The showdown

Israel has decided to put a final stop to Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah -- and for once the world supports it. But even if it wins this war, another is probably coming.

Published July 19, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

The wisest of all Israeli statesmen, Moshe Dayan, once made a prescient comment about the inexplicable nature of Arab-Israeli wars. "All our wars started when afterwards we needed very thorough research to explain and understand why they had started at all," he said in a closed Cabinet consultation in April 1973. Indeed, several months later, the Yom Kippur War took Dayan and the rest of Israel's political-military elite by total surprise.

Dayan died in 1981, but had he lived today, he would undoubtedly have repeated his age-old analysis. This summer started out as the best one that Israel has had since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada six years ago. Tourists filled Tel Aviv beaches, the stock market hit its all-time high, and the government, flush with unexpected budgetary fat, lowered taxes and discussed cutting defense and beefing up welfare programs that had been cut in previous years.

Alas, by mid-July Israel found itself engaged in a two-front war in Gaza and Lebanon -- two areas that it had left unilaterally in recent years. Enemy rockets hit deep in Israeli territory, killing several civilians and scaring thousands of others. Israel's Defense Force (the IDF) returned in full gear to the ruins of the former Gaza settlements, evacuated last year, and to the skyline of Beirut. Unlike previous rounds of violence, however, this time the world has mostly supported Israel's military response, hoping it would deliver a painful blow to the regional troublemakers, the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.

The road to war began in early June, when the tacit cease-fire between Hamas and Israel began to crack. Smaller Palestinian groups kept firing their Qassam missiles at the Israeli border town of Sderot. The IDF responded with targeted killings of suspected perpetrators, unfortunately killing innocent bystanders as well. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, put the brakes on military plans to escalate the fighting, and so did the Hamas leaders. But on June 25, a small Hamas unit attacked a military outpost on the Israeli side of the border, abducting a soldier and killing several others. Olmert decided against exchanging prisoners and hit back at Hamas, aiming to crush its military wing, halt the Qassams and weaken the civilian Hamas-led Palestinian government, which, despite enormous external pressure, has refused to recognize Israel and forswear terror.

Olmert's decision to fight back was in part a result of his political weakness: Israel's new Cabinet, sworn in on May 4, is led by a freshman team lacking battlefield experience and hangs on a loose coalition. It is a byword of Israeli politics that weak governments tend to hit harder. A former war hero like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak, "Mr. Security" at the top, could afford politically to be more flexible. But Olmert, who was smeared by his right-wing adversary Benjamin Netanyahu as a leftist weakling, could not. Along with the new defense minister, Amir Peretz, Olmert had to show the weary public and the military leaders that he had balls.

The world stood by as Israeli tanks returned to Gaza, and Washington intervened only to tell Israel to avoid hitting key civilian facilities (after the IDF destroyed Gaza's only power plant) and to spare Mahmoud Abbas, the powerless president of the Palestinian Authority and America's darling. But Israel has failed to this day to achieve its goals in Gaza. Its abducted soldier, Gilad Shalit, is still missing, the Qassams keep hitting Sderot, and the Hamas government has stuck to its positions despite the arrest of dozens of its ministers and legislators in the West Bank.

Then, on July 12, the Lebanese front erupted. Breaking a six-year balance of terror across the border, Hezbollah surprised an IDF reservists' patrol on the Israeli side, abducted two servicemen and killed several others. It was copycatting the earlier Hamas operation. But unlike Hamas with its short-range and inaccurate Qassams, Hezbollah possesses thousands of Iranian- and Syrian-supplied rockets capable of hitting about half of Israel, from Tel Aviv northward. In previous cross-border clashes since Israel pulled out of Lebanon, former Premiers Barak and Sharon refrained from massive retaliation against Hezbollah, fearing a second front during the intifada and deterred by Hezbollah's massive firepower. Sharon even negotiated (indirectly) a controversial prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in late 2003.

Olmert heard the news about the Hezbollah attack when he was meeting the parents of Gilad Shalit, the abducted Gaza GI. This was his ultimate leadership test. As he said later, "There is a moment when a state says: No." Decisive by his nature, he instantly resolved to hit back forcefully and use the opportunity to reduce Hezbollah's capability for "holding Israel hostage" through its arsenal of rockets.

This was not an easy decision. Olmert was putting at risk not only the abducted soldiers but also the lives, property and welfare of hundreds of thousands of Israelis within the rockets' range. The country's hard-won economic boom and tourism revival were at stake too. But he sensed correctly that the public expected him "to hit the bastards" and therefore would support his actions, and that given the circumstances, Israel would receive unprecedented international backing even for forceful attacks.

Olmert, Peretz and Dan Halutz, the IDF chief of staff, decided to launch a Kosovo-style air campaign to destroy Hezbollah's headquarters and the south Beirut neighborhood where it is centered, its ammunition and rocket hideouts and village bases, as well as targeting Lebanese infrastructure like roads, power stations and bridges to prevent Syrian resupply. A ground invasion was ruled out as too risky: The current generation of IDF commanders came of age in Lebanon's "security zone" quagmire, and had no intention to go back there. (Only small special operations units were allowed in.) Another key decision was to keep Syria out of the conflict. Israel blamed Damascus for its sponsorship of Hamas in Gaza, but looked the other way on its involvement with Hezbollah, in order to avoid dangerous escalation on a third front. Instead, Olmert blamed Iran for instigating Hezbollah's attack to divert the G-8 leaders' attention away from its nuclear program. "Unfortunately, the Iranian trick succeeded," said Olmert.

Nasrallah apparently underestimated Olmert's resolve. He probably believed his own rhetoric about Israel's internal weakness. Olmert wanted to show Nasrallah that Israel was not as weak as a "spider's web," as the Hezbollah leader said following Barak's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and that it carries out its deterrent threats. Nasrallah also miscalculated the Arab world's opposition to his usurpation of the Palestinian struggle.

The Lebanese outburst quickly overshadowed the ongoing fighting in and around Gaza. On the third day of the northern campaign, Olmert's inner Cabinet approved bombing Nasrallah's office and residence. (Nasrallah got the job when Israel assassinated his predecessor, Abbad Moussawi, in 1992.) The bearded, gown-wearing cleric turned militia leader, who successfully pushed the IDF out of Lebanon in 2000, became a marked man. At the time of writing, he is still at large, while the Hezbollah-dominated quarter of south Beirut has been reduced to rubble.

As the war unfolded, Israel and Hezbollah raised the stakes with each passing day. Rockets hit deep into Israel, in areas that had been previously beyond reach for Hezbollah. The attack paralyzed life in Haifa, Israel's third-largest city with a major port and a heavy industrial zone. It killed residents and ruined buildings all over northern Israel, with added alerts of a possible attack on Tel Aviv. In Lebanon, IDF warplanes and ships enforced an air and sea blockade and destroyed many Hezbollah strongholds, as well as hitting a Lebanese army barracks near a Hezbollah base. As of Tuesday, 235 Lebanese had been killed, all but 15 of them civilians. Twenty-five Israelis had died. At the time of writing, the IDF said the assault could continue for "a few more weeks" with the goal of destroying Hezbollah's command structure (euphemism for assassinating its leaders) and more of its rocket capability.

There was one major surprise: The international community sided with Israel, stipulating only that it avoid killing too many innocent bystanders, and not topple the fragile Beirut government of Premier Fouad Siniora. G-8 leaders, convened in St. Petersburg, Russia, put the blame firmly on Hamas and Hezbollah and all but halted the "diplomatic hourglass" to give Israel more time to finish the job. President George W. Bush's support for Israel is no surprise, but for key Arab states like Saudi Arabia to criticize Nasrallah, and then remain silent when Israeli warplanes destroy parts of an Arab capital, is unprecedented. The Arab media, as expected, supported Nasrallah.

The new approach stemmed in part from legal reasons -- Gaza is still considered to be occupied Palestinian territory, and Israel is responsible for the welfare of its residents, while Lebanon's border with Israel is U.N.-approved. It also reflects the growing Western impatience with Iran, Hezbollah's sponsor, which has defied pressure to halt its nuclear program. And it may also be Bush and his European allies' indirect response to Hamas, Iran and North Korea's successful ability to shrug off pressures for behavior change. As for the Arab states, their response reflects their increasing uneasiness about Iran's rising influence.

Olmert's -- and Peretz's -- Lebanese gamble has paid off generously in the public opinion polls. The two newbies, who had achieved only modest grades before the war, rose to new heights. Tuesday's poll in the major Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot gave Olmert a 78 percent approval rating and Peretz 72 percent. In his emotional "courage and stamina" speech to the nation on Monday, Olmert presented himself as his own man, not mentioning even one of his 11 predecessors. He even ignored Sharon: Instead of praising Sharon's "legacy" as he had done before, Olmert's circle is now criticizing his former mentor for failing to destroy the Hezbollah rocket array and kicking the problem to him. Olmert and Peretz repositioned themselves at the helm as the "civvies" leading the country at war. They should remember, though, that every war opens with a week or so of public elation before the dust settles, a more sober assessment sets in, and the polling numbers move down again.

Senior military officials here have put forward modest goals for IDF operations in both areas: reducing the military capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah considerably. They distinguish between the northern front in Lebanon, where Israel is seeking a quick and decisive outcome, and the southern front in Gaza, which is a longer war of attrition. Moreover, the IDF views Hezbollah's rockets as Iran's front line against Israel, aimed at deterring the Jewish state from destroying Iran's nuclear facilities. Therefore, eradicating the rocket threat to Israel's rear could give it a freer hand vis-`-vis Tehran.

Contrary to the claims made by some, Israel is not trying to punish the Lebanese for allowing Hezbollah to flourish, or change Lebanon's national identity. After all, the Shiites are the growing sector in Lebanese society. The same ethnic-political structure there, sans the rockets, is acceptable to Israel. That is entirely different from the situation with the P.A., where Israel is trying -- through political and economic boycott, as well as through arrests and military measures -- to force a change in Hamas' identity.

Politically, Israel has reached a rare understanding with the U.N. on the postwar border regime. Both parties reject the status quo antebellum as insufficient and call for a "changed strategic environment" based on Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for disarming Hezbollah and deploying the Lebanese army along Israel's border. Resolution 1559 was partly implemented when Syria's forces evacuated Lebanon last year, but Washington and Paris, the resolution's sponsors, refrained from fulfilling the other parts, fearing that Beirut's government was too weak to tackle Hezbollah in the south. They opted for allowing Nasrallah to politicize his militia as a parliamentary faction. Alas, it didn't work.

U.N. officials told their Israeli counterparts on Tuesday that designing a new Israeli-Lebanese security regime could take several weeks, if not months. But its success depends on the outcome of fighting. If Israel succeeds in destroying Nasrallah's forces -- and even in killing him -- and a new international force dismantles Hezbollah's rockets and prevents a new buildup, then Olmert would be the clear winner in this round. Israel's economy will resume its growth course (even if defense cuts would be called off) and public morale will soar. If, however, Nasrallah walks out of his hiding place, shakes the dust off his beard, and still has thousands of rockets with their launchers -- perhaps even replenishing them from Iran -- he would be positioned as the king of "Arab resistance" against "the Zionists."

Israel now faces a domino effect: The Lebanon outcome will determine the Gaza one, although it's too hard to predict exactly how. Israeli air force pilots told Peretz today that the Lebanon tactics should have been used in Gaza too. On the other hand, U.N. officials have argued that a Gaza security arrangement will be more difficult to construct than a Lebanese one. The outcome of both wars will decide the future of Olmert's realignment plan, aimed at removing most settlements and setting a new border in the West Bank. Cross-border rocketing and surprise attacks from the evacuated areas of Gaza and Lebanon raised fears of similar threats from the West Bank, closer to the heart of Israel, its major cities and international airport. Olmert has yet to convince the public that he can deliver security beyond the proposed West Bank "security line," with or without a negotiated deal with Abbas.

History has shown that each round of Arab-Israeli violence is merely a prelude for the next one, and that battlefield victories are only temporary. Dayan knew that when he made his remark about the unreasonableness of war. The current round of hostilities will probably be no different, even if it ends up with a new border regime in Gaza and Lebanon.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iran Middle East National Security Syria