Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

14 August 2006

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

By Gwynne Dyer

The ceasefire in southern Lebanon will not hold. Israel will probably lose more soldiers killed in combat in the next month than in the past month (104). Ehud Olmert will probably no longer be prime minister of Israel by the end of this year. And it is all too likely that Binyamin Netanyahu will take his place.

The UN-sponsored ceasefire will not hold because Hezbollah has not been defeated. Despite a month of pounding by Israeli bombs and artillery, it still holds at least 80 percent of the territory south of the Litani river: in most places, Israeli forces have advanced no more than a few miles (kilometres) from the frontier. In the last few days before the ceasefire, Hezbollah was launching twice as many rockets into northern Israel as its daily average in the first week of the war.

So why would it now agree to be disarmed and removed from all of southern Lebanon, the home of its own Shia supporters? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was quite frank: “As long as there is Israeli military movement, Israeli field aggression and Israeli soldiers occupying our land…it is our natural right to confront them, fight them, and defend our land, our homes and ourselves.” Besides, the Israelis have now offered him an irresistibly tempting target.

Israel’s assault on Hezbollah was as much a “war of choice” as the US invasion of Iraq. Seymour Hersh claims in this week’s “New Yorker” that the Bush administration approved it in order to deprive Iran (Hezbollah’s ally) of a means of retaliation after US air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the San Francisco Chronicle reports that a senior Israeli army officer made Power-Point presentations on the planned operation to selected Western audiences over a year ago.

“By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out,” Professor GeraldSteinberg of Bar Ilan University told the Chronicle, “and in the last year or two it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.”

Ehud Olmert was seduced by the plan because, lacking military experience himself, he needed the credibility that comes in Israel only from having led a successful military operation. Otherwise, he would lack support for his plan to impose unilateral borders in the occupied West Bank that would keep the major settlement blocks within Israel, while handing the rest to the Palestinians. So he seized on the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others by Hezbollah on 12 July, the latest in an endless string of back-and-forth attacks along the northern border, as the pretext for an all-out onslaught on the organisation.

Olmert’s lack of military experience also led him to trust the promises of General Dan Halutz, Israel’s chief of staff, that Hezbollah’s destruction could be accomplished mainly from the air, with Israeli ground troops only going in at the end to mop up. But Rule Number One for aspiring national leaders is: never believe air force promises.

Olmert launched his war, bombed lavishly all across Lebanon, pounded the south — and a month later Hezbollah still controlled almost all the territory and was launching several hundred missiles a day at Israel. Time for a ceasefire — but if he had no more than that to show for his war, he would be out of power very fast. So AFTER the UN resolution was passed on Friday, but BEFORE the ceasefire that formally took effect Monday morning, he launched an airborne invasion that scattered packets of Israeli troops all over southern Lebanon right up to the Litani.

Israel has not smashed the Hezbollah’s strong-points in southern Lebanon and driven its fighters out. It has deposited its own troops among them checkerboard-fashion, in some cases without any ground line of supply, in order to claim that it now controls the region. And it is counting on the UN resolution decreeing the disarming and withdrawal of Hezbollah, and an eventual hand-over by Israel to the Lebanese army and foreign peacekeepers, to protect its soldiers from severe embarrassment. This is probably Olmert’s last mistake.

It is hard to imagine that Hezbollah will resist the temptation to attack all the easy targets that Olmert has now given it in southern Lebanon. It is inconceivable that either the Lebanese army (itself mostly Shia) or the French and Italians (the core of the proposed peacekeeping force) will try to fight their way into southern Lebanon on Israel’s behalf. There is the potential here for Israel’s first serious operational defeat since the 1948 war.

That might be a blessing in disguise for Israel, if it persuaded enough Israeli voters that exclusive reliance on military force to smash and subdue their Arab neighbours is a political dead-end. There is little chance of that. The likeliest beneficiary of this mess is Israel’s archetypal hard-liner, Binyamin Netanyahu, who flamboyantly quit the Likud Party last year in protest at former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of pulling out of the occupied Gaza Strip.

That split Likud and forced Sharon to launch a new party, Kadima, which now dominates the centre-right of Israeli politics and is the nucleus of Olmert’s coalition government. But Kadima may not survive this disastrous war, and the heir apparent, at the head of a resurgent Likud, is Netanyahu. The last opinion poll in Israel gave him an approval rating of 58 percent.


To shorten to 72 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“By 2004…board”; and “That might…percent”) IF YOU ARE OMITTING the last two paragraphs, also lose the last sentence of the first paragraph.