Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lebanon's smell of victory, next time

So, Israel's strategy the next time it enters into a war with Hizbullah is to destroy much more of Lebanon than it destroyed in 2006. The plan is deeply cynical, its justification thoroughly dishonest, but Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary general, will not be able to reply that he didn't expect what happened, before apologizing to us afterward.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot last week, the head of Israel's Northern Command, Major General Gadi Eisenkot, had this to say: "What happened in the [southern suburbs] of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on." What Eisenkot meant was that if Hizbullah fired off its rockets from villages, instead of trying to prevent the launches Israel would simply flatten these villages. This strategy of "disproportionate" force could well be accompanied by a widening of the scope of Israeli retaliation against Lebanon, targeting the country's infrastructure. A former head of Israel's National Security Council, Giora Eiland, has argued in favor of this, and wrote recently: "A legitimate government runs Lebanon, supported by the West, but it is in fact entirely subordinate to the will of the Shiite organization."

It poses problems to argue that Eiland doesn't know what he's talking about, that Hizbullah, while powerful, must contend with a majority in Lebanon that deeply mistrusts it, therefore that the Lebanese government is not "entirely subordinated" to Hizbullah's will. Why? This might imply that Israel is free to ravage Hizbullah and the Shiite community at will, but should not extend this to other Lebanese. That is, of course, not what a rebuttal of Eiland necessarily implies. However, beyond the humanitarian argument, indiscriminate Israeli retaliation against both Hizbullah and its enemies could unite the Lebanese momentarily against Israel, or more worryingly, and more likely, could spark a new civil war. This, Israel would not particularly mind, as it would occupy Hizbullah in a bestial internal conflict that could ultimately grind the party down, as the previous Lebanese Civil War did the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Eiland made his case in the context of a domestic Israeli debate, so his ideas might or might not be implemented by the government in case of any new confrontation. Much would depend on what the United States says and does. But Eisenkot's massive retaliation plan - and he underlined it was a plan, not a proposal - is belated recognition that Israel's only effective weapon against Hizbullah is to poison the well of Shiite support for the party. By imposing a balance of terror in their favor, the Israelis calculate they will be able to deter Hizbullah, but also justify before the international community harsh reprisals if the party fires first.

Still, Eisenkot's statements left several things vague. What happens if Hizbullah fires longer-range missiles at Tel Aviv and beyond? In whose favor would the balance of terror be then? What would the Israelis destroy in response? An effective policy of deterrence implies leaving oneself a range of escalating options, so that for example if Israel were to react with massive destruction of Lebanon early on in a war, it might risk leaving itself with few viable options to hit even harder at later stages if Hizbullah itself decided to escalate. And since the party's longer-range missiles are in every way Iranian missiles, and would probably be fired far from the front lines in the South, meaning near the Syrian border, would that mean that Israel transforms the conflict into a regional one?

And what about Syria in Israel's plan? In their fervor to hold the Lebanese government responsible for whatever Hizbullah does, many Israelis never mention that the party in the past two years has been able to rearm thanks to weapons transiting through Syria. They never mention, in justifying their negotiations with Syria, that Hizbullah became a powerful military force during the years when Syria controlled Lebanon. They never mention that President Bashar Assad has time and again made it clear that he has no intention of breaking with Iran over Hizbullah (or anything else), and that such a step would be inexplicable anyway as it would deny Syria the military leverage the party provides it over Israel.

As Israel's armed forces destroy Lebanon's towns and villages, as well as quite possibly its electricity, road, and water infrastructure, what will they do against a regime in Damascus far more responsible for allowing Hizbullah to be what it is than the Lebanese state, which Eiland implicitly points out is too weak to contain the party? If the answer is "nothing," and Syria is to be left alone, then we get the message: For the umpteenth time Lebanese blood will serve as currency in Syrian-Israeli bargaining.

News reports on Wednesday suggested that Hizbullah is still very much eager to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, and that Nasrallah had said as much at a party meeting, before this was leaked to the daily Al-Akhbar. The news item came only days after the Hizbullah commander in the South, Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, called Israel "a cardboard state that will be destroyed by the resistance fighters." Earlier, Qaouq had promised to liberate the Shebaa Farms by force, because diplomacy had failed. That this coincided with signs that diplomacy appeared to be on the verge of liberating occupied Ghajar was hardly fortuitous.

Even hundreds of tons of Israeli cardboard landing on Lebanese heads could cause quite a bit of damage, so Qaouq's bravado smelled like hubris. Neither Israel nor Hizbullah must relish a new round of fighting just yet, which is perhaps why the rhetoric on each side has escalated. But allow a doubt. In the destruction game Israel is capable of much more than the brash Hizbullah, and this time far more capable of confirming that whatever victory the party might subsequently declare, it would look vain indeed while we all stand in the midst of a smoldering wasteland.

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