Friday, 18 August 2006

Who Won? Those Who Feel They Did

As Lebanon wobbles on a tentative ceasefire, the Israeli government and Hizbullah are both declaring victory. The significant difference between the claims is that most Israelis don't think the war was a success, whereas in Lebanon the mood is strident.

It will take time for this war to crystallise into political judgement on each side, but even as they disengage it is becoming apparent that Hizbullah has at least the moral victory. Group leader Hassan Nasrallah's claim to have won a "strategic and historic victory" over Israel sent the Lebanese into a frenzy of celebration. Shiites and non-Shiites felt proud this past week to have ejected an invader from their territory. 

Only 44 percent of Israelis deemed the war a success, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's approval rating dropped to half of its pre-war high of 78 percent. A committee of inquiry will probe the conduct of the war following a bruising parliamentary debate in which Olmert admitted mistakes. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz has even been accused of profiteering.

Amidst the gloom, Israelis may be tempted to draw parallels with the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. An inquiry discredited military icon Moshe Dayan and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir because they ignored warnings from the armed forces chief of staff of imminent invasion.

In Lebanon, however, Hizbullah is seen as having broken a historic cycle of defeat. Israel's 1982 invasion achieved its objective of throwing the Palestine Liberation Organisation out of the Middle East and into exile in Tunis. The Israeli army laid siege to Beirut within a week of crossing the border. Three months later the PLO was gone after Lebanese muslims found the Palestinians too much of a nuisance. The Israelis didn't even have to do all the fighting themselves. They co-opted the Maronite Christian militia of Bashir Gemayel.

In all those respects, 2006 was the opposite of 1982. Israel has been forced to tone down its initial triumphant rhetoric about eviscerating Hizbullah to merely disarming it and pushing it back from the border area. Its two abducted soldiers, Helens of Troy, have not yet been returned. The invasion did not produce that internal pressure on Hizbullah that had been so critical in ousting Arafat. Lebanon's collective anger became directed at Israel instead. Israeli losses were heavy and the IDF's progress slow, revealing a worthier adversary than the PLO.

In succeeding where the PLO failed, Hizbullah could reap the political benefits Arafat wished for - money, men and diplomatic clout; above all, the immunity from disarmament called for in UN resolutions. 

But mood is not everything. Perhaps Israel has a victory that simply doesn't look like one. After all, Israel's sights were set on an elusive, final victory over its greatest remaining threat, whereas Hizbullah merely needed to survive. Israel may have set itself up for disappointment. If the periodic culling of Hizbullah is the best that can be hoped for, Israel achieved that. Commentator Yaron Ezrahi contends that it achieved something else besides - the framing of Iran as the regional threat, which could increase the chances of an international coalition to contain it. 

Conversely, Lebanese euphoria may be disguising Israeli success in turning faction on faction. In the long term, Hizbullah's victory may not be Lebanon's. Other factional groups worry that Hizbullah's foreign patronage comes at a price they all must pay - being forced into the role of anti-Zionist champion, and suffering the ravages of war. The first post-war speeches from Lebanon's coalition members include fierce criticism of Hizbullah, Syria and Iran. Sunni leader Saad Hariri, whose father, late prime minister Rafiq Hariri, may have been assassinated upon Syrian instigation, bridled at the suggestion earlier in the week by Syria's president that Lebanese who weren't pro-Hizbullah were pro-Israeli. Veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt openly criticised Hizbullah during the war for triggering it without consulting with others. 

Although Hizbullah is showing reinforced exceptionalism - it will not disarm, its chief has said - no-one in the Lebanese government seems willing to confront it. Memories of the civil war are still fresh. So the Lebanese army, deploying in southern Lebanon, is doing so on terms acceptable to Hizbullah. No multinational force wants to enforce disarmament either, so reinforcements to the existing UN Interim Force could be massively delayed or paltry (France, which had been thought willing to pour 5,000 troops into the UN force, now says it will deploy 200). 

With no-one but the Israelis willing to take Hizbullah on, and Syria and Iran seemingly bent on a policy of goading Israel, a repeat of this war might be inevitable. But a more optimistic assessment is possible: that Israel's mixed success means that this has been its last incursion into Lebanon, and a change of security strategy will exclude mass punishment for Hizbullah's socio-economic base. Over the longer term, that could sap Hizbullah of political justification for keeping a massive private army. At the same time, Israel and the US could offer Syria and the Palestinians the carrot of a new peace process. A peace process that includes the Syrians would isolate Iran. That, surely, is a bigger political gain than turning some Lebanese factions against Hizbullah. 

The neocons in Washington, however, are not given to solutions that involve diplomacy. Allied with the wrong Israelis, they could provide quite a different option. In an article posted on The New Yorker's web site on August 14, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh quotes high-ranking intelligence sources saying that the Bush administration not only knew about the Israeli incursion plans, but encouraged them. The administration apparently saw Lebanon as a dress rehearsal for an assault on Iran. If Washington and Tel Aviv decide to pursue a Middle Eastern conflagration, then the departure from reason has only just begun.

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