Israel and Lebanon

22 July 2006

Israel and Lebanon: Good From Evil?

By Gwynne Dyer

Can good come from evil? Is it possible that out of the current carnage in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and northern Israel could come a sober recognition on all sides that victory is impossible and that compromise is necessary? It would be nice.

It’s clear by now how this outbreak of organised cruelty and destruction is going to end. Israel has already had almost two weeks to pound Hezbollah into smithereens from the air, and it hasn’t accomplished even ten percent of the task. Hundreds of innocent Lebanese civilians have died (together with lots of Lebanese army soldiers who were asleep in their barracks, the very soldiers that Israel allegedly wants to replace Hezbollah’s militia in the border areas). But few of Hezbollah’s fighters have been killed, and its rockets continue to rain on northern Israeli cities.

President George W. Bush and his faithful British sidekick, Prime Minister Tony Blair, have staved off demands from practically everywhere else for a ceasefire for two weeks now, and they can probably manage to stall on the issue for at least another week. But Israel’s only option, in that remaining week, is to commit its soldiers to a full ground invasion of southern Lebanon — which would send Israeli casualties soaring.

By dint of restricting itself to air attacks and keeping its own soldiers out of combat (except for brief “pinprick” incursions across the frontier), Israel has maintaind the illusion of the traditional ten-to-one kill ratio familiar from earlier Arab-Israeli wars. But almost all the Arab dead are innocent civilians. In terms of combatants, Israel is probably not achieving much better than a two-to-one ratio.

Hezbollah has between 2,000 and 5,000 well-trained fighters dug into the bunkers of southern Lebanon, and they cannot be eliminated by air strikes. The daily number of rockets landing on northen Israeli towns and cities has scarcely diminished since the start of the fighting. If Israel commits its ground troops to dig those fighters out of their fortifications, its fatal casualties could easily soar into the high hundreds.

Nor is it certain that Israel’s American and British backers can hold off a ceasefire long enough to let it accomplish that goal even if it is willing to take the casualties that a ground invasion implies. And it wouldn’t make much long-term difference even if Israel did win the ground battle, for the only way to make southern Lebanon Hezbollah-free is to depopulate the region permanently. Almost every Shia family in the south contains Hezbollah members or sympathisers, which is hardly surprising after eighteen years of harsh Israeli military occupation (1982-2000).

So one way or another, Israel will fail to achieve its war aims — but this could be a good thing, for it will bring the fall of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s government and his project, inherited from the stricken Ariel Sharon, to impose a “final peace settlement” on the Palestinians that incorporates East Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank into Israel. In reality, that “settlement” would deliver neither finality nor peace, and the fact that this whole project may well be discredited in the eyes of the Israeli electorate along with Olmert’s government is cause for at least modest rejoicing.

Hezbollah isn’t going to win either, but it can succeed without winning. Its leader, Sheikh Nasrallah, may not have foreseen the scale and ferocity of Israeli strikes against Lebanon when he ordered the attack that killed three Israeli soldiers and made two others prisoners — he may just have been seeking hostages for a prisoner exchange — but Hezbollah only has to survive in order to triumph. Since Israel cannot destroy it, it is almost certain to triumph. That won’t help the cause of peace, but it may not doom it either.

Within a week or so, when Washington and London realise that the Israelis cannot achieve their purposes, they will allow a ceasefire in order to save Olmert’s face, and it probably will not leave any Israeli troops inside the Lebanese frontier. Olmert’s government will probably fall within months anyway, and the whole project of unilaterally imposing unjust borders on the Palestinians that has dominated Israeli politics for the past five years may vanish with it. Which will leave, quite unexpectedly, a clean slate for the next Israeli government to write on.

Israel will carry out prisoner exchanges both with Hezbollah and with the Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip: the German intelligence service that always brokers these exchanges has already been contacted by Olmert’s government. A wise and bold new Israeli leader, if such a paragon exists, will have a few months to try to change the dynamic and get back to the negotiated two-state solution that is the only hope for lasting peace in the region.

Is this really likely to happen? Israeli politics offers few candidates for the role of mould-breaker who is willing to talk to Hamas and abandon Israel’s territorial ambitions, and the window of opportunity will not stay open long. By this time next year, a calamitous civil war in Iraq is likely to distract everybody’s attention away from the tedious old Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, which would then be allowed to subside back into its sulky, vicious normality. But Olmert’s stupidity has at least created this unexpected opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice if they actually used it?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“By dint..ratio”; and “Hezbollah…either”)