightest evidence of military disappointment. Halutz, at least until the war, was portrayed by some in the press as the future prime minister of Israel. Today, he would find it hard to get elected to his building’s tenant committee.

"Israel Will One Day Defeat Hezbollah"

Unlikely. Israel cannot afford to fight guerrilla wars in the future. It is not simply that the IDF, despite possessing some of the best counterinsurgency strategists in the world, is not designed to fight a guerrilla army. The recent conflict has revealed the Israeli public’s intolerance for even the appearance of failure. When the funerals of the war dead were broadcast on television and the doubts of the cabinet leaked to the press, Israeli public opinion turned against the war — fast. The public wants only a rapid victory with few body bags and minimal collateral damage.

A democratic government cannot effectively fight a guerrilla army if it harbors these expectations. Neither Israel nor Hezbollah is eager to return to fighting. Hezbollah has suffered a crippling blow and can ill afford to ask the people of southern Lebanon to suffer another season of destruction and displacement. Israel, too, is mired in a period of domestic mudslinging over the conduct of the war. It is eager for the international community to hold the peace along its border so that it can focus more directly on what it considers the real threat to its survival: Iran.

Only by engaging Iran — either diplomatically or, if necessary, militarily — and tantalizing Syria with recognition as a legitimate power can Israel hope to defeat Hezbollah. Deprived of its state sponsors, Hezbollah cannot survive. That has long been understood in Jerusalem. These threats, particularly those emanating from Tehran, are too big for Israel to bear alone. Confronting Iran will not be an easy task, and there is growing doubt that others will volunteer to do the job. But time is running out, and the stability of the region depends upon it.

Nahum Barnea is a columnist for Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He covered the Lebanon conflict while embedded with an Israeli combat unit.

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