Monday, July 31, 2006

Fighting Hezbollah in the worst way possible (Ami Isseroff)

Ami Isseroff, who has been dubious about the the current Israeli operation in Lebanon from the start, is increasingly concluding that it has been an unwise and poorly conducted initiative that is likely to lead to unfortunate results for Israel--above all, a major political victory for Hezbollah, which is in a position to claim "victory" with any outcome other than catastrophic defeat. (A similar analysis was offered a week ago by Shalom Lappin in "Israel's Strategic Quandaries in Lebanon".)

However, Isseroff also argues that the context for the present situation was set by a string of mistakes and miscalculations stretching back over two decades, for which the blame is very widely distributed. Isseroff is convinced that the Israeli government is now Fighting Hezbollah in the worst way possible, but he also recognizes that, in the real world, any effort to deal with the threat posed by Hezbollah faces intractable dilemmas which make it very, very difficult to do better--and, furthermore, that there is no simple and easy way out of the crisis at this point.

Readers should be warned that Isseroff's analysis of these dilemmas, of the historical context that has helped to shape them, and of what he sees as the dangers and errors in the present Israeli/Lebanese crisis is likely to be depressing--especially since he has no good solution to propose. People who are willing to face that risk will also find it perceptive, informative, and usefully thought-provoking. Is Isseroff's overall analysis of the present situation correct? I'm not sure--and at this point it's not clear that anyone can be entirely sure--but there's no doubt that it's well reasoned, solidly grounded, and alarmingly plausible. Some highlights follow, but read the whole thing.

--Jeff Weintraub
Ami Isseroff (MidEastWeb)
July 31, 2006
Fighting Hezbollah in the worst way possible

When this war began, I observed that Israel had every right to defend itself, but that "Actions that may be "justifiable" may not be wise." What is happening in Lebanon is shaping up as a first class debacle--a "me'hdal" in Hebrew. As usual in such cases, everyone is quick to blame someone else, and to offer their favorite solutions. Culprits are not scarce, including past and present Israeli governments, the UN, the USA and Europe. We cannot blame Hezbollah or Iran or Syria. When the lion gets out of the cage and starts eating people, we don't blame the lion. That is its nature.

Let's trace some of the errors that were made, to get us to the present situation.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. That was mistake number one. Ariel Sharon can be blamed for that, but he had partners. The long occupation precipitated the rise of the Hezbollah. It may have begun as a grass-roots movement against the occupation, but it quickly was transmuted into a fundamentalist Shi'ite terror group that vows to wipe Israel "out of the world" as Hassan Nasrallah says.

In 2000, Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon with the blessings of the UN, but with no adequate safeguards against the continued presence of Hezbollah. For that we must blame Barak, the US government and the UN and the Lebanese government, if it is considered to be responsible for itself. Mistake number two. This mistake empowered the Hezbollah, which was now able to claim that force was the only way to deal with Israel successfully. [….]

About this time, Israel also decided to cancel the operationalization of the Nautilus system, an apparently fool-proof defensive weapon that would have provided a method of destroying rockets using laser beams. Mistake number three. At the same time, despite the growing threat of Iranian and Hezbollah and Palestinian missiles, Israel invested nothing in civil defense. Mistake number four.

Israel also steadily reduced the training standard of reserve units, for budgetary reasons. The result is that there are few reserve units that are ready for combat. Mistake number five.

For six years, Israel watched as the Hezbollah armed itself and did nothing. Israel watched, the UN watched, everyone watched and did nothing. In 2004, when Hezbollah captured and killed soldiers and captured Elhanan Tennenbaum, Israel gave in to their demands in a shameful deal that traded dead bodies for live prisoners and further enhanced the prestige of Nasrallah and the Hezbollah. Mistake number six.

In 2005, during the brief and ill fated Cedar Revolution, neither Israel nor anyone else seized the opportunity to insist on disarming the Hezbollah. The US and France put their backing behind the puppet government of Fuad Seniora, which has a Hezbollah gun to its head. Seniora now praises the Hezbollah as heroes who defend Lebanon. Mistake number seven.

All of these mistakes were made before the tenure of the present government - made and inherited. The present government made a number of errors that were evident from the first day. The fact that there is a disaster in progress should have become obvious even to the government after Israel lost 8 soldiers in Bint el Jbeil. Even if that didn't faze them, the killing of 56 civilians in Qana should have given someone a clue that something is wrong. Even Amir Peretz should have understood that there is a problem.

IDF and the government wanted to combat Hezbollah in the worst way possible, and they proceeded to demonstrate the worst way to fight Hezbollah. Mostly, the government threw away the IDF book and the Israeli government book on how to fight wars, and threw in a few more errors. They proved the correctness of IDF doctrine by performing the control experiment: Do everything wrong and see what happens.

Military force is a last resort, after diplomatic initiatives have been exhausted. The model is 1967. During the long period of diplomacy, forces can be mobilized and trained. This is especially important if reserve units were not adequately trained. At least, the reserves should have been called up the first day of fighting. When war becomes inevitable, Israeli doctrine insists on carrying the war to enemy soil and out of Israeli territory ASAP. This is done by massed concentration of forces at key points, mobility and surprise. This requires masses of troops and armor from the first hours of the attack, following lightning air raids. Wars have to be short. This is dictated by economic factors and also by the world diplomatic situation. It is taken for granted that any war in which Israel appears to gain an advantage will be stopped by the UN after a brief period. [….]

Since the Intifada, and the experience of Jenin in particular, Israel should have learned that civilian casualties must be avoided. The US can kill as many people as it finds necessary in Falluja or Afghanistan. Nobody will ask the US to halt operations for 48 hours while they investigate why the civilians died in Falluja. This may be unfair, but it is the way the world works. [….] Israel could not, as critics claimed, have used massive air power in Bint Jbeil. If it was not evident at the time, it was evident after the death of 56 civilians in Qana.

Granted that the Israeli government was justifiably afraid of another Lebanese war and all that it entails for political reasons, and granted also that the US had insisted that Israel cannot harm the "democratic" regime of Seniora. Perhaps this precluded a massive invasion. It did not preclude calling up the reserves and training them so that they would be there when needed. In any case, given such constraints, someone should have asked if the war was winnable. If it was not winnable, then no matter how just it might have been, there was no point in fighting it. [….]

The idea behind the Israeli strategy is good: fight a guerrilla war with guerrilla tactics. Kill Hezbolla soldiers rather than trying to hold real estate, hit and run, "get thar fustest with the mostest" as Nathan Bedford Forrest, father of modern guerrilla warfare explained. This strategy requires two or three things that Israel doesn't have. The first is a very long time. Israel cannot operate in Lebanon for more than a few weeks. Guerrilla wars take years. The second is an infinite capacity to absorb casualties. The eight Israeli dead of Bint el Jbail caused an uproar in Israel and discouragement that was probably greater than that caused among Chinese Communists by the great retreat. This was used to good effect by the Hezbollah, who are well aware of how Israeli society works. It also requires having "the mostest" at all times. Israel failed to muster the needed manpower.

As international pressure grew, the Israeli government continued and continues to act as if it has all the time in the world. Disastrous errors such as bombing ambulances were brushed off with perfunctory apologies or often, with no apology at all and no explanation. Only when four UNIFIL personnel were killed did the IDF and Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs finally bestir themselves to apologize and promise an investigation.

Above all, the Israeli government and the IDF misunderstood the necessary objectives. From the first, the government talked about "hurting" Hezbollah. They did not understand that any confrontation that does not completely destroy Hezbollah makes it stronger. The game is set up that way. If Hezbollah kills eight Israeli soldiers it is a big victory for Hezbollah. If Hezbollah kills Israeli civilians it is a big victory for Hezbollah. If Israel kills Lebanese civilians it is a big victory for Hezbollah. If Israel kills a hundred Hezbollah it is an even bigger victory for Hezbollah, because Fuad Seniora hails Hezbollah as patriots who defend Lebanon. Heads I win, tails you lose.

It is not easy to know what to do in this situation. To stop now, without a real arrangement for disarming Hezbollah, would give Nasrallah and the Hezbolla a great victory. It would be a tragedy for Lebanon, for Israel and for hopes for peace and moderation. Using greater force or different tactics might work, or it might make a bigger mess. We can know what is clearly wrong however. It is wrong to make believe everything is OK, and to keep saying everything is OK, when everyone knows it is now. It is wrong to keep doing the same thing, when the same thing isn't working. Continuing in the same way seems almost certain to give Hezbollah a great victory, because the potential setbacks are even greater than the ones behind us. We can imagine what would happen if Hezbollah succeeds in killing several hundred Israeli soldiers or bombs the Haifa petrochemical complex, or if contrarily, Israel kills hundreds of civilians in a single incident.

In 1968 IDF had a crucial encounter with Yasser Arafat and the Fatah movement in the town of Qarameh in Jordan, during a reprisal raid. Fatah held their own against inadequate and unprepared IDF forces. They were able to claim a "victory." It was the first Arab victory against Israel and it made the career of Arafat. Bint el Jbail was the Qarameh of Hezbollah. Hezbollah managed to kill eight Israeli soldiers. No matter that the IDF killed 26 Hezbollah on the following day. It happened for exactly the same reasons as Qarameh - underestimating the enemy, poor preparedness, too little force used in a dubious action.

The Israeli government and the IDF are not alone in this effort. The US, and more especially France, which did nothing to stop Hezbolla and which have propped up the shoddy Seniora government and tried to sell it as "democracy" were at fault too. Hezbollah would not have dared to do what they did without the consent of the Lebanese government, and the government would not have given its consent without the knowledge that its western patrons would look the other way. Uncritical media coverage of Lebanese casualties didn't help. A CNN correspondent admitted that what he had been passing off as "reporting" was unadulterated Hezbollah pressmanship, and there are others spreading false rumors in the "alternative" media (see Fog of War... )

We should all understand what is at stake. As I noted previously, Hezbollah is out to destroy Israel., but that was not the main point of that article. It is hardly news that Hezbollah is out to destroy Israel. The real problem is that each confrontation in which the extremists gain a victory builds the forces of insanity and is a defeat for the forces of moderation. Even in the Arab world, there were many who hoped that Israel would be able to rid Lebanon and the Middle East of the Hezbollah. Apparently, instead, Israel has succeeded in uniting Shi'ite and Sunni under the banner of Shi'ite Islamist extremism. Nasrallah is bidding to become the new Nasser, the new Arafat and the new Saddam Hussein, all rolled into one under the banner of Shi'a Jihadism. Thanks to a combined effort of the IDF, the Israel government, fashionable PC fascists and Jihadist groupies, careless, unprofessional and sensation-seeking media and misguided US and European policy, together with the moral turpitude of the Lebanese government, he may well succeed.

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