Emanuele Ottolenghi: Everything You Know About The Recent Mideast War is Wrong

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Emanuele Ottolenghi is executive director of the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.

Every war generates its myths, and the recent war in Lebanon is no exception. This war’s myths are that Israel lost and Hezbollah won; that this was due to Israel’s reluctance to take casualties; and that Hezbollah’s victory in turn shattered the image of Israel’s military invincibility.

In war, victory and defeat are determined by the achievement of (or failure to achieve) the objectives the warring sides set for themselves as hostilities began. If one applies this criterion to Israel’s objectives at the outset of war – obtain the release of the two kidnapped soldiers and destroy Hezbollah – Israel fell short of securing its goals. But this war should not be judged only on this account, for Hezbollah started it, not Israel. In determining who won and who lost, one must also ask what Hezbollah set out to achieve, when it attacked Israel, and whether it succeeded, in the month of fighting, to secure its goals.

Determining all of Hezbollah’s objectives might be tougher than defining Israel’s. Hezbollah had both declared and undeclared goals: The former are known, the latter can be guessed. Hezbollah declared its intention to capture Israeli soldiers as bargaining chips for three Lebanese prisoners Israel holds. It also wanted to “free” the Shebaa Farms (a small territory, controlled by Israel, that borders on Lebanon and Syria). According to these two benchmarks, Hezbollah’s war is an abject failure. Israel still controls the Shebaa Farms. U.N. Resolution 1701 makes reference to them and instructs the Secretary General to report on their status to the Security Council within 30 days. But the U.N. already deliberated on the issue, and the U.S. gave Israel guarantees that there shall be no surprises. Unless there is an abrupt turnabout, it is hard to fathom that Hezbollah could view this mention as a success. As for the prisoners, they are still in Israeli jails, now in the company of dozens of additional ones. This booty, not the original three, is the object of the current bargain for prisoners’ release. This is hardly a victory.

What of Hezbollah’s undeclared goals? One can assume that Hezbollah aimed to achieve the following:

Open a second front, showing solidarity with the Palestinians, and link up the release of Israeli prisoners taken by Hezbollah with the fate of Corporal Gilead Shalit, whom Hamas snatched on the Gaza-Israel border on June 25.

Promote the roles of Syria and Iran as key players in the Palestinian-Israeli theatre.

Divert international attention from Iran’s nuclear program.

Increase Hezbollah’s standing as the champion of Arab causes and thereby enhance Iran’s standing in the Arab world.

Consolidate Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon, taking over Lebanon’s government.

Let us review them:

1. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah failed to link up Lebanon and Gaza as a single conflict, with a single solution, one that included him as a key player. Indeed, he effectively managed to deflect the world’s attention from Gaza, giving a free hand to the IDF to bomb, kill, and destroy at will. Iran and Syria, busy helping him in Lebanon, could not rescue Hamas in Gaza. Nasrallah’s diversion, then, helped Israel, not the Palestinians.

2. While many suggested that Syria and Iran should be engaged as key players, and that the Gaza situation should be included in a U.N. deal, Resolution 1701 makes no reference to either. Meanwhile, Nasrallah caused a significant setback for Iran’s limited achievements in the field of nuclear negotiations with the international community. Before July 12, the U.S. decision to join negotiations produced an important first result for Iran: The grand bargain was off the table. Iran’s influence and its destabilizing role in Lebanon were not items for negotiation and had been quietly pushed off the table by the U.S. offer. After Lebanon, however, Iran’s support for terrorism and Iran’s interference in the Middle East peace process are again on the table. And this, thanks to Nasrallah’s adventurism.

3. In the midst of fighting in Lebanon, the U.N. still passed a resolution giving Iran an ultimatum. Iran’s clear role in arming, training, funding, and supporting Hezbollah has weakened the arguments for engagement with Iran. The diplomatic clock is still ticking against Tehran’s agenda – albeit slowly.

4. The standing of Hezbollah and Nasrallah across the Arab and Muslim world has improved, and their perceived victory has hurt the moderates. At the same time, one can question the extent of this achievement. Hezbollah already had mythic stature in the Arab world on account of Israel’s hurried withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Has the latest war significantly added to its prestige, given the cost that Lebanon had to pay for it and the lack of real achievements? Besides, Arab capitals do not modulate their political calculations on street temperature alone. National interest remains imperative and Iran’s effort to increase its influence in the region through a proxy war has not escaped diplomacies from Rabat to Muscat. As for the region’s radicals, myths are good for their rhetorical airwaves. But can one really believe that the blow taken by Hezbollah and the heavy cost paid by Lebanon are not also factors in Teheran’s and Damascus’s calculations? They can surely afford this kind of price in a proxy war in which Lebanon and Hezbollah take the heat of Israel’s wrath. But had Israel’s might instead been visited upon Damascus and the Syrian army, or Teheran and the Iranian army, would their leaders feel secure in their seats of power? Would they still feel their influence is mounting in the region? In a cost-benefit analysis, mythology helps little. When you see the rubble through your window, rather than on the TV screen, reality check is here. And woe to those who think that image is all that matters in the Middle East. Criticism of Hezbollah is not over. Its threat to Arab interests has not been obscured by its glories.

5. Nasrallah’s intent was to give the Cedar Revolution a final blow and take over Lebanon’s fledgling government. In taking note of the fact that Nasrallah may have achieved both, one should also point out that the Cedar Revolution was already moribund, after many of its prominent young leaders had been intimidated and/or murdered. Hezbollah’s grip over the Lebanese civilian, military, and intelligence structure was already advanced. Syria’s influence was far from removed. And the moderates had done much to damage their own cause well before Hezbollah launched its war. Had Israel not responded to its attacks, Hezbollah might have banked on its achievement to continue its road to power. True, U.N. Resolution 1701 gives Hezbollah much recognition. But if anything, this war, and the international intervention that will follow, may pose the kind of challenge to Hezbollah that Lebanon’s weak civil society failed to mount. Not all went well for Nasrallah. It is still for Israel and the international community to lose this opportunity.

The myth about Hezbollah’s victory is therefore just that: a myth. This means that Israel did not lose. Israel certainly did not win either. But one should not dismiss Israel’s military achievements and their potential effectiveness in thwarting at least some of Hezbollah’s objectives.

Hezbollah’s fighting force was drastically downgraded. With over 500 fighters killed (depending on estimates, anything between 10 and 40 percent of its fighting force), it will take years for Hezbollah to return to where it was. Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah’s Katyusha arsenal, but it dealt a crushing blow to its strategic arsenal of long-range missiles. Few noticed that at some point in the war, Nasrallah stopped threatening to hit Tel Aviv if Israel continued to hit Beirut, mentioning Haifa instead. That is because he could not hit Tel Aviv anymore. With Hezbollah’s arsenal so depleted, its ability to seriously mount a new challenge is for now correspondingly damaged. Iran and Syria are no doubt already rearming it. But this exercise will take time and it will not be ignored by the international community as it was in the past.

What of the myth of Israel’s invincibility that this war supposedly shattered, and the myth that it was Israel’s reluctance to absorb casualties that caused Israel to balk?

Again, both are myths. Israel’s “shattered” invincibility is an adage repeated after each round of Middle Eastern fighting. Take Israel’s conventional wars: Israel lost big at Latrun and Gush Etzion in 1948. It incurred heavy casualties at Mitla Pass in 1956 and in the battle for Jerusalem in 1967. Only the 1956 and 1967 wars were short, swift, and decisive. In 1948, Israel took almost a year to achieve a fragile truce along tenuous borders. The war of attrition that followed 1967 bled Israel for three years along the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, Israel was engaged in a nasty war with the PLO along the Jordanian border, one where the victory of Karameh – a scuffle between Israel and PLO fighters that cost Israel many casualties and did not send the PLO gunmen fleeing for their lives – stood the test of time as evidence of the “shattered Israeli invincibility.” The Karameh story was itself a myth, one that was central to the lore of a generation of revolutionaries. But when put to the test, it wasn’t Israel’s myth that crumbled. It was Karameh’s.

Then came 1973, a war in which Israel’s victory came with a heavy price, only after 18 days of brutal fighting and a massive American airlift. In 1982 Israel did not exactly win the Lebanon war in six days either and took over a month to reach Beirut. The PLO resistance it encountered was not negligible and even before Israel was bogged down in the Lebanese quagmire, it cost Israel dearly. Nobody remembers Israel’s battle of Sultan Yaaqub as a victory. And when Israel left 18 years later, its exit from South Lebanon was again hailed as the shattering moment of Israel’s myth of invincibility.

And what about Israel’s non-conventional wars? The wars with the PLO lasted intermittently for 18 years, until the PLO’s fighting force was removed from Lebanon (and not by diplomacy, but by Israel’s might). Israel’s effective counter-terrorism measures took time – and countless casualties – to develop. Even today, though efficient, they are not 100 percent foolproof. Yet, overall, Israel always learned quickly on how to respond to unanticipated threats. In both the first and second Intifadas, casualties were high and conflicts dragged on. Not until late 1990 – three years in – did Israel manage to break the first Intifada; even so, it took another three years before the uprising came to a complete stop.

In the second Intifada, it took 18 months for Israel to figure out a way to respond properly. When Operation Defensive Shield was launched in late March 2002, Israel engaged the Palestinians for six long weeks; it absorbed many casualties in brutal close-quarters combat that focused on limited urban areas for days on end. Even so, reservists – the backbone of Israel’s army – reported for duty in record numbers. Throughout the Intifada, Israel sustained an unprecedented number of casualties on the home front, while the Arab world idolized the suicide bomber as the tool that had broken – yet again – Israel’s myth of invincibility. In the end, though, the myth proved more resilient than the suicide bomber who was supposed to have defeated it.

There is a pattern, then: Each war brings Israel a new challenge. Each time, it takes Israel time to absorb the blow, understand its nature and mechanisms, and then make elaborate corrections and improvements to its combat doctrine. Israel has lost battles in the past. It learned from its mistakes and it improved its fighting capabilities the next time around. In this worn-out recent war with Hezbollah, Israel’s performance was no different from that in past wars. At a heavy price, it inflicted a severe, but not decisive, blow to Hezbollah. It will now learn how to fight better next time around.

What about the last myth, the idea that Israel cannot digest casualties anymore?

If this were true, how could we explain Israel’s victory in the second Intifada? Over 1,000 civilians were shredded to bits by Palestinian terror. Yet, Israeli society soldiered on – literally. In the latest round of fighting, it was Israel’s leadership that balked at the risk of casualties, not the country, which from left to right was united in an unprecedented support for a more comprehensive and aggressive campaign to finish off Hezbollah once and for all. Israel’s home front did not break down, despite a month spent in shelters in the North, and the severe shortcomings of its logistical machine and those who were in charge of it. Israelis proved their resilience and their stubborn will to stay and put up a fight, for when the real volley of missiles comes in from further afield.

As for the future, these myths and the misperceptions on which they may be based will no doubt contribute to the next round of war. When that comes, one should take note of how the two societies at war responded to their perceived successes and failures.

Israel will now have a commission of inquiry, whose outcomes may end the careers of military and political leaders. It will reflect on its mistakes. It will cry over the futility of the deaths of so many of its best, due to those mistakes. It will blame those responsible and it will demand a heavy price of them. But it will get its answers.

What of Lebanon? Amidst the ruins of Beirut, the rubble of the bridges over the Litani, and the craters punctuating the highways, what does Nasrallah do? He proclaims victory. What does Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora do? He cries in front of the cameras, praises Hezbollah, and clings on to the myths of victory even as evidence of defeat is all around. They do not set up independent commissions, and they do not summon generals, politicians, and clerics, demanding they take responsibility. The last time an Arab country had its own commission of inquiry about a military defeat was in Iraq, in 1949. That precedent will remain the exception. Lebanon will not inquire now into how a foreign agent, having taken over half the country and infiltrated the government at all levels, dragged it into someone else’s war. It will do away with the need to understand what went wrong by proclaiming victory. So that when war returns, the “shattered myth” will rise again, as reality catches up with the myths of Arab rhetoric.

Emanuele Ottolenghi: Everything You Know About The Recent Mideast War is Wrong

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