On balance, Israel won this round
Hizbullah has not made significant progress toward any long-term goals.
By Nadav Morag
For the past four decades, Israelis have not been able to taste true, flat-out military victory in their multiple conflicts with their neighbors. Gone are the heady days of 1967, when Israel unconditionally vanquished its Arab enemies.
Protecting Israel has become more complex as the threat increasingly shifts from the conventional military sphere to terrorism and guerrilla warfare (elements of which are somewhat misleadingly known as asymmetric war).
Fighting guerrillas and terrorists is more akin to fighting crime than wars. Where wars have a beginning and an end, guerrilla conflicts and terrorism are often ongoing problems that, like crime, need to be contained because it is unlikely that they can ever be eradicated.
It should not be surprising then that with its 1982 war in Lebanon, as well as the two Palestinian uprisings (1987 and 2000), Israel has been unable to achieve a clear-cut victory. But this does not mean that Israel did not ultimately win those conflicts, only that the definition of victory has to be recalibrated to account for the current realities of armed conflict.
The most useful way to gauge success in today’s complex battlefield is probably to look at the initial interests that each party to the conflict had at the outset, and then look at the outcome to see what each party was able to achieve.
First, there’s Hizbullah. The guerrilla organization had been in control of most of southern Lebanon since the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. They also were able to play a role beyond Lebanon’s borders by heavily supporting Palestinian terrorist attacks via the Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade organizations. Their probable goal in kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in July was to cause Israel to release Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists being held in its prisons, thereby boosting Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s significance in the region. But because of the subsequent Israeli response, Hizbullah wasn’t able to achieve its aim.
Israel has severely battered Hizbullah’s military infrastructure, though certainly not put it out of commission. Nevertheless, the organization has lost a significant number of personnel and medium-range rockets. The organization has also lost, assuming that the present UN cease-fire plan is implemented as promised, its forward deployment positions along Israel’s border and, indeed, exclusive control over territory south of the Litani River.
Despite being cheered by many in the Arab world for its willingness to confront Israel and its ability to make life miserable for civilians in northern Israel, Hizbullah’s actions have only created greater fear among Arab leaders of Iranian attempts to create a “Shiite Arc” stretching through Iraq and ending on the Lebanese shores of the Mediterranean.
Most important, in the coming months, Hizbullah will discover that it has alienated most of the Lebanese population, including large numbers of Lebanese Shiites, because its aggressive actions produced a harsh Israeli response that has brought the destruction of significant areas and infrastructure in Lebanon, as well as a major loss of life. Ultimately, Hizbullah will come out of this conflict considerably weakened.
On the Israeli side of the ledger, there were serious shortcomings in the military and political prosecution of this war. The Israeli military seemed to believe that it could bring Hizbullah to its knees (as well as destroy most of Hizbullah’s rocket capability) through air power and targeted ground operations. When this proved to be wrong, Israel then prepared for a more massive ground operation to capture territory. In the meantime, more Israeli lives were lost (civilian and military), Israeli cities in the north were pounded with Hizbullah rockets, and Israel squandered precious time that could have been used to further degrade Hizbullah’s capabilities. Nevertheless, Israel had a clear interest in removing Hizbullah’s presence from its border and most of southern Lebanon. Israel wanted to deprive Hizbullah of its capacity to wreak havoc on Israel by depriving it of its more powerful medium-range rocket arsenal. Israel wanted to weaken Hizbullah’s political standing in Lebanon by turning Lebanese public opinion against Mr. Nasrallah’s organization. Finally, Israel wanted to delegitimize Hizbullah in the region and beyond by emphasizing its ties with Iran.
On balance, despite its somewhat lackadaisical performance, Israel achieved the bulk of its goals while Hizbullah can point to few accomplishments. The degree to which one side is able to achieve long-standing goals should therefore be the ultimate barometer as to the outcome of the Israeli-Hizbullah war. The media may have been seduced by footage of physical destruction, statistics of war dead, declarations of defiance by Nasrallah, as well as spats among the political and military leaders in Israel, but these are not the true measure of victory.
• Nadav Morag is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and lectures at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. He previously served as a senior director at the Israeli National Security Council in the office of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.