Ze’ev Schiff. Foreign Affairs. Volume 85, Issue 6. November/December 2006.
The Start of Something New
The recent fighting in Lebanon may have looked to some like old news, just another battle in the long-running Arab-Israeli war. But it also represented something much more disturbing: the start of a new war between Israel and Iran.
The Israeli defense establishment, which regards Hezbollah as a frontal commando unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, certainly saw things this way. The Iranians may not have been physically present on the frontlines in Lebanon, but they were active there nonetheless. A number of Revolutionary Guard members were killed in the Israeli incursion into the town of Baalbek (close to the Syrian border) on August 1, and Israeli intelligence claims that Iranians helped Hezbollah fire the land-to-sea missile that almost destroyed an Israeli warship in mid-July. Most of Hezbollah’s arms—including modern antitank weapons and the thousands of rockets that rained down on Israel—came from Iran (as well as Syria). Iranian advisers had spent years helping Hezbollah train and build fortified positions throughout southern Lebanon.
Iran, in fact, has been heading steadily toward a confrontation with Israel for some time now, and its aid to Hezbollah was meant to ensure that it would have a ready strategic response if Israel took action against it. From Israel’s perspective, it is lucky that the war broke out when it did. Things would have been quite different if Hezbollah’s patron had already been armed with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. From Iran’s perspective, accordingly, the conflict started too soon. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Tehran did not give Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, permission to launch a major operation against Israel on July 12. Hezbollah’s strike—which resulted in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of several others—was supposed to be relatively minor, just one more in a long series of provocations across Israel’s northern border. Nasrallah seems not to have expected the powerful Israeli response that followed, and he quickly proposed an immediate cease-fire and a prisoner exchange.
In the aftermath of the conflict, several questions need to be asked. Why did Israel not strike even sooner, as soon as it determined that Hezbollah was building a vast stockpile of rockets that could threaten Israeli population centers? What motivated Israel’s government to strike back when it did and with such force? Why did Israel turn the kidnapping, however serious on a tactical level, into a full-scale strategic war against Hezbollah and Lebanon? And what, finally, does the aftermath of the war mean for Israel’s looming showdown with Iran?
Hezbollah’s stockpiling of rockets in southern Lebanon began shortly after Israel’s withdrawal from the country in May 2000. From the start, Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Barak, knew exactly what was going on. But a violent new Palestinian intifada had broken out that same year and was occupying much of Israel’s attention. It never even occurred to Barak to launch another large-scale military campaign in Lebanon so soon after Israel’s pullout.
When Ariel Sharon succeeded Barak the next year, he continued to monitor Hezbollah’s buildup of rockets and its bunker construction. Like Barak, however, Sharon chose not to act; already fighting a battle with the Palestinians, he was loath to open a second front. This thinking persisted even after Israel noticed, in December 2003, that Iranian aircraft flying to Syria, ostensibly to pick up aid for victims of a recent earthquake, were actually transporting missiles for Hezbollah. Sharon’s advisers cautioned him that the world would interpret a massive Israeli military operation in Lebanon as an unnecessary preemptive war and that Israel could not afford the diplomatic isolation that might result.
Why, then, did Israel change its mind this past July? The explanation has partly to do with internal politics. At the time, Israel’s government was relatively new, having taken office in April, and its three top officials—Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni—had little military experience. Novice leaders often respond drastically to provocations. Israel had suffered several other kidnappings in recent years without reacting vigorously. In the eight months before the July 12 attack, Hezbollah tried five times to abduct Israeli soldiers, and Israel repeatedly asked France and the United States to warn Syria that the consequences would be dire if the provocations continued.
Then, on June 25, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier near the border with the Gaza Strip, killing two of his companions in the process. Hezbollah struck soon after, and Nasrallah publicly linked the two events, declaring that he would conduct joint negotiations for all the abducted soldiers. It was likely fear of this Hamas-Hezbollah link that spurred Israel to act. At a security cabinet debate on July 12, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz (a former defense minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces) warned that the connection between the two groups had to be broken without delay, as did the link between Hezbollah and Iran. Israel’s leaders agreed and decided to launch a large-scale counterattack, using IDF plans that had been prepared in advance.
The question then became whether to approve a heavy air strike on Hezbollah headquarters in Dahia, a Shiite neighborhood of Beirut. Once Israel’s intelligence agencies were able to establish that almost no civilians were living in the buildings that would be targeted, the security cabinet voted five to two to start the war.
Into the Breach
At first, some Israeli ministers (such as Mofaz) proposed launching a large-scale attack on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, arguing that the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which includes two Hezbollah ministers, should be held responsible for the July 12 attack. They also pointed out that according to a UN briefing, the Lebanese government had sanctioned Syria’s arms transfers to Hezbollah and granted wounded Hezbollah fighters the same official compensation as members of the Lebanese army.
Nevertheless, Israel decided against an assault on Lebanon’s infrastructure after Washington warned Jerusalem that such a massive move would weaken Siniora. Israel decided instead to direct its forces at stopping Syria and Iran from delivering arms to Hezbollah. This meant targeting bridges, main traffc arteries, and the Beirut airport.
Israel was careful to keep its objectives for the war limited. Civilians were never deliberately targeted, despite the thousands of missiles being fired by Hezbollah at Israeli population centers. Israel also decided to leave Syria alone and went to extraordinary lengths to publicly persuade Damascus that it was not in danger—despite the fact that Syria continued to smuggle rockets and launchers to Hezbollah. The Israelis did not want to enlarge the war or give Tehran an excuse to intervene directly to help Damascus.
Olmert’s government also decided not to try to eliminate Hezbollah completely. Nonetheless, the security cabinet called for “intensive fighting” against the militia, “including strikes against its infrastructure and command centers, its operational capabilities, its war materiel and its leaders.”
Israel’s other goals for the war were to secure the release of the abducted soldiers, stop the launching of missiles, and compel Lebanon’s government to take responsibility for the country’s south. It also sought to reoccupy a narrow strip of territory along the Lebanese border to stop Hezbollah from restoring its positions there. From the start of the war, Israel’s leaders assumed that at some point a new international peacekeeping force would deploy in the region along with the Lebanese army. In the past, Israel had rejected the utility of such peacekeepers. But in this case it embraced them, resolving to drive Hezbollah out of the area and then hand it over to an international contingent.
What has now become clear is that Israel badly mishandled the conduct of the war. Its leaders assumed that the air force could accomplish many of its objectives single-handedly—a classic mistake, and one probably connected in this case to the fact that Israel’s chief of staff, Dan Halutz, is himself an air force o/cer. As a consequence of such thinking, the IDF failed to mobilize its reserves when the war broke out and, when it finally did, waited too long to send them into Lebanon. By the time it did, on August 9, the UN Security Council had already passed a cease-fire resolution.
The result of this delay was that Hezbollah was able to continue firing Katyusha rockets—at a rate of over 200 a day—into northern Israel until the end of the campaign. Thanks to good intelligence, Israel’s air force was successful at stopping the firing of long-range missiles from north of the Litani River (which runs some 25 kilometers north of the Israeli border), but it never managed to eliminate the more portable and easy-to-conceal short-range rockets in the south. As a consequence, the Israeli home front had to endure a sort of war of attrition. Considering the number of missiles fired at population centers, there were relatively few casualties. But the attacks did cause a large amount of damage and gave Israelis a sense of impotence.
While the IDF did score a victory of sorts by damaging Hezbollah and destroying its Beirut headquarters, even this was only a partial one. According to Israeli estimates, over 400 Hezbollah fighters were killed. But the group’s top leaders escaped unharmed, and Hezbollah was not forced to release the abducted soldiers. Hezbollah also scored a major public-relations victory in the eyes of the Arab world. That an Arab militia could stand up to the IDF, the most powerful military force in the Middle East, was counted a success, notwithstanding Hezbollah’s heavy losses and the considerable destruction wrought in Lebanon.
In political terms, Israel will have accomplished something if the Security Council’s resolution ending the war is ever implemented. That resolution, 1701, reiterates the main principles of an earlier measure (Resolution 1559) that called on Hezbollah to disarm and on the Lebanese government to exercise its sovereignty in the country’s south. Resolution 1701 also prohibits all arms shipments to the country without the consent of the Lebanese government and authorizes the creation of a large international force to help the Lebanese army exercise its responsibility.
Unfortunately for Israel, full implementation of Resolution 1701 now looks unlikely. Hezbollah has already declared that it will not disarm, and the Lebanese government has tacitly accepted this, on the condition that Hezbollah refrain from any public display of its arms. What this means, in effect, is that southern Lebanon will not be completely demilitarized. Complete demilitarization would require Israel to occupy the entire area or the international force to risk a confrontation with Hezbollah, neither of which is likely to happen.
To make matters worse, Resolution 1701 makes no reference to Hezbollah’s rockets in northern Lebanon. Nor has any method been agreed on to prevent more arms from being smuggled into the country. Cross-border shipments from Syria, some of which originated in Russia, have already resumed.
Of course, Hezbollah’s position in southern Lebanon has been seriously weakened. It has promised Siniora’s government that it will refrain from any acts of violence against Israel. Should it breach the deal and open fire, it will find itself in a confrontation with Beirut.
But the war has shaken Israel to its core. The aftershocks were still being felt at the time of this writing, with large groups of reserve soldiers complaining about the war’s mismanagement and calling for Olmert, Halutz, and Peretz to resign. Israelis are frustrated that their government was not able to protect them from Hezbollah’s missiles; indeed, Israeli civilians have not suffered such frontal attacks since Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948. As a result, like in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the first Lebanon war, in 1982, rising numbers of Israelis are now demanding that a state commission of inquiry be impaneled (as of this writing, only a less independent cabinet committee had been agreed on). There is certainly a need for such an investigation, but the danger exists that it could be used by politicians to eliminate rivals. And if fighting in Lebanon resumes while the inquiry is in progress—as seems possible—the deliberations could have a demoralizing effect on Israel’s fighting forces, especially its reserves.
One way or another, the war and its aftermath will probably weaken the standing of Olmert and his party, Kadima. His plans for unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank have now been shelved; the Israeli public is in no mood to deal with such a realignment. Before the war, many believed that Israel and its army were quite capable of coping with the risks that would come from abandoning territory. That belief has now been called into question.
This is especially so since Israel’s military seemed surprised by the course of the war—especially by Hezbollah’s large stockpile of modern antitank weapons, which proved deadly when Israeli armor started crossing the border. By the time of the cease-fire, 47 Israeli tanks had been hit by antitank missiles, and 15 or 16 of these had been destroyed.
The most worrisome question facing Israel now is whether its military deterrent power has been diminished. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent threat—that Syria may strike Israel if it does not withdraw from the Golan, and that “even your atomic bomb will not protect you”—seems to be evidence that it has. The power of deterrence, however, should not be judged by such declarations. Maintaining such a capability is a question not just of image but of actual military power and the readiness to use it with sufficient intensity. And the conduct of Israel’s air force in the Lebanon war showed that the country will not hesitate to deal a hard blow if it is attacked. Damascus remains well aware of this fact.
To cope with the new realities in the region, Israel now needs to reorder its strategic priorities. For some time, its defense establishment has seemed confused about the threats facing the country. On the one hand, Israel has defined Iran’s emerging nuclear power as the most serious threat to its existence. At the same time, Israel has acted as if Palestinian terror were more important. To be fair, the threat that Israel faces from Palestinian terrorists is very serious, and dealing with it can be very troublesome. Nevertheless, Israel has become quite successful at countering and coping with suicide attacks. Given the much more existential danger that Iran represents, Israel should make Iran its top priority.
Coping with Tehran will require both political and military efforts. Israel is not alone in confronting the nuclear threat from Iran; the problem is shared by the UN and the international community, and Jerusalem hopes that the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency will make Iran pay for its illegal weapons program. Although aware that it cannot solve this problem on its own through military means, Israel has nonetheless continued to relentlessly develop its military options, including securing a second-strike capability against Iran.
To make space for the coming confrontation—whether diplomatic or military—Israel should try to ease the pressure on the Palestinian front by working toward political compromises and settlements. Israel should also make concerted efforts to reach a peace accord with Syria, in order to establish a buffer between Israel and Iran. Olmert and his successors must do everything they can to make sure that if a new battle with Iran breaks out—a direct one this time—Israel is in the best position possible to deal with it.