Thursday, August 17, 2006

A few gains for Israel

From The Australian, August 17, 2006, by Greg Sheridan [emphasis added]:

...The long-term strategic consequences of this tragic month-long war are hard to discern. Apart from the tragedy of the civilian deaths on both sides, the war must be provisionally reckoned a messy draw. Israel has not achieved its strategic objectives, although it would be wrong to think that Israel has gained nothing.

Hezbollah's build-up of sophisticated Iranian weapons, its frequent rocket firings into Israel, its murder of Israeli soldiers and, finally, its kidnapping of Israeli soldiers probably meant that it was inevitable that Israel would eventually take some action against Hezbollah.

Israel did not achieve its war aims. Part of the problem with the Israeli action was that its aims were unclear and constantly changing, indeed diminishing as definitive success became less likely.

Israel did not get back its two kidnapped soldiers. It did not destroy Hezbollah as a military force. There was no day of the war, up to and including the last day, when Hezbollah was unable to fire missiles at the civilian population of northern Israel. If Israel wished to remove by force the missile threat, it failed. Similarly, it did not establish effective control over a substantial part of southern Lebanon. This was never an official Israeli war aim but clearly some in Israel's high command wanted to do this.

Nor was Israel able to establish even a temporary control, then hand over to a robust international force with a mandate to disarm Hezbollah. Indeed, the composition and mandate of the new international force remain unclear and are the subject of wrangling in New York.
The final UN Security Council compromise is a weak Chapter Six resolution. In the first instance Israel will accept the deployment of the Lebanese army into southern Lebanon. The Lebanese army neither could nor would disarm Hezbollah under any circumstances.

Therefore, although it will not say this quite publicly, what Israel has really accepted is a political ceasefire with Hezbollah. All of this is not to say that Israel has achieved nothing in this war, although the cost was great.

From Israel's point of view it has significantly damaged Hezbollah as a military force, at least for the moment. It has also re-established the credibility of its deterrent. This is more political than military. It has always been prepared to take tough action in the Palestinian territories. But it has clearly reminded its neighbours that, if provoked, it will respond and that it has the capability of responding with a great deal of firepower.

It has possibly changed the dynamics within Lebanon in that the vast majority of Lebanese now have a strong interest in preventing Hezbollah from attacking Israel in the same way again. Moreover, to some extent it has internationalised the problem of Hezbollah. The presence in Beirut of France's Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, demanding that Hezbollah be disarmed, is a sign of this. Similarly, although whatever international force is assembled will be unlikely to take real military action against Hezbollah, the presence of a force of 15,000 must make some difference. Against that, it must be said that the Unifil force of 2000 has so far made absolutely no difference at all to Hezbollah's militarisation of southern Lebanon.

Israel has also advanced the international consensus that Iran and Syria are state sponsors of terrorism and a huge problem for the international system, such as it is. And, finally, Israel has deepened and somewhat accentuated the broad Arab fear and suspicion of Iran. The effective silence of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for most of the conflict, and their early condemnation of Hezbollah's actions, is evidence of this.

Against all that, it must be said that Hezbollah is selling itself, and being sold by Tehran and Damascus, as the great victor in this conflict. It is generally true that a guerilla force against a conventional army only has to survive to register a kind of victory.

Much will depend on who wins the political battle of interpreting this war. For all of Hezbollah's Iranian money and social activities among the Shia community, it only registered a minority vote. If Hezbollah is successful in establishing itself in enough Lebanese eyes as the heroic resistance to Israel, it could conceivably improve its electoral position at Lebanon's next election and even end up leading a Lebanese government. This would confront Israel with a situation it hasn't faced for many years: a neighbouring state on its borders committed to the destruction of Israel. The strategic calculus out of recent events is infinitely complex and the balance is by no means clearly positive.

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