Lebanon: First views of US/Israeli setback
15 August 2006
There is no doubting the significance of the Israeli blitzkrieg on Lebanon and its outcomes. While it will be some time before a rounded analysis is available, there are at least two things that can be said:
The war is not over. Israel and the US, having failed to achieve their aims on the battlefield, will try to obtain victory through a combination of military and political pressure.
The battle for Lebanon marks a sea-change. There is no doubting the defeat of the Israeli army. Given that Israel depends on the myth of invincibility, the defeat has grave consequences for the colonial-settler state and for its role as regional police for US imperialism.
In the interim we present a range of initial responses: from Seymour Hersh analysing the strategy of the Bush White house, from the reporter Robert Fisk in Lebanon, from the Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery and from the pages of the Fourth international site, penned by Lebanese analyst Gilbert Achcar.
by SEYMOUR M. HERSH
14 August 2006
In the days after Hezbollah crossed from Lebanon into Israel, on July 12th, to kidnap two soldiers, triggering an Israeli air attack on Lebanon and a full-scale war, the Bush Administration seemed strangely passive. “It’s a moment of clarification,” President George W. Bush said at the G-8 summit, in St. Petersburg, on July 16th. “It’s now become clear why we don’t have peace in the Middle East.” He described the relationship between Hezbollah and its supporters in Iran and Syria as one of the “root causes of instability,” and subsequently said that it was up to those countries to end the crisis. Two days later, despite calls from several governments for the United States to take the lead in negotiations to end the fighting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that a ceasefire should be put off until “the conditions are conducive.”
The Bush Administration, however, was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.
Israeli military and intelligence experts I spoke to emphasized that the country’s immediate security issues were reason enough to confront Hezbollah, regardless of what the Bush Administration wanted. Shabtai Shavit, a national-security adviser to the Knesset who headed the Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence service, from 1989 to 1996, told me, “We do what we think is best for us, and if it happens to meet America’s requirements, that’s just part of a relationship between two friends. Hezbollah is armed to the teeth and trained in the most advanced technology of guerrilla warfare. It was just a matter of time. We had to address it.”
Hezbollah is seen by Israelis as a profound threat—a terrorist organization, operating on their border, with a military arsenal that, with help from Iran and Syria, has grown stronger since the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon ended, in 2000. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has said he does not believe that Israel is a “legal state.” Israeli intelligence estimated at the outset of the air war that Hezbollah had roughly five hundred medium-range Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets and a few dozen long-range Zelzal rockets; the Zelzals, with a range of about two hundred kilometres, could reach Tel Aviv. (One rocket hit Haifa the day after the kidnappings.) It also has more than twelve thousand shorter-range rockets. Since the conflict began, more than three thousand of these have been fired at Israel.
According to a Middle East expert with knowledge of the current thinking of both the Israeli and the U.S. governments, Israel had devised a plan for attacking Hezbollah—and shared it with Bush Administration officials—well before the July 12th kidnappings. “It’s not that the Israelis had a trap that Hezbollah walked into,” he said, “but there was a strong feeling in the White House that sooner or later the Israelis were going to do it.”
The Middle East expert said that the Administration had several reasons for supporting the Israeli bombing campaign. Within the State Department, it was seen as a way to strengthen the Lebanese government so that it could assert its authority over the south of the country, much of which is controlled by Hezbollah. He went on, “The White House was more focussed on stripping Hezbollah of its missiles, because, if there was to be a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hezbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel. Bush wanted both. Bush was going after Iran, as part of the Axis of Evil, and its nuclear sites, and he was interested in going after Hezbollah as part of his interest in democratization, with Lebanon as one of the crown jewels of Middle East democracy.”
Administration officials denied that they knew of Israel’s plan for the air war. The White House did not respond to a detailed list of questions. In response to a separate request, a National Security Council spokesman said, “Prior to Hezbollah’s attack on Israel, the Israeli government gave no official in Washington any reason to believe that Israel was planning to attack. Even after the July 12th attack, we did not know what the Israeli plans were.” A Pentagon spokesman said, “The United States government remains committed to a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program,” and denied the story, as did a State Department spokesman.
The United States and Israel have shared intelligence and enjoyed close military coöperation for decades, but early this spring, according to a former senior intelligence official, high-level planners from the U.S. Air Force—under pressure from the White House to develop a war plan for a decisive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities—began consulting with their counterparts in the Israeli Air Force.
“The big question for our Air Force was how to hit a series of hard targets in Iran successfully,” the former senior intelligence official said. “Who is the closest ally of the U.S. Air Force in its planning? It’s not Congo—it’s Israel. Everybody knows that Iranian engineers have been advising Hezbollah on tunnels and underground gun emplacements. And so the Air Force went to the Israelis with some new tactics and said to them, ‘Let’s concentrate on the bombing and share what we have on Iran and what you have on Lebanon.’ ” The discussions reached the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he said.
“The Israelis told us it would be a cheap war with many benefits,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. “Why oppose it? We’ll be able to hunt down and bomb missiles, tunnels, and bunkers from the air. It would be a demo for Iran.”
A Pentagon consultant said that the Bush White House “has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a preëmptive blow against Hezbollah.” He added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.” (As this article went to press, the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution, although it was unclear if it would change the situation on the ground.)
According to Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State in Bush’s first term—and who, in 2002, said that Hezbollah “may be the A team of terrorists”—Israel’s campaign in Lebanon, which has faced unexpected difficulties and widespread criticism, may, in the end, serve as a warning to the White House about Iran. “If the most dominant military force in the region—the Israel Defense Forces—can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of seventy million,” Armitage said. “The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”
Several current and former officials involved in the Middle East told me that Israel viewed the soldiers’ kidnapping as the opportune moment to begin its planned military campaign against Hezbollah. “Hezbollah, like clockwork, was instigating something small every month or two,” the U.S. government consultant with ties to Israel said. Two weeks earlier, in late June, members of Hamas, the Palestinian group, had tunnelled under the barrier separating southern Gaza from Israel and captured an Israeli soldier. Hamas also had lobbed a series of rockets at Israeli towns near the border with Gaza. In response, Israel had initiated an extensive bombing campaign and reoccupied parts of Gaza.
The Pentagon consultant noted that there had also been cross-border incidents involving Israel and Hezbollah, in both directions, for some time. “They’ve been sniping at each other,” he said. “Either side could have pointed to some incident and said ‘We have to go to war with these guys’—because they were already at war.”
David Siegel, the spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said that the Israeli Air Force had not been seeking a reason to attack Hezbollah. “We did not plan the campaign. That decision was forced on us.” There were ongoing alerts that Hezbollah “was pressing to go on the attack,” Siegel said. “Hezbollah attacks every two or three months,” but the kidnapping of the soldiers raised the stakes.
In interviews, several Israeli academics, journalists, and retired military and intelligence officers all made one point: they believed that the Israeli leadership, and not Washington, had decided that it would go to war with Hezbollah. Opinion polls showed that a broad spectrum of Israelis supported that choice. “The neocons in Washington may be happy, but Israel did not need to be pushed, because Israel has been wanting to get rid of Hezbollah,” Yossi Melman, a journalist for the newspaper Ha’aretz, who has written several books about the Israeli intelligence community, said. “By provoking Israel, Hezbollah provided that opportunity.”
“We were facing a dilemma,” an Israeli official said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “had to decide whether to go for a local response, which we always do, or for a comprehensive response—to really take on Hezbollah once and for all.” Olmert made his decision, the official said, only after a series of Israeli rescue efforts failed.
The U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel told me, however, that, from Israel’s perspective, the decision to take strong action had become inevitable weeks earlier, after the Israeli Army’s signals intelligence group, known as Unit 8200, picked up bellicose intercepts in late spring and early summer, involving Hamas, Hezbollah, and Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader now living in Damascus.
One intercept was of a meeting in late May of the Hamas political and military leadership, with Meshal participating by telephone. “Hamas believed the call from Damascus was scrambled, but Israel had broken the code,” the consultant said. For almost a year before its victory in the Palestinian elections in January, Hamas had curtailed its terrorist activities. In the late May intercepted conversation, the consultant told me, the Hamas leadership said that “they got no benefit from it, and were losing standing among the Palestinian population.” The conclusion, he said, was “ ‘Let’s go back into the terror business and then try and wrestle concessions from the Israeli government.’ ” The consultant told me that the U.S. and Israel agreed that if the Hamas leadership did so, and if Nasrallah backed them up, there should be “a full-scale response.” In the next several weeks, when Hamas began digging the tunnel into Israel, the consultant said, Unit 8200 “picked up signals intelligence involving Hamas, Syria, and Hezbollah, saying, in essence, that they wanted Hezbollah to ‘warm up’ the north.” In one intercept, the consultant said, Nasrallah referred to Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz “as seeming to be weak,” in comparison with the former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, who had extensive military experience, and said “he thought Israel would respond in a small-scale, local way, as they had in the past.”
Earlier this summer, before the Hezbollah kidnappings, the U.S. government consultant said, several Israeli officials visited Washington, separately, “to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear.” The consultant added, “Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support and the support of his office and the Middle East desk of the National Security Council.” After that, “persuading Bush was never a problem, and Condi Rice was on board,” the consultant said.
The initial plan, as outlined by the Israelis, called for a major bombing campaign in response to the next Hezbollah provocation, according to the Middle East expert with knowledge of U.S. and Israeli thinking. Israel believed that, by targeting Lebanon’s infrastructure, including highways, fuel depots, and even the civilian runways at the main Beirut airport, it could persuade Lebanon’s large Christian and Sunni populations to turn against Hezbollah, according to the former senior intelligence official. The airport, highways, and bridges, among other things, have been hit in the bombing campaign. The Israeli Air Force had flown almost nine thousand missions as of last week. (David Siegel, the Israeli spokesman, said that Israel had targeted only sites connected to Hezbollah; the bombing of bridges and roads was meant to prevent the transport of weapons.)
The Israeli plan, according to the former senior intelligence official, was “the mirror image of what the United States has been planning for Iran.” (The initial U.S. Air Force proposals for an air attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity, which included the option of intense bombing of civilian infrastructure targets inside Iran, have been resisted by the top leadership of the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, according to current and former officials. They argue that the Air Force plan will not work and will inevitably lead, as in the Israeli war with Hezbollah, to the insertion of troops on the ground.)
Uzi Arad, who served for more than two decades in the Mossad, told me that to the best of his knowledge the contacts between the Israeli and U.S. governments were routine, and that, “in all my meetings and conversations with government officials, never once did I hear anyone refer to prior coördination with the United States.” He was troubled by one issue—the speed with which the Olmert government went to war. “For the life of me, I’ve never seen a decision to go to war taken so speedily,” he said. “We usually go through long analyses.”
The key military planner was Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, the I.D.F. chief of staff, who, during a career in the Israeli Air Force, worked on contingency planning for an air war with Iran. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, and Peretz, a former labor leader, could not match his experience and expertise.
In the early discussions with American officials, I was told by the Middle East expert and the government consultant, the Israelis repeatedly pointed to the war in Kosovo as an example of what Israel would try to achieve. The NATO forces commanded by U.S. Army General Wesley Clark methodically bombed and strafed not only military targets but tunnels, bridges, and roads, in Kosovo and elsewhere in Serbia, for seventy-eight days before forcing Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo. “Israel studied the Kosovo war as its role model,” the government consultant said. “The Israelis told Condi Rice, ‘You did it in about seventy days, but we need half of that—thirty-five days.’ ”
There are, of course, vast differences between Lebanon and Kosovo. Clark, who retired from the military in 2000 and unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for the Presidency in 2004, took issue with the analogy: “If it’s true that the Israeli campaign is based on the American approach in Kosovo, then it missed the point. Ours was to use force to obtain a diplomatic objective—it was not about killing people.” Clark noted in a 2001 book, “Waging Modern War,” that it was the threat of a possible ground invasion as well as the bombing that forced the Serbs to end the war. He told me, “In my experience, air campaigns have to be backed, ultimately, by the will and capability to finish the job on the ground.”
Kosovo has been cited publicly by Israeli officials and journalists since the war began. On August 6th, Prime Minister Olmert, responding to European condemnation of the deaths of Lebanese civilians, said, “Where do they get the right to preach to Israel? European countries attacked Kosovo and killed ten thousand civilians. Ten thousand! And none of these countries had to suffer before that from a single rocket. I’m not saying it was wrong to intervene in Kosovo. But please: don’t preach to us about the treatment of civilians.” (Human Rights Watch estimated the number of civilians killed in the NATO bombing to be five hundred; the Yugoslav government put the number between twelve hundred and five thousand.)
Cheney’s office supported the Israeli plan, as did Elliott Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser, according to several former and current officials. (A spokesman for the N.S.C. denied that Abrams had done so.) They believed that Israel should move quickly in its air war against Hezbollah. A former intelligence officer said, “We told Israel, ‘Look, if you guys have to go, we’re behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later—the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.’ ”
Cheney’s point, the former senior intelligence official said, was “What if the Israelis execute their part of this first, and it’s really successful? It’d be great. We can learn what to do in Iran by watching what the Israelis do in Lebanon.”
The Pentagon consultant told me that intelligence about Hezbollah and Iran is being mishandled by the White House the same way intelligence had been when, in 2002 and early 2003, the Administration was making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “The big complaint now in the intelligence community is that all of the important stuff is being sent directly to the top—at the insistence of the White House—and not being analyzed at all, or scarcely,” he said. “It’s an awful policy and violates all of the N.S.A.’s strictures, and if you complain about it you’re out,” he said. “Cheney had a strong hand in this.”
The long-term Administration goal was to help set up a Sunni Arab coalition—including countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—that would join the United States and Europe to pressure the ruling Shiite mullahs in Iran. “But the thought behind that plan was that Israel would defeat Hezbollah, not lose to it,” the consultant with close ties to Israel said. Some officials in Cheney’s office and at the N.S.C. had become convinced, on the basis of private talks, that those nations would moderate their public criticism of Israel and blame Hezbollah for creating the crisis that led to war. Although they did so at first, they shifted their position in the wake of public protests in their countries about the Israeli bombing. The White House was clearly disappointed when, late last month, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, came to Washington and, at a meeting with Bush, called for the President to intervene immediately to end the war. The Washington Post reported that Washington had hoped to enlist moderate Arab states “in an effort to pressure Syria and Iran to rein in Hezbollah, but the Saudi move . . . seemed to cloud that initiative.”
The surprising strength of Hezbollah’s resistance, and its continuing ability to fire rockets into northern Israel in the face of the constant Israeli bombing, the Middle East expert told me, “is a massive setback for those in the White House who want to use force in Iran. And those who argue that the bombing will create internal dissent and revolt in Iran are also set back.”
Nonetheless, some officers serving with the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain deeply concerned that the Administration will have a far more positive assessment of the air campaign than they should, the former senior intelligence official said. “There is no way that Rumsfeld and Cheney will draw the right conclusion about this,” he said. “When the smoke clears, they’ll say it was a success, and they’ll draw reinforcement for their plan to attack Iran.”
In the White House, especially in the Vice-President’s office, many officials believe that the military campaign against Hezbollah is working and should be carried forward. At the same time, the government consultant said, some policymakers in the Administration have concluded that the cost of the bombing to Lebanese society is too high. “They are telling Israel that it’s time to wind down the attacks on infrastructure.”
Similar divisions are emerging in Israel. David Siegel, the Israeli spokesman, said that his country’s leadership believed, as of early August, that the air war had been successful, and had destroyed more than seventy per cent of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range-missile launching capacity. “The problem is short-range missiles, without launchers, that can be shot from civilian areas and homes,” Siegel told me. “The only way to resolve this is ground operations—which is why Israel would be forced to expand ground operations if the latest round of diplomacy doesn’t work.” Last week, however, there was evidence that the Israeli government was troubled by the progress of the war. In an unusual move, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, Halutz’s deputy, was put in charge of the operation, supplanting Major General Udi Adam. The worry in Israel is that Nasrallah might escalate the crisis by firing missiles at Tel Aviv. “There is a big debate over how much damage Israel should inflict to prevent it,” the consultant said. “If Nasrallah hits Tel Aviv, what should Israel do? Its goal is to deter more attacks by telling Nasrallah that it will destroy his country if he doesn’t stop, and to remind the Arab world that Israel can set it back twenty years. We’re no longer playing by the same rules.”
A European intelligence officer told me, “The Israelis have been caught in a psychological trap. In earlier years, they had the belief that they could solve their problems with toughness. But now, with Islamic martyrdom, things have changed, and they need different answers. How do you scare people who love martyrdom?” The problem with trying to eliminate Hezbollah, the intelligence officer said, is the group’s ties to the Shiite population in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s southern suburbs, where it operates schools, hospitals, a radio station, and various charities.
A high-level American military planner told me, “We have a lot of vulnerability in the region, and we’ve talked about some of the effects of an Iranian or Hezbollah attack on the Saudi regime and on the oil infrastructure.” There is special concern inside the Pentagon, he added, about the oil-producing nations north of the Strait of Hormuz. “We have to anticipate the unintended consequences,” he told me. “Will we be able to absorb a barrel of oil at one hundred dollars? There is this almost comical thinking that you can do it all from the air, even when you’re up against an irregular enemy with a dug-in capability. You’re not going to be successful unless you have a ground presence, but the political leadership never considers the worst case. These guys only want to hear the best case.”
There is evidence that the Iranians were expecting the war against Hezbollah. Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite Muslims and Iran, who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, said, “Every negative American move against Hezbollah was seen by Iran as part of a larger campaign against it. And Iran began to prepare for the showdown by supplying more sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah—anti-ship and anti-tank missiles—and training its fighters in their use. And now Hezbollah is testing Iran’s new weapons. Iran sees the Bush Administration as trying to marginalize its regional role, so it fomented trouble.”
Nasr, an Iranian-American who recently published a study of the Sunni-Shiite divide, entitled “The Shia Revival,” also said that the Iranian leadership believes that Washington’s ultimate political goal is to get some international force to act as a buffer—to physically separate Syria and Lebanon in an effort to isolate and disarm Hezbollah, whose main supply route is through Syria. “Military action cannot bring about the desired political result,” Nasr said. The popularity of Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a virulent critic of Israel, is greatest in his own country. If the U.S. were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Nasr said, “you may end up turning Ahmadinejad into another Nasrallah—the rock star of the Arab street.”
Donald Rumsfeld, who is one of the Bush Administration’s most outspoken, and powerful, officials, has said very little publicly about the crisis in Lebanon. His relative quiet, compared to his aggressive visibility in the run-up to the Iraq war, has prompted a debate in Washington about where he stands on the issue.
Some current and former intelligence officials who were interviewed for this article believe that Rumsfeld disagrees with Bush and Cheney about the American role in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. The U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said that “there was a feeling that Rumsfeld was jaded in his approach to the Israeli war.” He added, “Air power and the use of a few Special Forces had worked in Afghanistan, and he tried to do it again in Iraq. It was the same idea, but it didn’t work. He thought that Hezbollah was too dug in and the Israeli attack plan would not work, and the last thing he wanted was another war on his shift that would put the American forces in Iraq in greater jeopardy.”
A Western diplomat said that he understood that Rumsfeld did not know all the intricacies of the war plan. “He is angry and worried about his troops” in Iraq, the diplomat said. Rumsfeld served in the White House during the last year of the war in Vietnam, from which American troops withdrew in 1975, “and he did not want to see something like this having an impact in Iraq.” Rumsfeld’s concern, the diplomat added, was that an expansion of the war into Iran could put the American troops in Iraq at greater risk of attacks by pro-Iranian Shiite militias.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on August 3rd, Rumsfeld was less than enthusiastic about the war’s implications for the American troops in Iraq. Asked whether the Administration was mindful of the war’s impact on Iraq, he testified that, in his meetings with Bush and Condoleezza Rice, “there is a sensitivity to the desire to not have our country or our interests or our forces put at greater risk as a result of what’s taking place between Israel and Hezbollah. . . . There are a variety of risks that we face in that region, and it’s a difficult and delicate situation.”
The Pentagon consultant dismissed talk of a split at the top of the Administration, however, and said simply, “Rummy is on the team. He’d love to see Hezbollah degraded, but he also is a voice for less bombing and more innovative Israeli ground operations.” The former senior intelligence official similarly depicted Rumsfeld as being “delighted that Israel is our stalking horse.”
There are also questions about the status of Condoleezza Rice. Her initial support for the Israeli air war against Hezbollah has reportedly been tempered by dismay at the effects of the attacks on Lebanon. The Pentagon consultant said that in early August she began privately “agitating” inside the Administration for permission to begin direct diplomatic talks with Syria—so far, without much success. Last week, the Times reported that Rice had directed an Embassy official in Damascus to meet with the Syrian foreign minister, though the meeting apparently yielded no results. The Times also reported that Rice viewed herself as “trying to be not only a peacemaker abroad but also a mediator among contending parties” within the Administration. The article pointed to a divide between career diplomats in the State Department and “conservatives in the government,” including Cheney and Abrams, “who were pushing for strong American support for Israel.”
The Western diplomat told me his embassy believes that Abrams has emerged as a key policymaker on Iran, and on the current Hezbollah-Israeli crisis, and that Rice’s role has been relatively diminished. Rice did not want to make her most recent diplomatic trip to the Middle East, the diplomat said. “She only wanted to go if she thought there was a real chance to get a ceasefire.”
Bush’s strongest supporter in Europe continues to be British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but many in Blair’s own Foreign Office, as a former diplomat said, believe that he has “gone out on a particular limb on this”—especially by accepting Bush’s refusal to seek an immediate and total ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. “Blair stands alone on this,” the former diplomat said. “He knows he’s a lame duck who’s on the way out, but he buys it”—the Bush policy. “He drinks the White House Kool-Aid as much as anybody in Washington.” The crisis will really start at the end of August, the diplomat added, “when the Iranians”—under a United Nations deadline to stop uranium enrichment—“will say no.”
Even those who continue to support Israel’s war against Hezbollah agree that it is failing to achieve one of its main goals—to rally the Lebanese against Hezbollah. “Strategic bombing has been a failed military concept for ninety years, and yet air forces all over the world keep on doing it,” John Arquilla, a defense analyst at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me. Arquilla has been campaigning for more than a decade, with growing success, to change the way America fights terrorism. “The warfare of today is not mass on mass,” he said. “You have to hunt like a network to defeat a network. Israel focussed on bombing against Hezbollah, and, when that did not work, it became more aggressive on the ground. The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result.”
By URI AVNERY
14 August 2006
So what has happened to the Israeli army?
This question is now being raised not only around the world, but also in Israel itself. Clearly, there is a huge gap between the army's boastful arrogance, on which generations of Israelis have grown up, and the picture presented by this war.
Before the choir of generals utters their expected cries of being stabbed in the back--"The government has shackled our hands! The politicians did not allow the army to win! The political leadership is to blame for everything!"--it is worthwhile to examine this war from a professional military point of view.
(It is, perhaps, appropriate to interject at this point a personal remark. Who am I to speak about strategic matters? What am I, a general? Well--I was 16 years old when World War II broke out. I decided then to study military theory in order to be able to follow events. I read a few hundred books--from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz to Liddel-Hart and on. Later, in the 1948 war, I saw the other side of the medal, as a soldier and squad-leader. I have written two books on the war. That does not make me a great strategist, but it does allow me to voice an informed opinion.)
The facts speak for themselves:
* On the 32nd day of the war, Hizbullah is still standing and fighting. That by itself is a stunning feat: a small guerilla organization, with a few thousand fighters, is standing up to one of the strongest armies in the world and has not been broken after a month of "pulverizing". Since 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan have repeatedly been beaten in wars that were much shorter.
As I have already said: if a light-weight boxer is fighting a heavy-weight champion and is still standing in the 12th round, the victory is his--whatever the count of points says.
* In the test of results--the only one that counts in war--the strategic and tactical command of Hizbullah is decidedly better than that of our own army. All along, our army's strategy has been primitive, brutal and unsophisticated.
* Clearly, Hizbullah has prepared well for this war--while the Israeli command has prepared for a quite different war.
* On the level of individual fighters, the Hizbullah are not inferior to our soldiers, neither in bravery nor in initiative.
* * *
THE MAIN guilt for the failure belongs with General Dan Halutz. I say "guilt" and not merely "responsibility", which comes with the job.
He is living proof of the fact that an inflated ego and a brutal attitude are not enough to create a competent Chief-of-Staff. The opposite may be true.
Halutz gained fame (or notoriety) when he was asked what he feels when he drops a one-ton bomb on a residential quarter and answered: "a slight bang on the wing." He added that afterwards he sleeps well at night. (In the same interview he also called me and my friends "traitors" who should be prosecuted.)
Now it is already clear--again, in the test of results--that Dan Halutz is the worst Chief-of-Staff in the annals of the Israeli army, a completely incompetent officer for his job.
Recently he has changed his blue Air-Force uniform for the green one of the land army. Too late.
Halutz started this war with the bluster of an Air-Force officer. He believed that it was possible to crush Hizbullah by aerial bombardment, supplemented by artillery shelling from land and sea. He believed that if he destroyed the towns, neighborhoods, roads and ports of Lebanon, the Lebanese people would rise and compel their government to remove Hizbullah. For a week he killed and devastated, until it became clear to everybody that this method achieves the opposite--strengthens Hizbullah, weakens its opponents within Lebanon and throughout the Arab world and destroys the world-wide sympathy Israel enjoyed at the beginning of the war.
When he reached this point, Halutz did not know what to do next. For three weeks he sent his soldiers into Lebanon on senseless and hopeless missions, gaining nothing. Even in the battles that were fought in villages right on the border, no significant victories were achieved. After the fourth week, when he was requested to submit a plan to the government, it was unbelievably primitive.
If the "enemy" had been a regular army, it would have been a bad plan. Just pushing the enemy back is hardly a strategy at all. But when the other side is a guerilla force, this is simply foolish. It may cause the death of many soldiers, for no practical result.
Now he is trying to achieve a token victory, occupying empty space as far from the border as possible, after the UN has already called for an end to the hostilities. (As in almost all previous Israeli wars, this call is being ignored, in the hope of snatching some gains at the last moment.) Behind this line, Hizbullah remains intact in their bunkers.
* * *
HOWEVER, THE Chief-of-Staff does not act in a vacuum. As Commander-in-Chief he has indeed a huge influence, but he is also merely the top of the military pyramid.
This war casts a dark shadow on the whole upper echelon of our army. I assume that there are some talented officers, but the general picture is of a senior officers corps that is mediocre or worse, grey and unoriginal. Almost all the many officers that have appeared on TV are unimpressive, uninspiring professionals, experts on covering their behinds, repeating empty clichés like parrots.
The ex-generals, who have been crowding out everybody else in the TV and radio studios, have also mostly surprised us with their mediocrity, limited intelligence and general ignorance. One gets the impression that they have not read books on military history, and fill the void with empty phrases.
More than once it has been said in this column that an army that has been acting for many years as a colonial police force against the Palestinian population--"terrorists", women and children--and spending its time running after stone-throwing boys, cannot remain an efficient army. The test of results confirms this.
* * *
AS AFTER every failure of our military, the intelligence community is quick to cover its ass. Their chiefs declare that they knew everything, that they provided the troops with full and accurate information, that they are not to blame if the army did not act on it.
That does not sound reasonable. Judging from the reactions of the commanders in the field, they clearly were completely unaware of the defense system built by Hizbullah in South Lebanon. The complex infrastructure of hidden bunkers, stocked with modern equipment and stockpiles of food and weapons was a complete surprise for the army. It was not ready for these bunkers, including those built two or three kilometers from the border. They are reminiscent of the tunnels in Vietnam.
The intelligence community has also been corrupted by the long occupation of the Palestinian territories. They have got used to relying on the thousands of collaborators that have been recruited in the course of 39 years by torture, bribery and extortion (junkies needing drugs, someone begging to be allowed to visit his dying mother, someone desiring a chunk from the cake of corruption, etc.) Clearly, no collaborators were found among the Hizbullah, and without them intelligence is blind.
It is also clear that Intelligence, and the army in general, was not ready for the deadly efficiency of Hizbullah's anti-tank weapons. Hard to believe, but according to official figures, more than 20 tanks were hit.
The Merkava ("carriage") tank is the pride of the army. Its father, General Israel Tal, a victorious tank general, did not want only to build the world's most advanced tank, but also a tank that provided its crew with the best possible protection. Now it appears that an anti-tank weapon from the late 1980s that is available in large quantities, can disable the tank, killing or grievously wounding the soldiers inside.
* * *
THE COMMON denominator of all the failures is the disdain for Arabs, a contempt that has dire consequences. It has caused total misunderstanding, a kind of blindness of Hizbullah's motives, attitudes, standing in Lebanese society etc.
I am convinced that today's soldiers are in no way inferior to their predecessors. Their motivation is high, they have shown great bravery in the evacuation of the wounded under fire. (I very much appreciate that in particular, since my own life was saved by soldiers who risked theirs to get me out under fire when I was wounded.) But the best soldiers cannot succeed when the command is incompetent.
History teaches that defeat can be a great blessing for an army. A victorious army rests on its laurels, it has no motive for self-criticism, it degenerates, its commanders become careless and lose the next war. (see: the Six-day war leading to the Yom Kippur war). A defeated army, on the other side, knows that it must rehabilitate itself. On one condition: that it admits defeat.
After this war, the Chief-of-Staff must be dismissed and the senior officer corps overhauled. For that, a Minister of Defense is needed who is not a marionette of the Chief-of-Staff. (But that concerns the political leadership, about whose failures and sins we shall speak another time.)
We, as people of peace, have a great interest in changing the military leadership. First, because it has a huge impact on the forming of policy and, as we just saw, irresponsible commanders can easily drag the government into dangerous adventures. And second, because even after achieving peace we shall need an efficient army--at least until the wolf lies down with the lamb, as the prophet Isaiah promised. (And not in the Israeli version: "No problem. One only has to bring a new lamb every day.")
* * *
THE MAIN lesson of the war, beyond all military analysis, lies in the five words we inscribed on our banner from the very first day: "There is no military solution!"
Even a strong army cannot defeat a guerilla organization, because the guerilla is a political phenomenon. Perhaps the opposite is true: the stronger the army, the better equipped with advanced technology, the smaller are its chances of winning such a confrontation. Our conflict--in the North, the Center and the South--is a political conflict, and can only be resolved by political means. The army is the instrument worst suited for that.
The war has proved that Hizbullah is a strong opponent, and any political solution in the North must include it. Since Syria is its strong ally, it must also be included. The settlement must be worthwhile for them too, otherwise it will not last.
The price is the return of the Golan Heights.
What is true in the North is also true in the South. The army will not defeat the Palestinians, because such a victory is altogether impossible. For the good of the army, it must be extricated from the quagmire.
If that now enters the consciousness of the Israeli public, something good may yet have come out of this war.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
14 August 2006
The real war in Lebanon begins today. The world may believe - and Israel may believe - that the UN ceasefire due to come into effect at 6am today will mark the beginning of the end of the latest dirty war in Lebanon after up to 1,000 Lebanese civilians and more than 30 Israeli civilians have been killed. But the reality is quite different and will suffer no such self-delusion: the Israeli army, reeling under the Hizbollah’s onslaught of the past 24 hours, is now facing the harshest guerrilla war in its history. And it is a war they may well lose.
In all, at least 39 - possibly 43 - Israeli soldiers have been killed in the past day as Hizbollah guerrillas, still launching missiles into Israel itself, have fought back against Israel’s massive land invasion into Lebanon.
Israeli military authorities talked of “cleaning” and “mopping up” operations by their soldiers south of the Litani river but, to the Lebanese, it seems as if it is the Hizbollah that have been doing the “mopping up”. By last night, the Israelis had not even been able to reach the dead crew of a helicopter - shot down on Saturday night - which crashed into a Lebanese valley.
Officially, Israel has now accepted the UN ceasefire that calls for an end to all Israeli offensive military operations and Hizbollah attacks, and the Hizbollah have stated that they will abide by the ceasefire - providing no Israeli troops remain inside Lebanon. But 10,000 Israeli soldiers - the Israelis even suggest 30,000, although no one in Beirut takes that seriously - have now entered the country and every one of them is a Hizbollah target.
From this morning, Hizbollah’s operations will be directed solely against the invasion force. And the Israelis cannot afford to lose 40 men a day. Unable to shoot down the Israeli F-16 aircraft that have laid waste to much of Lebanon, the Hizbollah have, for years, prayed and longed and waited for the moment when they could attack the Israeli army on the ground.
Now they are set to put their long-planned campaign into operation. Thousands of their members remain alive and armed in the ruined hill villages of southern Lebanon for just this moment and, only hours after their leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, warned Israel on Saturday that his men were waiting for them on the banks of the Litani river, the Hizbollah sprang their trap, killing more than 20 Israeli soldiers in less than three hours.
Israel itself, according to reports from Washington and New York, had long planned its current campaign against Lebanon - provoked by Hizbollah’s crossing of the Israeli frontier, its killing of three soldiers and seizure of two others on 12 July - but the Israelis appear to have taken no account of the guerrilla army’s most obvious operational plan: that if they could endure days of air attacks, they would eventually force Israel’s army to re-enter Lebanon on the ground and fight them on equal terms.
Hizbollah’s laser-guided missiles - Iranian-made, just as most Israeli arms are US-made - appear to have caused havoc among Israeli troops on Saturday, and their downing of an Israeli helicopter was without precedent in their long war against Israel.
In theory, aid convoys will be able to move south today to the thousands of Lebanese Shia trapped in their villages but no one knows whether the Hizbollah will wait for several days - they, like the Israelis, are physically tired - to allow that help to reach the crushed towns.
Atrocities continue across Lebanon, the most recent being the attack on a convoy of cars carrying 600 Christian families from the southern town of Marjayoun. Led by soldiers of the Lebanese army, they trailed north on Saturday up the Bekaa valley only to be assaulted by Israeli aircraft. At least seven were killed, including the wife of the mayor, a Christian woman who was decapitated by a missile that hit her car.
In west Beirut yesterday, the Israeli air force destroyed eight apartment blocks in which six families were living. Twelve civilians were killed in southern Lebanon, including a mother, her children and their housemaid.
An Israeli was killed by Hizballoh’s continued Katyusha fire across the border. The guerrilla army - “terrorists” to the Israelis and Americans but increasingly heroes across the Muslim world - have many dead to avenge, although their leadership seems less interested in exacting an eye for an eye and far more eager to strike at Israel’s army.
At this fatal juncture in Middle East history - and no one should underestimate this moment’s importance in the region - the Israeli army appears as impotent to protect its country as the Hizbollah clearly is to protect Lebanon.
But if the ceasefire collapses, as seems certain, neither the Israelis nor the Americans appear to have any plans to escape the consequences. The US saw this war as an opportunity to humble Hizbollah’s Iranian and Syrian sponsors but already it seems as if the tables have been turned. The Israeli military appears to be efficient at destroying bridges, power stations, gas stations and apartment blocks - but signally inefficient in crushing the “terrorist” army they swore to liquidate.
“The Lebanese government is our address for every problem or violation of the [ceasefire] agreement,” Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday, as if realising the truce would not hold.
And that, of course, provides yet another excuse for Israel to attack the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon.
Far more worrying, however, are the vague terms of the UN Security Council’s resolution on the multinational force supposed to occupy land between the Israeli border and the Litani river.
For if the Israelis and the Hizbollah are at war across the south over the coming weeks, what country will dare send its troops into the jungle that southern Lebanon will have become?
Tragically, and fatally for all involved,
the real Lebanon war does indeed begin today.
6 August 2006
“The defeat of Hezbollah would be a huge loss for Iran, both psychologically and strategically. Iran would lose its foothold in Lebanon. It would lose its major means to destabilize and inject itself into the heart of the Middle East. It would be shown to have vastly overreached in trying to establish itself as the regional superpower. The United States has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win and for all this to happen. It has counted on Israel’s ability to do the job. It has been disappointed. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has provided unsteady and uncertain leadership.... His search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America’s confidence in Israel as well.” Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, August 4, 2006
“But the administration now has to admit what anyone — including myself — who believed in the importance of getting Iraq right has to admit: Whether for Bush reasons or Arab reasons, it is not happening, and we can’t throw more good lives after good lives.... But second best is leaving Iraq. Because the worst option — the one Iran loves — is for us to stay in Iraq, bleeding, and in easy range to be hit by Iran if we strike its nukes.... We need to deal with Iran and Syria, but from a position of strength — and that requires a broad coalition. The longer we maintain a unilateral failing strategy in Iraq, the harder it will be to build such a coalition, and the stronger the enemies of freedom will become.” Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 4, 2006
Everyday that passes shows more of those who enthusiastically supported the Bush administration’s imperial drive in the Middle East leaving its sinking ship. There can be no doubt any longer that what many had forecast long ago is proving absolutely true: the Bush administration will definitely go down in history as the clumsiest crew that ever stood at the helm of the American Empire.
Bush and his cronies have already secured their position in the collective memory as the grave-diggers of U.S. post-Cold War imperial ambitions: they have accomplished the incomparable feat of squandering the exceptionally favorable conditions that U.S. imperialism faced since the other world colossus started crumbling from 1989 on. They have wasted the unique window of opportunity that the same Krauthammer quoted above had called in 1990 the “unipolar moment.” But they have wasted it because they were inspired by precisely the same imperial hubris that has distinguished the likes of Krauthammer and Friedman.
The lead-article in a recent issue of Time magazine, published before the start of Israel’s new Lebanon war, heralded “the end of cowboy diplomacy” — it took note of the obvious fact that “the Bush Doctrine foundered in the principal place the U.S. tried to apply it”:
“Though no one in the White House openly questions Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, some aides now acknowledge that it has come at a steep cost in military resources, public support and credibility abroad. The Administration is paying the bill every day as it tries to cope with other crises. Pursuing the forward-leaning foreign policy envisioned in the Bush Doctrine is nearly impossible at a time when the U.S. is trying to figure out how to extricate itself from Iraq. Around the world, both the U.S.’s friends and its adversaries are taking note — and in many cases, taking advantage — of the strains on the superpower. If the toppling of Saddam Hussein marked the high-water mark of U.S. hegemony, the past three years have witnessed a steady erosion in Washington’s ability to bend the world to its will.”
The authors’ most serious grievance was stated as follows:
“As it turns out, Iraq may prove to be not only the first but also the last laboratory for preventive war. Instead of deterring the rulers in Tehran and Pyongyang, the travails of the U.S. occupation may have emboldened those regimes in their quest to obtain nuclear weapons while constraining the U.S. military’s ability to deter them.”
This very bitter assessment was accompanied in the Time article by the same hope that was shared by the large chorus of U.S. allies, protégés and clients: for all of them, with the outstanding exception of the Israeli government, the fact that the most prominent neocons of the Bush administration have been pushed aside nurtured the hope that a new salutary course of the administration’s foreign policy was in gestation. The reshuffle that went along with George W. Bush’s second term, despite the exit of realist-in-chief Colin Powell who, anyway, had quite limited influence on the administration, seemed indeed to confirm the “twilight of the neocons” that some Clintonites had announced two years ago.
However, what the Time authors announced as marking the end of “cowboy diplomacy” — “a strategic makeover is evident in the ascendancy of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice” — proved to be no more than wishful thinking almost as soon as it was printed, in light of the events that unfolded subsequently as Israel launched its most brutal aggression. Cowboy diplomacy, it turned out, had just been replaced with cowgirl diplomacy — essentially the same.
True, Condoleezza Rice did her best to put some make-up on the face of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but there was no significant shift in substance. A pillar of this administration since its inception, she shares the same delusions of grandeur and folly of overreaching designs that characterize the rest of the team. Put in charge of the State department for Bush’s second term, Rice’s mission consisted primarily in sealing off the many leaks in the administration’s foreign policy ship: it was indeed a mission impossible. The ship is sinking inexorably in the dark waters of the Iraqi oil slick.
The U.S. “hyperpower” that is able to knock down any other regular army on earth — the hyperpower whose military expenditure exceeds that of the 200+ states that constitute the rest of the world, and whose military budget alone exceeds the GDP of all other countries but for 14 of them — proved one more time in contemporary history that it is unable to control rebellious populations. For that, all the sophisticated killing gadgetry that the Pentagon possesses is of very limited help. Controlling populations involves troops: it is a kind of industry where labour-force can hardly be replaced with hardware. That is why, incidentally, dictatorships are relatively more at ease in this business, as they can mobilize at will from their populations and don’t fear paying a high price in soldiers’ lives.
The U.S. proved unable to control Vietnam with a much higher rate of occupation troops to inhabitants than is the case in Iraq. And yet, U.S. military power is today much greater than at the time of Vietnam in all respects except the one that is most crucial for occupation endeavours: troops. The number of U.S. troops has been radically cut since Vietnam and the end of the Cold War. Inspired by a spirit typical of the capitalism of the automation age, the Pentagon believed that it could make up for the unreliability of human resources by depending heavily on sophisticated weaponry — the so-called “revolution in military affairs.” It thus entered in the age of “post-heroic” wars as they were aptly called by a maverick analyst of military affairs. And, it did not take much trouble indeed for the U.S. to defeat “post-heroically” the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. Controlling the Iraqi population “post-heroically,” however, proved an altogether different challenge.
The U.S. has been steadily losing control over Iraq ever since the occupation settled down in 2003. It was confronted, on the one hand, by the unfolding of an armed insurgency in the country’s Arab Sunni areas that proved impossible to quench with the limited number of U.S. occupation troops available. For, if an invading army is not capable of exerting control over every single acre of inhabited territory as local armed forces usually do, there is only one secure way to get rid of an armed insurgency moving within its popular constituency “like a fish in water” as Mao Zedong once put it: drain the pool. This means either to commit genocide, as the Russian army has started to do in Chechnya, or to displace the population into concentration camps, or a combination of the two as the U.S. tentatively practiced in Vietnam, but could not carry to conclusion because the American population wouldn’t have tolerated it.
In Iraq, Washington was faced, on the other hand, by a much graver problem, one that became clear by the beginning of 2004: the Bush administration had been induced — by its own foolishness and the sales patter of some of the Pentagon’s Iraqi friends or the stupid delusions of others — into believing that it could win the sympathy of a major chunk of Iraq’s majority community, the Arab Shiites. This proved a total disaster as the clout of Iran-friendly Shiite fundamentalist organizations completely dwarfed whatever constituency Washington’s henchmen could buy among Iraq’s Shiites. The Bush administration was left with no alternative for its imperial design but the classical recipe of “divide and rule,” trying to foster antagonism between the three main components of the Iraqi population, countering the Shiites with Arab Sunni forces in alliance with the Kurds. It ended up fuelling Iraq’s slide toward a civil war, thus aggravating the overall spectacle of its failure in controlling the country.
There is no doubt that the way in which the American Gulliver got tied down by the Iraqi Lilliputians has considerably emboldened Iran, the other Middle Eastern pillar of what George W. Bush labelled the “axis of evil” at the onset of his post-9/11 war drive. The utterly defiant, nay provocative, attitude of Iran against the U.S. colossus was made possible only because the latter proved in Iraq to stand on feet of clay. And Tehran countered successfully the attempt by Washington’s Arab clients to expand the sectarian feud from Iraq to the rest of the Arab region so as to isolate the Iranian regime as Shiite — a ploy that was used with some measure of success after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Tehran countered it by outbidding all the Arab regimes in hostility to Israel, thus building up its image as a champion of the pan-Islamic cause.
A key to Tehran’s success is the alliance that it weaved with Hamas, the most popular embodiment of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. This alliance was enhanced when the largest section of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch), the Egyptian section, came out openly in support of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s provocative anti-Israel statements. Hamas’s accession to power through the January 2006 Palestinian election dealt a further blow to Washington’s regional strategy. Tehran jubilated, outbidding again all its Arab rivals in supporting the new Palestinian government. It is at this point that Israel stepped in, seen from Washington as the likely saviour of what otherwise is looking more and more like an imperial Titanic.
One more time in four decades of strategic alliance between the U.S. sponsor and the Israeli champion, Washington, still believing in the Israelis’ old reputation of infallible know-how in dealing with their Arab foes, unleashed its favourite proxy against those that it deemed to be Iran’s proxies, namely Hamas and Hezbollah. What the Bush administration has overlooked, however, is that Israel’s reputation had already been very much eroded by its blatant failure in controlling the 1967-occupied Palestinian territories, and even more so by its Saigon-like withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, after 18 years of occupation. Israel has already met its own Vietnam in Lebanon.
And like the Pentagon after Vietnam, Israel’s war planners have shifted since Lebanon to a “post-heroic military policy,” relying much more on their very much superior hardware than on their ground troops’ fighting capability. When it invaded Lebanon in 1982, Israel was chiefly fighting the PLO guerrillas: in Lebanon, these were anything but “fish in water” as they had managed to alienate the Lebanese population through arrogant and clumsy behaviour. The Lebanese resistance that gathered momentum from 1982 onward, and in which Hezbollah came to play the major role, was a completely different story: this was the Israeli army’s first encounter with a truly popular armed resistance with lines of supplies on a terrain adequate for guerrilla warfare. Israel faced the same dilemma described above with regard to Iraq and, like the U.S. in Vietnam, it was compelled to swallow the bitter cup of a withdrawal that was tantamount to defeat.
Israel’s belief in the invincibility of its superior weaponry — with a hubris that was enhanced by the amateurship in military affairs of Olmert and Peretz, the present captains of its crew — led the Israelis to believe that they could force the Hezbollah into capitulation, or push the Lebanese to the brink of a new civil war, by taking the whole of Lebanon hostage, destroying the country’s civilian infrastructure and pouring on its Shiite-populated areas a deluge of bombs. Israel deliberately flattened whole neighbourhoods and villages on a pattern that resembles some of the bombings of WW2 — or a Fallujah on a much larger scale, and accordingly much more visible. Israel’s new war on Lebanon displayed the murderous fury of an act of revenge against the only population that managed to oblige it to withdraw unconditionally from an occupied territory.
The criminal behavior of the Israeli armed forces in Lebanon, with regard to the international conventions defining what constitute war crimes, went beyond those that the U.S. perpetrated on a mass scale in its post-Vietnam military endeavors, whether in Iraq or in former Yugoslavia. In this, Israel’s onslaught on Lebanon amounted to a peculiar instance of the so-called “extraordinary rendition” policy. It is well-known how Washington has handed over individuals it wants “interrogated” well beyond the limitation imposed by U.S. legislative constraints to those among its clients who face no hindrance in the dirty business of torture. Now Washington has entrusted to Israel the task of defeating Hezbollah, seen as a major piece in a regional counter-offensive against Iran, in the hope that Israel could do the dirty work and accomplish the task without incurring much trouble.
Shamelessly exploiting one more time the horrible memory of the Nazi judeocide — an exploitation which reached new peaks in indecency on the occasion of the ongoing war — Israel’s leaders believed that they would thus be able to deflect any criticism from the Western powers a.k.a. “the international community.” And although the resources for this exploitation are unmistakably depleting with every new threshold in brutality that Israel crosses, it is still effective indeed: any other state in the world that would have attacked a neighboring country, deliberately committing war crimes concentrated in time in the way Israel is doing in Lebanon would have brought upon itself an outcry of a magnitude that bears no relation to the faint or timid reproaches made to Israel on the theme that it is overdoing it.
But for all that, Israel’s brutal aggression was not able to succeed. On the contrary, it has already proved to be what Ze’ev Sternhell described somewhat euphemistically as Israel’s “most unsuccessful war” concluding with this bitter statement:
“It is frightening to think that those who decided to embark on the present war did not even dream of its outcome and its destructive consequences in almost every possible realm, of the political and psychological damage, the serious blow to the government’s credibility, and yes — the killing of children in vain. The cynicism being demonstrated by government spokesmen, official and otherwise, including several military correspondents, in the face of the disaster suffered by the Lebanese, amazes even someone who has long since lost many of his youthful illusions.”
Far from inducing civil war between the Lebanese, Israel’s brutal aggression only succeeded so far in uniting them in a common resentment against its murderous brutality. Far from forcing Hezbollah into surrender, it turned the Shiite fundamentalist organization into the most prestigious foe Israel ever had since it defeated Egypt in 1967, transforming Hezbollah’s chief Nasrallah into the most popular Arab hero since Nasser. Far from facilitating the efforts by Washington and its Arab clients to drive the wedge further between Sunnis and Shiites, it led many prominent mainstream Sunni preachers to proclaim open support to Hezbollah, including preachers from within the Saudi kingdom — the ultimate humiliation for the Saudi ruling family. The Iraqis unanimously denounced the Israeli aggression, while Washington’s most formidable Iraqi foe and Tehran’s ally, Moqtada al-Sadr, seized the opportunity to organize another huge demonstration matching the one he organized against the occupation on April 9, 2005.
At the time of writing, Washington is still striving to buy Israel some more time by imposing unacceptable conditions for a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. And Israeli generals, faced with the total failure of their “post-heroic” bombing campaign, are engaged in a race against the clock in order to grasp, through an utterly destructive “post-heroic” ground offensive, as much as possible of southern Lebanese territory at the lowest possible cost in Israeli soldiers’ lives.
But the most they can realistically expect now is to hand back this territory to an international force that would be accepted by Hezbollah. French President Jacques Chirac himself, though he’s been Washington’s close collaborator on the issue of Lebanon since 2004, has emphasized that Hezbollah’s concurrence is a condition that must be met. No country on earth, to be sure, is willing to try to accomplish in Lebanon the mission that Israel itself is unable to fulfil. And the Shiite organization has already stated that it won’t accept any force with a mandate going substantially beyond that of the already existing UNIFIL that Israel considers as a nuisance.
Whatever the final outcome of the ongoing war on Lebanon, one thing is already clear: instead of helping in raising the sinking ship of the U.S. Empire, the Israeli rescue boat has actually aggravated the shipwreck, and is currently being dragged down with it.
Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and
teaches political science at the University of Paris-VIII. His best-selling
book The Clash of Barbarisms just came out in a second expanded edition
and a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, Perilous
Power, is forthcoming.