How I would like to remove that question mark from the title. And until midday yesterday (Sunday), it finally appeared that a more definitive and positive statement might be possible. Now, however, the question mark must return.
Last week ended with the Israel’s political echelons subjected to withering criticism from two of its best friends in the international media: Charles Krauthamer and Bret Stephens. Stephens, the former editor of the Jerusalem Post
, pronounced Israel to be losing the war
, both politically and militarily, in the Wall Street Journal
. He pointed out that Prime Minister Olmert had consistently downgraded Israel’s war goals from the outset of fighting. Initially, Israel had spoken of "breaking" Hizbullah, then of evicting it from the Israeli border, still later of "degrading" Hizbullah’s capabilities, and, finally, of creating the circumstances for an effective international force to police the border.
In a similar vein, Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post
more or less accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of having adopted the strategy that Senator George Aiken had once recommended for America in Vietnam: Declare victory and get out. Olmert claimed in the middle of last week that even if the military campaign were to end at that moment, it had succeeded in reshaping the face of the Mideast forever. That claim, wrote Glick was greeted with frank amazement in Israel, and Olmert’s subsequent statement that he had never suggested that Israel would eliminate the Hizbullah missile threat as a "bold-faced lie."
For all the high initial expectations, after three weeks of fighting, Israel, in Stephens’ opinion, still had nothing to show for its efforts: "no enemy territory gained, no enemy leaders killed, no abatement in the missile barrage that has sent a million Israelis from their homes and workplaces."
Israel had fought the war, Stephens charged, as if it had unlimited time, even though Chief of Staff General Dan Halutz had declared at the outset that Hizbullah favored a long drawn out war of attrition that would cause immeasurable economic damage to Israel. In the first week of fighting, Israel relied almost exclusively on air power, and when that proved inadequate to stop the Hizbullah missile barrage, had contented itself with pinpoint commando attacks on isolated Hizbullah strongholds, rather than with a massive land operation designed to push Hizbullah totally out of the area to the south of the Litani River.
The assumption of unlimited time was, quite simply, unwarranted on two accounts. First, it left the United States increasingly isolated in the international community by its insistence that Israel be allowed to permanently alter the balance of forces on its northern border. And more importantly, it provided Iran with a wonderful opportunity to stir things up in Iraq and threaten American troops through another proxy: Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post
, was, if anything, even harsher in his criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war. The United States had given Israel a green light – indeed active encouragement – to defeat Hizbullah. Such a defeat would have been a major strategic and psychological setback for Iran and its ambitions to destabilize the Mideast.
The United States had placed its trust in Israel, and Israel had simply failed to do the job. In the process, Israel’s standing as a crucial ally of the United States in the war on Islamic terrorism has been dramatically undermined.
WHILE AS FAR AS KRAUTHAMMER WAS CONCERNED, the damage caused to American-Israeli relations by Israel’s failure to land a heavier blow to Hizbullah appeared irreparable, neither Stephens nor Glick saw it that way. After describing Israel as losing the war, Stephens was quick to add, "This is not to say that [Israel] will lose the war, or that the war was unwinnable to start with." And Glick began her piece, "Amateur hour is over:" "The good news is that Israel has not lost the war. We can win."
And indeed by the end of last week, it appeared that the tide had turned in Israel’s favor. Israeli troops were now operating against Hizbullah positions in twenty or so villages in southern Lebanon, as opposed to the two that had occupied all the IDF’s attention in the war’s first weeks. And in a daring commando raid, deep in the Beka’a Valley, more than 60 miles north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, an Israeli force managed to capture five Hizbullah fighters and valuable intelligence information, and return home without incurring any casualties. Naval commandos landed off the Lebanese coast, and entered the coastal city of Tyre, from which most of the missiles aimed at Haifa have been launched. "The IDF has been able to learn on the go, and learn well," pronounced Glick.
In every close-range confrontation between Hizbullah fighters, Israeli soldiers had by far the best of the action. It is impermissible to describe any Jewish casualties as "light." But in one face-to-face shootout after another, four or five Hizbullah fighters were killed, with one or no IDF soldiers killed. The outcome of these battles could not be attributed to the superior firepower and technology at the disposal of Israeli troops. Rather IDF soldiers proved themselves the better and braver soldiers while fighting Hizbullah on its home turf. Altogether, the IDF estimated that it had killed 400 Hizbullah fighters since the beginning of hostilities.
The best evidence of the progress being made by Israeli forces was that Hizbullah was the party bringing pressure for a ceasefire. In an August 3 speech addressed to the leaders of major Arab states, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah fairly begged them to prove their love for Lebanon by making efforts "to stop the aggression against it."
As for Nasrallah, his picture has become the most popular icon throughout the Moslem world. And he is hailed as a great hero. Yet as his pleas to Arab leaders to force a ceasefire make clear, his life has hardly become less complicated since the July 12 kidnapping of two IDF soldiers from Israeli territory.
However feckless and tentative the upper echelons of the political and military may have proven themselves to be in the conduct of the war, Israel has proven itself to be far from the cobweb waiting to be swept away that Nasrallah described it as being. Even after weeks of nonstop bombardment, the home front has held firm. Reservists responded with enthusiasm to their call-up for combat in Lebanon – some even reporting for duty who had not been summoned. Hizbullah’s extensive fortifications along the border with Israel have been largely destroyed, and will not soon be rebuilt. Between 10-20% of its fighting force has been eliminated, though many of those killed will be replaced by new recruits. And Hizbullah’s command structures are believed to have been severely damaged by Israel.
Though the initial Israeli air campaign may have been too prolonged, it does appear to have destroyed a high percentage of Nasrallah’s most precious possessions – his medium and long-range missiles – at the outset.
When the Arab street quiets down, and the tough questions start to be asked about what Nasrallah has wrought, he may not like the answers. He has been exposed as a tool of Iran, and not as a Lebanese patriot. Whatever interests were served by the July 12 kidnapping, they clearly were not those of the Lebanese people, nearly a million of whom have been displaced from their homes and who have witnessed the destruction of the Lebanese tourism economy.
Even within Hizbullah itself, the war may well bring to the fore elements long opposed to Nasrallah’s leadership. That includes those opposed to Nasrallah’s orientation towards Iran and those who believe that as the most numerous group in Lebanon’s ethnic mosaic, Shiites are in a position to advance their interests in parliament without maintaining their own militia.
AS OF SUNDAY, then, it still appeared that Israel might yet snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. IDF commanders described ground operations, involving ten thousand troops inside southern Lebanon, as designed to move methodically towards the Litani River, with the IDF destroying Hizbullah’s infrastructure as it pushed north.
The horrendous casualties when a katyusha landed directly on a group of reservists gathering at Kfar Giladi on the Lebanese border, killing 12, however, seemed to have changed all that. The Jerusalem Post
reported Monday morning that the IDF no longer planned to push to the Litani, and would content itself with securing a 6-8 kilometer security zone from the northern border.
In the meantime, the focus in Jerusalem seems to have switched to the diplomatic realm and the negotiations over a draft United States-French Security Council Resolution. John Bolton, the famously forceful U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, succeeded in convincing the French to sign off on a draft resolution that would leave Israeli forces in Lebanon until such time as the Lebanese Army, aided by an international force, is capable of deploying there.
At the same time, however, the draft resolution calls for an immediate ceasefire, even though the contemplated international force is still but a dream. (The current draft resolution contemplates a further resolution dealing with the authorization and composition of such a force.) That ceasefire can only benefit Hizbullah by allowing it to claim victory, or what is the same thing, to have battled Israel to a draw. Moreover, Hizbullah will be able to use that ceasefire to rearm via Syria, with no mechanism in place to prevent it from doing so.
The draft resolution calls for the area between the Israeli border and the Litani River to be free of any armed personnel and weapons, other than those belonging to the Lebanese armed forces and U.N.-mandated international forces; for the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than the Lebanese state; and for an international arms embargo on arms sales to Lebanon, except as authorized by the Lebanese government.
All excellent ideas, to be sure. The only question is: Who is going to enforce these provisions. Surely the Lebanese Army will not. Shiites comprise between one-third to one-half of the Lebanese Army, and will not raise arms against their fellow Shiites. And the track record of international forces, including in Lebanon, is hardly inspiring.
As former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold points out
, an international force organized under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter could turn out to be a trap for Israel. If those forces prove inadequate to their task, and do nothing to destroy Hizbullah’s existing stockpiles of weapons or to interdict the resupply of Hizbullah from Syria, Israel would have no choice but to do so itself. But that might subject Israel to U.N. sanctions under Chapter VII.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the draft resolution is that it reopens the subject of the delineation of the Israeli-Lebanese border, including the Sha’aba Farms area, despite the fact that the U.N. certified in 2000 that Israel had withdrawn from every inch of Lebanese territory. To reopen the issue of Sha’aba Farms is not only to tangibly reward Hizbullah’s aggression, it retroactively legitimizes Hizbullah’s military actions against Israel by raising Sha’aba Farms to the level of a valid dispute.
WITH THE CURRENT NEGOTIATIONS AT THE U.N. unlikely to yield a resolution that will leave Israel notably more secure than it was on July 11 2006, the question arises: Is there anything else Israel can do to deter Hizbullah? At least one school of thought assumes there is: Put Syria on notice that it will be held accountable for Hizbullah.
Hizbullah depends on Syrian support. And there is reason to believe that Syria will listen if the threat is credible. In 1998, Turkey threatened to go to war with Syria if Syria did not cut off support for Kurdish rebels in Turkey. Syria did. The time has come, writes Efraim Inbar
, for Israel to talk Turkey to Syria.
The only question is: Does any Israeli leader know Turkey.