Overreaching in Lebanon
Asian Times, 20/07/2006
After nine days of fighting, Israel is beginning to overreach. The decision to “ask” the population of South Lebanon, between the border to Israel and the Litani river to leave the area (we are talking about more than 300,000 people here), was taken to prevent civilian casualties when Hezbollah strongholds in that zone are attacked by Israel but puts that population between a rock and a hard place and is disproportionate. Hezbollah is still the major actor in South Lebanon and naturally will try to prevent this mass exodus. The fact that Israel has taken out the bridges to the north (to interrupt Hezbollah’s supply routes), sets the stage for another humanitarian disaster, second in the area only to what is going on in the Gaza strip, which, lest anybody forget, is still under heavy Israeli military pressure with no end in sight. Israel’s concession to lift the embargo on Lebanon locally to open a corridor to admit humanitarian aid (and let foreigners leave) appears more of a gesture to the international community than a genuine solution to an evolving calamity.
While on the face of it, Israel still has the support of the G-8, splits are showing between the US and Britain, in no hurry on one side and the Europeans who want to finish this mess now, on the other. Whereas there is no real international pressure yet to wind this campaign down, common sense should tell PM Olmert that the long term damage of pursuing this path is likely to far outweigh any operational advantages achieved by having a free reign in South Lebanon. Unfortunately it appears that Israel’s government is still operating under the premise that this campaign’s outcome will only be determined by force. The population of Lebanon is still vacillating between its hate for Israel which is bombing a country that just recently had returned to fragile stability, and enmity for Hezbollah, a state within the state which, manipulated by Iran and supported by Syria, that initiated the attack against Israel with no regard for the possible consequences. Driving out the population of South Lebanon will only help unite the people of Lebanon in their hate against Israel, coalesce widespread Arab and Muslim support for Shia Hezbollah and could destabilize local Sunni regimes.
Accompanying the decision to force the local Lebanese population north, Israel’s ground-operations in Lebanon are expanding rapidly despite the disastrous experience Israel had there in the past. The military is quick to clarify that ground operations will be limited in scope to prevent getting bogged down in the Lebanese morass but insists that the operational objectives cannot be attained by bombardments from the air alone.
At the same time Israel’s Chief of Staff reiterated his view that the war will have to continue for a lengthy period and in general, the government of Israel does not appear to feel any urgency in bringing this campaign to an end before a tangible achievement of some sort has been clocked up. Having set the aims of this operation sky-high may yet come to haunt Mr. Olmert. While Israel’s desire to make up for policy failures of previous governments who saw no need to insist on Lebanon’s implementation of UN resolution 1559 (getting Hezbollah out of South Lebanon) and to compensate for operational failures of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) is understandable, a reality fix should dampen it, preferably quickly.
This campaign will not be resolved by military means but through negotiations. No matter how much force Israel will apply, Hezbollah is likely to launch missiles until the very last day of the engagement and will probably come out of this battle damaged but not defeated, with its head high and quite likely more support in the Arab world for its unyielding attitude towards Israel than before this all started. And this not because the Arab world subscribes to its ideology or thinks that Hezbollah is a great movement but because it battled against Israel, caused Israel visible pain and damage and lived to fight another day.
Iran’s President Ahmadinejad who is interested in Hezbollah’s survival as a fighting force has just sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It could be an opening for Germany to get seriously involved in mediation efforts in Lebanon. Germany has excellent relations with Israel, traditional ties and a cultural bond with Iran and a solid track record of confidential diplomacy mediating between Israel and Hezbollah.
No matter which way this will go, Israel won’t easily be let off the Lebanese hook and Iran or its proxy Hezbollah, will want to score with the Palestinians as well and try to draw their prisoners in Israel into the bargain. While not only the Israeli government will want to prevent increasing Iranian involvement, it fills a vacuum caused by the departure of Syria from Lebanon (enforced by the international community) and its exclusion from the diplomatic discourse in the area. The fact that Iran is about to negotiate with the West over the future of its nuclear program may come in handy when push comes to shove but may make any agreement in the Middle East more costly for Israel than it remotely imagined.
When this war will be over and done, the citizens of Israel may want to ask their leaders whether its achievements are in any relation to damages incurred, and more important, whether there weren’t any diplomatic alternatives that could and should have been pursued before hitting back with full force, justified as that may be.