Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

The New Ground Rules

Has Isreal's failure to defeat to Hezbollah changed the balance of power in the Middle East?

A United Nations Security Council ceasefire which ended the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel early this week might have finally been pushed through because Israel, contrary to all expectations, could not win the war against Hezbollah.

Such was the feeling at the White House, which had given Israel diplomatic cover at the start of the war, when Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross border raid on July 12. On July 14, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora pleaded with US President George Bush to restrain Israel. "The president is not going to make military decisions for Israel," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that day.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised a war to change "the ground rules in Lebanon," threatening to "turn Lebanon's clock back twenty years" if Hezbollah did not release the captured soldiers. Major General Udi Adam, head of Israel's Northern Command (and who was removed from his command in the third week of the conflict) said the army had "comprehensive plans" to attack Hezbollah. The Israeli government suggested it would only halt the war once the prisoners were released and Hezbollah was disarmed.

Facing increasing calls for a ceasefire, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there should be no ceasefire until the "status quo ante" in Lebanon had been changed. In a comment since derided as cruel and heady, Rice described the war as "birth pangs of a new Middle East." The US saw the war against Hezbollah, who was armed and financed to an extent by Iran and Syria, as an opportunity to hit at Iranian influence in the Middle East.

By the end of last week, however, there was a noticeable shift in the US's approach to the conflict. An early draft of a UN Security Council resolution that was rejected outright by Lebanon was reworked and France lobbied to include the Lebanese government's demands in the resolution. Condoleezza Rice took the unusual step of heading to New York to supervise the drafting of the resolution. "A senior administration official in Crawford, Tex., where Mr. Bush is on vacation, said that it increasingly seemed that Israel would not be able to achieve a military victory, a realization that led the Americans to get behind a ceasefire," the New York Times reported.

"The Americans were disappointed by the fact the Israeli army couldn't produce what it was expected to produce," explains Amos Haarel, a military correspondent with Israeli daily Haaretz.

Resolution 1701, which was unanimously passed by the Security Council last Friday, called for the "unconditional release" of the captured soldiers but did not make their return a condition for acceptance by Lebanon. The resolution also did not demand the immediate disarmament of Hezbollah, which the US and Israel had previously demanded.

In Israel, there are now mounting calls for the resignations of Olmert, Defence Minister Amir Peretz and Israeli army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, all of whom plummeted in opinion polls that were conducted over the week.

Israeli soldiers returning from the front have been among the loudest critics of the government. "You can ask any Israeli and get the same answer," explains Harel. "It wasn't conducted well, and that's an understatement. The frustration among the reservists is terrible-they're frustrated over the way the war was handled and over decisions taken by senior and junior officers."

Israeli military analysts blame Israel's reliance on airpower and its failures in military intelligence for the poor performance against Hezbollah, whose guerillas killed more than 118 Israeli soldiers in the month of fighting. The Israeli army says it killed at least 400 Hezbollah guerillas. Hezbollah officials say 80 of their fighters were killed.

"They had this idea that they could destroy Hezbollah from the air in four or five days," says Reuven Pedatzur, a reserve air force pilot and security analyst with the Daniel Abraham Strategic Dialogue Institute in Netanya. Pedatzur says Hezbollah's capabilities took Israel by surprise. "Military intelligence didn't know a lot about Hezbollah's equipment."

"Relying on the Air Force is a modern concept of warfare that the Israelis and Americans hold," says Harel. "Israel was building too much hope in the direction of war like the NATO war in Kosovo. What they forgot is that they weren't after a guerilla organization in the Kosovo war. And the people of the NATO countries weren't sitting in bomb shelters for the length of the campaign."

Although Israeli ground forces began operating inside South Lebanon early into the war, the Israeli army ordered an expansion of ground operations on Saturday, August 12, only forty-eight hours before the ceasefire was due to start. More than thirty soldiers were killed in the operation, which critics say was undertaken for no goal other than to give the army a sense of achievement in the war. "It was done to make the generals feel like they achieved something," says Pedatzur.

One of the greatest surprises of the war, which helped turn domestic opinion against the government's handling of the campaign, was the army's inability to stop Hezbollah's shelling of Israeli towns, which killed at least fifty-three Israeli civilians and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing southward or into bomb shelters. "The feeling is that the army isn't as good as we thought it was," says Harel. "And that's an earthquake in Israel."

The reputation of the Israeli army is legendary-however many believe the war may have seriously weakened Israel's deterrence power. "It's a defeat," says Pedatzur, "because of the perception that Israel can be defeated." Israeli bombings in Lebanon destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure in the south and centre of the country (and killing an estimated 1300 civilians in the process), but there is a widespread perception that Israel could not take on a guerilla army of an estimated 3,000 fighters. "There is not one person here who does not see it as a victory for Hezbollah," Charles Levinson, an Agence-France Presse correspondent, explained over the phone from South Lebanon.

That perception has implications that go beyond Israel and affect the US and Western allied Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "Hezbollah's ability to challenge Israel exposed their weakness," explains Mouin Rabbani, an analyst with the International Crisis group, speaking over the phone from Amsterdam. "These governments kept emphasizing they made a strategic discussion for peace and that's the only choice."

"These regimes have a credibility deficit. This war increased it," he says. "You're not going to see Arab states renounce their peace agreements with Israel but there will be increased tension within Arab societies. The governments are going to be increasingly questioned about their policies, their strategies and international alliances."

Iran also might have benefited from the war. 'If there is going to be a confrontation, Hezbollah is seen as an ace in Iran's sleeve. Hezbollah's ability to strike deep in Israel will make Israel and the US think twice about attacking Iran," Rabbani says.

Lebanese troops are taking positions in the south now, but Israel will only fully withdraw its troops once Lebanese troops have spread out over the entire region and a UN force, mandated by Resolution 1701, arrives in Lebanon.

All of which is to say that this war may be the prelude to another, wider confrontation. Although Hezbollah said it has accepted Resolution 1701, which requires that only the Lebanese army can bear arms in the south of Lebanon, the Shiite group says it will maintain a presence in the south, conceding only that it will be "hidden." In a speech this week, Nasrallah dismissed calls for Hezbollah to disarm. The question that remains to be answered is how far Israel will go to restore the badly weakened reputation of its armed forces, and its capacity to deter future attacks.