Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Israel in Lebanon: Goals, prospects, and “reasonableness”

Like pretty much everyone in Israel, I’ve had Lebanon on my mind for the last few weeks. After all, we’re at war up there – even if my own life, so far, has been remarkably unchanged by the fighting. Judging by the questions I’ve received through, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has been on the minds of a lot of other people as well.

The question below is a fairly typical one, as is my answer. Many of the topics raised deserve much longer responses; in particular, I’ve been considering writing something about the controversy over the “proportionality” of Israel’s military response to Hezbollah.

Question: What is it going to take for the fighting to stop and for a reasonable solution to be put into place?  I understand Israel’s goals, but can they be met anytime soon?  I’m also concerned that Israel is creating so many collateral enemies through all of this that she is going to be left with very few allies.  What are the chances of Syria and/or Iran becoming directly involved in the war at this point?  Do the citizens of Israel need to be concerned about attacks from the east?

Answer: Dear I_____ –

Good questions! I’ll deal with them (or attempt to do so) in order:

1) At this point, I’d predict that fighting will stop when the U.N. Security Council manages to come up with a resolution that more-or-less forces it to stop; or perhaps, less likely, when the U.S. or some other non-U.N. entity comes up with a cease-fire formula that both sides can agree to. I don’t think that Israel is going to be able to achieve a conventional victory over Hezbollah in the time available, largely since the organization is not going to stay in place and let itself be defeated.

Guerilla organizations are notoriously difficult to defeat: rather than fight pitched battles and lose against larger conventional forces, they cut and run, regroup, and maintain their existence to fight another day. At the same time, there will be no Lebanese Dien Bien Phu: the Israel Defense Forces, while they may not be able to deal Hezbollah a decisive defeat, will not themselves be beaten. At the end of the day, Hezbollah will be severely damaged but still standing; the IDF will go home with no more than minor bruises (relatively speaking, of course); and the Lebanese mess will enter its next phase without any real resolution.

Is that “reasonable”? Not really, and I’d certainly love for my prediction to prove to be incorrect and overly pessimistic. Some “reasonableness” would be a very welcome thing around here! What would it take to obtain a truly “reasonable” resolution? Probably a miracle or three.

2) Right now, it’s hard for me to imagine how Israel’s full goals can be met in the near future. There are simply too many players in the Middle East with an interest in preventing a peaceful resolution to the various parts of the over-all Arab-Israeli (and Iranian-Israeli) conflict, and not enough international powers will back Israel strongly enough for us to be able to force all the Arab/Islamic world to recognize our existence and cease sponsoring attacks on us. A more achievable goal would be for Israel to prove (yet again) that it is capable of defending itself, willing to do so, and unwilling to pay an exorbitant price for liberating Israeli prisoners. (Past Israeli governments have erred badly, in my opinion, in their negotiations for the return of living and dead Israelis in enemy hands.)

3) I’m not at all sure that Israel is creating a lot of enemies who didn’t hate us already. Who, after all, were our “allies”? The United States, Micronesia, and that’s about it. The rest of the world has always been ready to condemn us for anything we do in our own defense, not to mention the occasional things we do that actually deserve condemnation. Of course, it’s sad that in pursuit of Hezbollah’s fighters, installations, and materiel we unavoidably kill a lot of Lebanese noncombatants; it’s equally true that Hezbollah very deliberately set things up so that this was our only option other than simply to absorb their attacks without mounting a meaningful defense.

According to the Geneva Conventions and related elements of “international law”, the onus for Lebanese noncombatant fatalities is on Hezbollah, and not on Israel – as long as we are attacking what we believe to be genuine military targets, with levels of force that we believe to be necessary, reasonable, and proportional to the military importance of the target. While our results have not always been perfect (nobody’s are), I believe that Israel has held quite well to this standard.

Of course, most of the rest of the world completely misunderstands (through ignorance or through malice) the concept of proportionality, and thus compares Israeli fatalities with Lebanese fatalities (or Hezbollah fighters killed with Lebanese civilians killed). By such an unrealistic and irrational “proportionality” standard, Israel obviously comes off as the bad guy; but we have no option but to defend ourselves according to the requirements of genuine international law, not according to the bowdlerized version promulgated by our critics.

4) Neither Syria nor Iran is in any hurry to become directly involved in fighting with Israel; nor is Israel especially interested in fighting a shooting war with either of these countries until and unless it becomes absolutely necessary. Iran, in particular, has evidently drawn some “red lines” for Hezbollah – withholding permission for the organization to use their Iranian-made long-range missiles to attack cities in central Israel. This shows that Iran is looking to limit its direct involvement in the current war. When and if any Iranian Revolutionary Guards are killed in the fighting in Lebanon, I fully expect them to receive posthumous Lebanese citizenship with a name-change thrown in at no extra charge.

Of course, any time armies of hostile countries are mobilized, on alert, and positioned near their respective borders, there is a chance that some mishap will lead to fighting even if neither side intended for war to break out. This means that there is a real, if slight, chance that we will wind up fighting Syria; but I would assume, given past history and current intentions and interests, that both Syria and Israel will make every effort to keep the fighting contained inside Lebanon even if a bullet or two goes astray. (Iran, of course, is far enough away that an accidental war is pretty much impossible – unless a few Israeli F-15’s happen to get lost, accidentally get refueled by an equally misdirected airborne tanker, and mistakenly bomb Iran’s nuclear complex at Isfahan in an effort to improve their fuel economy by shedding excess payload.)

5) I assume that by “the east” you mean Iran and/or Syria, rather than Jordan. As I’ve said above, I don’t think either Syria or Iran (and especially not Jordan, for that matter) is looking for open conflict with Israel at this point.

Syria, while it has a substantial military and some non-conventional (chemical and perhaps biological) weapons capability, has a lot of vulnerabilities as well: Its tanks and planes are old and outmoded, and its minority-led government might well not survive any significant military reverses. Accordingly, I would expect Syria to stick to its historical pattern of instigating conflicts but not doing a lot of actual fighting.

Iran is a long way from Israel. While they can certainly annoy us by sponsoring Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, the only way they could pose a real threat to us would be to acquire or develop nuclear weapons and long-distance delivery systems. I would certainly say that a degree of Israeli (and global) “concern” about this possibility is warranted!

Israel is believed to have significant deterrent capability, including (so it is rumored) submarine-based second-strike nuclear weapons. The problem, of course, is that even such deterrence may not work against Iran’s extreme Shi’ite leaders, who seem to have something of a penchant for “martyrdom”; President Ahmadinejad and those who think as he does might be willing to absorb a massive nuclear attack on their own country in exchange for destroying Israel (and with it, inevitably, most of Palestine). I would hate to stake my life on my ability to predict the whims of Iran’s mullahs and their adherents; and yet (as I live in Israel and work in Tel Aviv) it appears that I have in fact done so.

Best regards,

-Don Radlauer

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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