After nearly two weeks of fighting in the North, there are still no clear answers to the most basic questions: How is Israel doing so far? And what is the likely outcome of the current crisis?
It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty how many missiles Hizbullah still possesses. After nearly two weeks of pounding by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Hizbullah was still able to launch nearly 100 katyushas on Sunday, two of them lethal. At times, the use of bombs to destroy missiles and their launchers has taken on the air of someone trying to kill an irritating mosquito with a blunderbuss.
No one can say with any certitude how many Hizbullah fighters have been killed, and whether any of its upper echelons have been removed. Hassan Nasrallah has made good on his boast on Day 1 to provide surprises for Israel. The sophisticated radar-guided missile that disabled an Israeli missile boat and killed four Israeli sailors was one such surprise. The accuracy and nature of the warheads of missiles directed at northern cities and towns another. The ability of a terrorist organization to strike Israel with conventional weapons is an ominous sign in a region where the perception of vulnerability inevitably attracts predators.
Air power alone has proven incapable of suppressing Hizbullah fire or making the organization cry "Uncle." Through the end of last week, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz remained reluctant to commit ground forces en masse. The sight of an IDF tank ripped apart by a Hizbullah mine on the first day of fighting was cause enough for nightmares. And the knowledge that Hizbullah would be fighting on its home terrain against an enemy for which it has been preparing for six years gives Halutz further pause. Even a major ground assault, with the likelihood of heavy casualties, cannot by itself offer any assurance that Hizbullah could not absorb its wounds and live to fight another day.
Instead of a massive ground assault, the IDF is now involved in a series of pinpoint ground assaults by elite units on key Hizbullah strongholds near the Israeli border, in an effort to clear out the southern Lebanon for an eventual takeover by the Lebanese Army, or more realistically some sort of NATO or international peacekeeping force.
Though the precise limits of Israel’s military muscle have not been established, the existence of limits has been. Israel cannot deliver a knockout blow to Hizbullah. As Lebanon expert Fouad Ajami puts it
, "There are limits on what Israel can do in Lebanon. The Israelis will not be pulled deeper into Lebanon and its villages and urban alleyways, and Israel cannot be expected to disarm Hizbullah or to find its missiles in Lebanon’s crannies."
At most, Israel can maneuver towards an end game that leaves Israel safer than it was prior to the outset of hostilities and Hizbullah under greater constraints and with greatly reduced capacities. But that too will require a serious international effort. Even Brigadier-Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the former chief of staff, and the analyst who has proven to be most consistently on target, acknowledges
that a successful resolution of the current fighting will require the involvement of the international community, and the imposition of the strongest possible regime of economic and political sanctions on Hizbullah’s Iranian and Syrian patrons.
YET IF IT IS TOO EARLY TO DECLARE VICTORY, there have still been a number of positive developments in the past month. Those developments have taken place both within Israel itself and in the international community. Just as the carnage of March 2002, during which over 130 Israelis were killed by terrorists, convinced most Israelis of the failure of the Oslo process, so has the current crisis brought home certain lessons with crystal clarity.
Some of those lessons are painful, but Israel is nevertheless much better off for having learned them. The first is that the ostrich method of hiding our heads in the sand will not work. In particular, Israel has learned, in Ajami’s words, that states do not permit themselves to share borders with armed militias – at least states intent on their long-range survival.
Hizbullah was permitted over a period of six years to array unimpeded its vast arsenal of missiles against Israel. Meanwhile, Aluf Benn, one of Israel’s leading political commentators assured us as recently
as two weeks ago that Nasrallah was far too rational to ever employ them. (That might be termed Israel’s version of the September 10 syndrome – everything’s hunky-dory until suddenly it isn’t.)
Just this week, Shin Beit head Yuval Diskin warned
that if Israel doesn’t move to interdict the free movement of weapons into Gaza, Gaza will become another Lebanon. In the wake of recent experience with Hizbullah, those warnings are far more likely to be heeded than they would have been at the height of withdrawal fever.
Avi Shavit, a member of the moderate Left, now acknowledges
that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict follows an iron law of nature: Every Israeli withdrawal brings in its wake an outbreak of violence. That’s what happened in 1994, 1996, and again in 2000, and it should have been obvious that it would happen after the withdrawal from Gaza. Israel is now caught in a bitter cycle, according to Shavit: The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon led to the Al Aksa intifada, which led to the withdrawal from Gaza, which led in turn to the collapse of the arrangements forged in the wake of the original unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.
Finally, the current round of fighting has conclusively refuted the myth that it is the Israeli "occupation" of Palestinian territory which fans the flames of conflict. Israel was attacked from precisely those areas from which it had withdrawn entirely.
THE CLARITY OF THESE LESSONS has been reflected in the unprecedented unity in Israel and across-the-board support for the IDF’s actions to date. A Yedioth Ahronoth poll
at the end of last week found that 87% of Israelis support the current IDF operation, and 81% want to see it continue. On successive days last week, the Los Angeles Times
published pieces by leading Israeli novelists, David Grossman and Amos Oz, both denizens of the hard Left. Grossman proclaimed
forthrightly, "There is no justification for the large-scale violence that Hizbullah has unleashed from Lebanese territory on dozens of peaceful Israeli villages, towns, and cities. . . . No country in the world would remain silent and abandon its citizens, when its neighbor strikes without provocation." He went on to announce that the great majority of the Israeli public, including many in the peace camp, have in recent years lost all confidence in the good intentions of the more moderate elements in the Arab world. Oz was in the same mood
: "Many times in the past the Israeli peace movement has criticized Israeli military operations. Not this time."
Israel has proven to be anything but the flimsy cobweb that Nasrallah mocked it as being. The Israeli homefront has remained strong, despite finding itself under greater threat than at any time since the War of Independence. The public has not panicked, and even those forced to spend most of their time in bunkers have remained stoic about their situation. The government has not felt any pressure to either terminate the fighting or expedite IDF ground operations in order to relieve – at least in the short run – the threat to civilians.
If Nasrallah assumed that the government would quickly enter into negotiations for an exchange of prisoners, as it did for the bodies of three soldiers captured by Hizbullah five months after the IDF’s 2000 flight from Lebanon, then he has been severely disappointed. And while the efficacy of the IDF operations is not yet fully clear, there has been no lack of determination on the part of the IDF.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who came to the Defense Ministry via Peace Now, and who once carried signs branding Ariel Sharon a murderer for his role in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, now finds himself the subject of similar signs and taunts. Peretz announced
that the IDF will follow new rules in dealing with terrorists who use civilian populations as protective shields. Henceforth Israeli lives will take precedence over the lives of civilians who live among Hizbullah military targets, regardless of whether they remain voluntarily or are held captive. Israel, it is hoped, will follow the practice of the rest of the world in valuing the lives of its citizens more highly than those of other countries.
THE POSITIVE INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS have been accompanied by two others in the international sphere that have both eased the current pressure on Israel and also offer hope for the future. The latter category includes the refusal of the Arab world to fall lockstep behind Hizbullah’s initiation of a war with Israel. At a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers, the Lebanese foreign minister offered a resolution
condemning Israel’s military responses and supporting Lebanon’s "right to resist occupation by all legitimate means," In doing so, Lebanon implicitly endorsed Hizbullah’s claim that Israel is still occupying Lebanese territory, despite the U.N. having certified that Israel has withdrawn from all Lebanese territory. The resolution further acknowledged Lebanon’s right to liberate Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, including the notorious Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who murdered an Israeli father and daughter in the most brutal fashion, and caused the death of another young child in the family. (So much for helpless Lebanon that opposes Hizbullah but is incapable of acting against it.)
Then something remarkable happened. Instead of endorsing the resolution, the Saudi foreign minister condemned
Hizbullah’s "unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts," which he claimed would set the region back years. Egypt and Jordan quickly followed suit.
The major Arab states have suddenly discovered that Islamist Iran, and its wholly-owned subsidiary Hizbullah, pose a far greater threat to them than does Israel. The major Sunni-led states have good cause to fear the adventurism of Shiite Iran, which constitutes a constant threat to the stability of the region. They are perhaps more fearful of a nuclear Iran than is the United States.
Even more remarkable, however, is that many of the same Arab states are becoming increasingly vocal about their lack of enthusiasm for the Palestinians, and particularly Hamas. Egyptian-born Youssef Ibrahim wrote
two weeks ago in the New York Sun
, "Dear Palestinian Arab brethren: The war with Israel is over. You have lost. . . You and your leaders have wasted three generations trying to fight for Palestine, but the truth is the Palestine you could have had in 1948 is much bigger than the one you could have had in 1967, which in turn is much bigger than what you may have to settle for now or in another 10 years."
One could dismiss Ibrahim as a lone voice writing in a neo-conservative paper, but almost the same sentiments were expressed
in Egypt’s semi-official Al Ahram
: "The Palestinians must be aware by now that they can no longer count on Arab help, economically, politically, or militarily . . . . Arab nations have had enough . . . of the slogans and rhetoric that have gotten us nowhere. . . . The Palestinians have lost Arab backing on both the official and unofficial levels." Even the Palestinian press itself raised questions about whether the attack on the Kerem Shalom outpost and kidnapping of Gilad Shalit were worth it. In short, there are signs that the Arabs are wearying of the never-ending Palestinian-Israel wars.
THE BEST NEWS OF ALL FOR ISRAEL is that it has been able to conduct its military campaign thus far without pressure from America to wrap things up quickly or complaints about the toll in civilian casualties. From President Bush on down, the administration has made clear that Israel should not return to the status quo ante, and that America, no less than Israel, seeks to change the map in Lebanon. As Press Secretary Tony Snow put it
last week, "A cease-fire that would leave the terrorist infrastructure intact is unacceptable."
U.N. Ambassador John Bolton rejected the idea
of a cease-fire with a terrorist organization openly committed to Israel’s destruction. And he ridiculed the doctrine of proportionality advanced by the Europeans based on counting the number of dead. If Hizbullah kidnaps two Israeli soldiers, he asked, does that mean that Israel can do nothing more in response than kidnap two Hizbullah fighters. Faced with an aggressor against its sovereign territory, said Bolton, Israel has the same right that America, or any other country would have, to remove the source of aggression. President Bush pointed out
that Hizbullah’s private militia defies U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the Lebanese government to exercise sovereignty over its entire territory.
Best of all, America supported Israel not primarily for Israel’s sake, but for America’s – out of a recognition that Israel’s battle against Hizbullah and its Iranian and Syrian patrons is America’s as well. America has its own long accounting with Hizbullah, which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group than Al Qaeda, beginning with the bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 which claimed 241 American servicemen.
In every speech, Bush has spoken not only of Hizbullah but the nations that support it. Resolution of the crisis, he said, in sending Secretary of State Rice to the region, requires confronting the nations that support Hizbullah as well.
American officials acknowledge that Hizbullah’s original attack was timed to take pressure off of Iran over its development of nuclear weapons. The day before the attack Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator had warned his European counterparts of severe consequences if they continued to pressure Iran. Moshe Yaalon sums up
the three goals of Iranian policy: (1) hegemony over the Moslem world; (2) the severe curtailment of American power – President Ahmadinejad has spoken often of a "world without America"; and (3) provoking an apocalyptic confrontation with the West that will lead to the return of the Shiites’ Hidden Imam, which, in turn, leads Iran to support every anti-Western terror group.
The United States clearly has as large a stake in preventing Iran from realizing these goals as Israel. And it recognizes that a victory for Hizbullah is a victory for Iran, and conversely a result that leaves Hizbullah’s power severely curtailed is a great setback for Iran. That – and not the "Jewish vote" or any other consideration – is what has turned the United States into Israel’s most ardent booster.
Hopefully, too, it ensures American involvement in a diplomatic process at the end of the fighting that will leave Israel’s North far more secure than it was two weeks ago, and put Iran and Syria on warning against attempts to rearm Hizbullah.