Friday, August 04, 2006

Lebanon/Israel - Did the war make sense? (Yossi Melman & Ze'ev Sternhell)

As I have noted before (here and elsewhere), most of the commentary on the current Israeli/Lebanese crisis seems to have missed a key point about the nature and goals of Israel's military operation. Unlike the situation in previous conflicts, it seems clear that this time around the Israeli government did not believe that Israel could achieve a solution by itself, nor that a solution to the threat posed by Hezbollah could be achieved solely by military force.

Instead, it looks increasingly apparent that a prime Israeli goal was to provoke a multilateral diplomatic and political intervention by the so-called "international community" (meaning in this case the US, the major European governments, Russia, and some Arab governments) to help broker, impose, and guarantee a political solution alone the lines of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1680. In the meantime, Israel's military assault would also weaken Hezbollah's military capacities and other bargaining cards in ways that could facilitate a diplomatic & political solution of this sort. It also seems clear that the Israeli & US governments have been roughly in accord on this strategy--and, more surprisingly, that the major European governments have signed on to its broad outlines (expressed, for example in the G-8 Summit statement on the Middle East crisis and the positions adopted at the later Rome conference), a fact that has been obscured by surface noise and posturing about the more specific issue of an immediate cease-fire. All the commentary that has misunderstood or ignored these connections between the military, diplomatic, and political dimensions of the situation--which is to say, most of the commentary in news reports, punditry, and the blogosphere--has largely missed the point of what is going on. (For one example, see here.)

One notable exception is a front-page article in the July 24 New York Times by their chief Jerusalem correspondent, Steven Erlanger. Oddly enough, I seem to be the only person in the blogosphere who read it--partly because it helped to confirm some impressions that had already been coming together in my own mind.

=> The real question is whether there are any serious possibilities that this strategy will prove at all successful--which would be a Very Good Thing for Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East more generally--or whether the whole thing has been a huge blunder that will turn out disastrously for everyone.

Frankly, the answers remain unclear and are likely to be fairly complicated. The two analyses below, from the left-liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, offer sharply different assessments. Ze'ev Sternhell describes this as Israel's "most unsuccessful war," whereas Yossi Melman calls it "A smart, successful war." They can't both be right (though both could turn out to be wrong), but both are worth considering--even though neither of them really tries to address the larger diplomatic and political contexts of the crisis I outlined earlier.

--Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. - August 5, 2006: Kevin Drum was intrigued but unconvinced by my argument outlined above. After some e-mail exchanges, we still disagree, as he explains in a Washington Monthly piece on "Israel and Lebanon". His discussion is characteristically serious and fair-minded, but among other problems, I believe he has partly misunderstood the point of my argument, so I'm not sure he really engages it effectively. For example, my claim was not that things have gone swimmingly for the Israelis, as he seems to think I was suggesting, or that the Israelis intended to launch a major ground invasion of Lebanon from the start, which it seems clear they didn't. But I appreciate his effort to think outside the framework of the current conventional wisdom. For part of our discussion, which might help to clarify some of the issues a bit, see US/Israel strategy in the Israeli/Lebanese crisis.]
August 4, 2006
A smart, successful war
By Yossi Melman

This is not only a just war, but also a smart and successful one. There is no need to go on at length about its justness, but there is a dispute over its success and whether it was managed wisely. Most of the political and military commentators have few good things to say about this aspect. They are critical of the wisdom of the political echelon and point to the supposed foolishness of the military. Thus there is a vast gulf between the majority of the public and the media.

Most of the commentators ignore one central fact: Israel went into the war while imposing military and political restrictions on itself, and rightly so. According to the directive of the government, the Israel Defense Forces could have captured most of Lebanon within a few days, as it did in 1982. But that was not the goal this time. Israel wants to reduce its losses, and therefore the IDF is working cautiously - which is mistakenly being seen as hesitation. The government did not want to call up reservists in order to avoid causing any further damage to the economy.

In the first week of the 1982 war, between 6,000 and 10,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed. This time, in about three weeks of fighting, about 700 Lebanese civilians and more than 300 Hezbollah men have been killed. In 1982 Israel provoked Syria and sought to drag it into the war (and almost succeeded). This time Israel is trying to leave Syria out of the war.

In 1982, the government of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon set out to create a chain reaction with the aim of bringing about a new regional order. The intention was to get the Christians in Lebanon, under Bashir Gemayel, into the ranks of leadership of the country so that they would expel the Palestinians to Syria, in the hope that from there they would move to Jordan and establish a Palestinian state there. This time Israel wants to leave the pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora intact, and to undermine Hezbollah without doing too much damage to Lebanon's fragile religious-ethnic-political fabric.

These limitations stem from the Israeli interest and from an explicit American request. They are the reason not only for the American support, but also for the understanding of the majority of the world's countries, including the tacit understanding of most of the Arab states. Similarly, the majority of Lebanese both in Lebanon and abroad want to see Hezbollah defeated and humiliated.

Israel's conduct of the war is not due to weakness, but stems from political sagacity based on an understanding of the limits of military power. From this point of view, we can only have even higher regard for the war's achievements. True, there have also been failures and mistakes. The chief of staff, who comes from the air force, apparently overestimated the ability of air power to vanquish Hezbollah alone. The reserves should have been mobilized and sent into action sooner. Here and there one sees fixated thinking by the senior officer corps, and there was also a failure of the navy. To the negative balance, we can add also the socioeconomic gaps which the war is bringing to the fore, between those who have been able to leave the north and those who cannot.

But all this is dwarfed by the successes. Based on precise intelligence, the air force struck accurately at the majority of the long-range missiles and their launchers in the first two days of the war. Thanks to intelligence, the special units were sent deep into enemy territory. Hezbollah headquarters, with their communications networks and their control-and-command centers, were hit hard. The line of fortifications along the Israeli border was demolished.

With all the pain at the losses of the war and the destruction it wrought, this is also a psychological war and a battle for the popular consciousness. And in this battle, Israel is certainly winning. The regular army and the reserves are displaying determination based on a belief in the justness of the cause. Israeli society is shaking off the spider webs of Hassan Nasrallah's metaphor. Hezbollah and Iran gained nothing. Instead of Israel being deterred by the missile threat, it is searing into the consciousness of Tehran, Damascus and perhaps also Hamas, that force of arms and threats will get them nowhere. These entities have to understand that they will get far more concessions from Israel in negotiations.

August 2, 2006
The most unsuccessful war
By Ze'ev Sternhell

No situation can continue to exist for long without an ideological reason. That’s how when once it was clear that it was not achieving its aims, an unsuccessful military campaign was upgraded with the wave of a magic wand to the level of a war of survival. When everyone understood that a moral reason had to be found both for the dimensions of the destruction sowed in Lebanon and the killing of the civilian population there, and for the Israeli dead and wounded (nobody is even talking about the exposure of the entire civilian population in the North of Israel to enemy fire while people are kept in disgraceful conditions in bomb shelters), a war of survival was invented, which by nature must be long and exhausting.

That is how a campaign of collective punishment that was begun in haste, without proper judgment and on the basis of incorrect assessments, including promises that the army is incapable of fulfilling, turned into a war of life and death, if not some kind of second War of Independence. In the press there have even been embarrassing comparisons to the struggle against Nazism, comparisons that are not only a crude distortion of history, but disgrace the memory of the Jews who were exterminated.

The architect of this unsuccessful campaign has outdone himself: In order to cover up his failures, he delivered a poor man’s pseudo-Churchillian speech, and promised us more “pain, tears and blood.” There really is no limit to shamelessness. It must be said in favor of the government spokesmen who are in greatest demand on the foreign stations, from the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman to Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that none of them has stooped to propaganda of this kind.

At the same time, the campaign’s goals have been reduced and shrunk during these three weeks. From restoring Israel’s power of deterrence, eliminating Hezbollah, and disarming it immediately — after three weeks we have arrived at the present goal, which is the dismantling of the forward outposts of Hezbollah and the deployment of an international force to defend the North of Israel from the possibility of a repeat attack.

At this point, the average citizen, who is not working day and night in the corridors of power and is not sunning himself near the generals’ command rooms, is at a loss. Is this how we are restoring the IDF’s power of deterrence? Haven’t we accomplished exactly the opposite? Hasn’t it become clear to the entire world that our “invincible” air force not only failed for three weeks to end the barrage of rockets, but also even needs an emergency airlift of war materiel, as during the 1973 Yom Kippur War?

Moreover, the ordinary citizen is asking himself another question: If several thousand guerrilla fighters do constitute an existential danger to a country with a strike force and weaponry that are unparalleled in this part of the world, how is it that during the past five or six years we heard nothing to that effect from government leaders?

It is true that since 2000 we have not been preoccupied with anything except the Palestinian issue. Hypnotized by the “Palestinian danger,” Israel turned its back during the past two years on all national efforts that preceded the disengagement from Gaza, and then the split in the Likud and the establishment of Kadima, as a prologue to the second major campaign, “convergence” behind the separation fence. And when the present government was formed, a national agenda was formulated for the next two, if not four, years, whose main component is fulfillment of the “Sharon legacy”: a unilateral drawing of borders in the territories, pulverizing them into cantons and in effect eliminating the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in them. This led citizens to understand that this is the issue that will determine Israel’s future.

The clearest evidence of the national order of priorities is the situation in which the IDF’s fighting units find themselves. It was no secret that the army almost stopped training in large units and complex operations, and became totally immersed in the struggle against the Palestinian uprising. When infantry brigades turn into a police force specializing in breaking down doors and walls in refugee camps, or in pursuit of groups of terrorists in olive orchards, when the criterion for the success of a senior officer is the number of wanted men he has managed to catch rather than his operational talents and ability to command large units — the army deteriorates.

I cannot recall that the reserve divisions that were drafted on Yom Kippur in 1973, or the Israelis who returned as individuals from abroad in order to join the fighting, were in need of training and refresher exercises. Nevertheless, the Agranat Commission of inquiry was established to investigate, among other things, the level of the forces’ battle preparedness.

The Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War were wars of survival, and through them the IDF was revealed in all its greatness. The present war is the most unsuccessful we have ever had; it is much worse than the first Lebanon War, which at least was properly prepared, and in which, with the exception of gaining control over the Beirut-Damascus highway, the army more or less achieved its goals as determined by then-defense minister Ariel Sharon.

It is frightening to think that those who decided to embark on the present war did not even dream of its outcome and its destructive consequences in almost every possible realm, of the political and psychological damage, the serious blow to the government’s credibility, and yes — the killing of children in vain. The cynicism being demonstrated by government spokesmen, official and otherwise, including several military correspondents, in the face of the disaster suffered by the Lebanese, amazes even someone who has long since lost many of his youthful illusions.