Eyes Wide Shut
Today, Singapore, 27/07/2006
Eyes wide shut – this is how one of Israel’s elder statesmen, former Minister of Education Yossi Sarid, characterized the state of mind of the government of Israel in the present crisis. When the Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz was asked in an interview two weeks before the outbreak of the present hostilities if massive Israeli ground operations in Lebanon might ever be employed again, he discounted the notion forcefully and credibly. He did this relating to the forbidding experience of Israel’s former entry into Lebanon which lasted eighteen years, at a cost of hundreds of Israeli casualties. Now, almost three weeks into the fighting, a growing force just below division strength is once again operating in South Lebanon trying to dislodge dug-in Hezbollah fighters, preventing the continued launching of missiles at the North of Israel and setting up an expanding security zone. At the same time the head of Israel’s Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin has already admitted that it will be impossible to stop the missile launches despite relentless bombardments from the air.
As of yet unimpeded by the international community, Israel is trying to reduce Hezbollah’s fighting strength but there are no indications that any decisive achievements are close. Continued military efforts will only result in more frustration to Israel’s leadership since Hezbollah is mostly dodging frontal confrontations with Israeli forces to maintain its strength. The latter, after having for years operated mainly in built-up areas of the Palestinian Authority, are having a hard time adapting to the new enemy and conditions in South Lebanon. Gains in battle are slow in coming and the casualties are painful. In the meantime Hezbollah continues to launch an average of hundred missiles per day at civilian targets in Israel causing considerable cumulative economic damage through production losses to an economy already hard hit by a collapse of tourism.
Both sides have blinked already – Israel, in a major about-face, has indicated that an armed international force (non-UN) in South Lebanon to enforce UN resolution 1559 and remove armed Hezbollah units from the border area with Israel could be part of the solution. Hezbollah has reiterated that all it really wants is to negotiate over an exchange of prisoners and the return of Shaba farms (a small piece of territory still under contention), but will consider to let the government of Lebanon do the talking.
Wednesday’s UN conference in Rome convened to arrange a cease-fire, took place in the shadows of Israel’s accidental bombing of a UN position in which four UNIFIL observers died. The incident increases the reluctance of candidate countries to provide soldiers for a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, a thankless job under the best of circumstances. As it is, the countries that attended the conference were neither in agreement over the modalities of a cease-fire, nor over the timeline although it is clear that time is running out.
The warring parties are throwing hidden glances at the negotiating table pretending to ignore it, all the time trying to hit each other as hard as possible while the international community tries to push them towards the chairs. Only Lebanon, in dire straits with a looming humanitarian disaster and an economy in shambles, needs no push. When Hezbollah and Israel will sit down eventually, both will be weakened, Hezbollah more so but Israel will also have sustained significant economic damage. It is far from certain that Israel will be able to convert an apparent military advantage into a strategic success during the negotiations that will ensue, quicker than Israel wants them to, driven by the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the fighting.
When the fighting is over, Israel’s leadership may want to contemplate why its applied defense doctrine doesn’t call for the prevention of war but rather for fighting (and winning) it. Israel wasn’t dragged into this exchange, it jumped into it, encouraged by the justice of its response to a sneak attack by Hezbollah and fired up by the stinging insult incurred through two preventable operational failures in which three soldiers were abducted within seventeen days. What made Israel jump even quicker was a relatively inexperienced civilian leadership willingly pushed by an offended but confident military brass into embarking on another attempt to rearrange the neighborhood, something Israel has failed at before.
PM Ehud Olmert, known to be quick on the draw, has to take credit for these developments. His coalition partner, dovish Labor party Defense Minister Amir Peretz will have to share it with him. So far the futility of continuing the military operation as is hasn’t sunk in and the public is still supportive and willing to bear the incoming missiles. Once the economic losses start piling up and the political and strategic gains will remain remote, questions will arise.
It is hard to picture any combination of negotiating skills and super-power arm-twisting that could secure the tangible gains for Israel that must be the outcome of this war. If Hezbollah’s missiles in Lebanon, Iran’s sword at Israel’s neck, are not removed, Iran will have established a convincing deterrent against any Israeli attack of its nuclear installations.
Should a cease-fire not be imposed soon by the international community, an expansion of the fighting to Syria cutting Hezbollah’s lifeline once and for all and as a side-benefit, critically harming Hamas, should not be ruled out. Then the only question remains is if in addition to Syria other players will be drawn into this war. Started impulsively there may now be no choice but to fight it out the hard way.