Fuzzy Rules, Rising Stakes In Middle East Poker Game

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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Forget about chess, with its ordered rules, as a simulation for war. Israel’s current crisis in Lebanon and Gaza shows that the closest model is poker — a high-stakes version with no limits on bets and no certainty even about who is sitting at the table. In fact, the very meaning of winning is likely to change as the brutal game is played.

A key surprise at the outset of this crisis was Israel’s decision to raise the stakes. After the abduction of a soldier on Israeli soil by Gaza militants June 25, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, along with their generals, decided not only to pursue the captors but also to begin a major offensive in Gaza and to arrest top officials of the Hamas government. Following Hezbollah’s copycat abduction of two soldiers along the Lebanese border July 12, Israel launched its air offensive on Lebanon, aiming not only at Hezbollah itself but also at ports, roads and other civilian targets.

At first glance, the last thing that Olmert needed to promote his personal program of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank was footage of troops back in Gaza. As for Lebanon, previous flare-ups with Hezbollah since Israel’s pullout in 2000 stayed far more limited. But this time, Israel struck. In turn, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah upped his own bet drastically, unleashing his Shi’ite militia’s missile arsenal against northern Israel.

Overnight, an incident grew into a war, albeit a limited one. By early this week, more than 850 Hezbollah missiles and mortar shells had fallen on Israeli towns as far south as Haifa; 25 civilians and soldiers were dead. One-third of Israel’s population was reportedly living in bomb shelters and protected rooms — not counting the civilian exodus southward. In Lebanon, the death count reportedly had reached 220, most of them civilians.

So why did Olmert and his team choose escalation? Originally, posits political scientist Yaron Ezrahi of The Hebrew University, there was a desire to compensate for the military failures that allowed the abductions, “to maintain deterrence vis-à-vis Hezbollah and to satisfy the Israeli public.” Of those motives, deterrence is the coldest, most reasoned one: An army prevents enemy aggression by showing that it can strike back.

The abductions were also last straws. The army was already frustrated that it could not keep Palestinian groups from firing short-range Qassam missiles into Israel from Gaza, before and since last summer’s pullout from the Strip. Hezbollah’s steadily growing missile arsenal also weighed on defense planners. Now came a chance to act.

The response and the choice of tactics — mainly air power, with limited ground incursions in Gaza — have been ascribed by some to personalities. By that reasoning, Olmert and Peretz lack military backgrounds, wanted to show strength and acceded too easily to generals. The military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, is the first Air Force man to fill that role, and he picked tactics accordingly.

The real story may be more complex. Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon, didn’t hesitate to use massive force as prime minister — except in Lebanon. There, he appeared reluctant to arouse the public’s memories of his disastrous 1982 invasion project. Olmert, it seems, lacks that inhibition. He does, however, need to defend his signature policy of unilateral withdrawal. So he has avoided a large invasion of Gaza, preferring air power and a small footprint. The air war also follows military developments elsewhere — especially NATO’s successful campaign against Serbia in Kosovo in 1999, where sophisticated militaries avoided ground involvement.

But the current military campaign is laden with high risks. Creating deterrence against “sub-state actors” — organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah — is tougher than getting the message across to states, said researcher Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Brom was formerly the head of strategic planning in the Israeli army’s general staff. Such groups, Brom said, have a “low signature”: They lack easily identified targets. They don’t have “state assets,” such as power stations, that they are loath to lose.

Israel has nonetheless hit such targets in Gaza and Lebanon. Hamas, Brom said, isn’t merely a terror group but a popular movement, so pressure on the Palestinian public could lead to pressure on Hamas. But, Brom noted, the result easily can be the opposite — that “the Palestinian public unites around Hamas, and sees Israel as responsible.”

The same risk exists in Lebanon, where Israel seeks to pressure the Beirut government to disarm Hezbollah and deploy the Lebanese army in the country’s south, now Hezbollah controlled. Israel’s problem is precisely that the Lebanese government is half-myth — recognized internationally but with no monopoly on force, no ability to face down Hezbollah’s independent militia. Contradictory reports from Lebanon predictably indicate both fury at Hezbollah among its traditional enemies and renewed support for the group among other Lebanese.

Meanwhile, the war has a cost in Israeli lives. One-third of the population is either under fire or away from home. For now, the public remains extremely supportive of the war effort. A Yediot Aharonot poll this week showed 86% backing for the operation against Hezbollah; 77% of respondents said that Olmert’s handling of the war was good, and 72% said the same of Peretz. Those figures could shift if the fighting drags out; if it ends inconclusively; if there is a sudden, large loss of Israeli lives — or a large civilian disaster in Lebanon, like the death of more than 100 refugees from one Israeli shell during Israel’s 1996 “Grapes of Wrath” incursion.

What Israel needs is a quick resolution, with political gains. According to Brom, that means “a different reality” in South Lebanon that keeps out Hezbollah. “What’s needed is an international force,” he said, not a weak observer group, like the existing United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The model should be the NATO-based peacekeeping force in the Balkans, with a U.N. mandate to use force if need be to keep out Hezbollah. In other words, Israel must quickly translate the military effort into a diplomatic one. In that view, the government’s initial rejection of an international force was a mistake.

It’s worth noting that the international response to Israel’s Lebanon campaign has been relatively muted. Even at an Arab League summit last weekend, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other members criticized Hezbollah for the crisis. Calls by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for an international force potentially serve Israel’s interest.

To understand the response, political scientist Ezrahi said, look at the global context. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite force and a client of Iran. It reportedly has received 11,000 missiles from Tehran. “You don’t need 11,000 missiles, including long-range ones, [to conquer] the Shebaa Farms,” a tiny, disputed patch on the Israeli-Lebanese border, Ezrahi said. Rather, the weaponry fits Iran’s threat to strike Israel if anyone used force against the Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s proxy was supposed to be quietly ready to hit what Iran sees as the West’s forward base.

Instead, the current fight “exposed the concrete threat of Iran by means of its proxy” and gave Israel clear justification for acting. Hezbollah prematurely exposed the threat and lost much of the weaponry. Israel apparently did not have this as a goal; Israeli leaders did not mention it at the operation’s start, Ezrahi noted. But it is turned into part of the war’s potential benefits, unexpected winnings from the rough gamble. “The G8 and their defense analysts probably support Israel for this reason,” Ezrahi suggested. Even Arab states that oppose the “Shi’ite empire” of Iran would like to see Hezbollah lose.

That international constellation just might help Israel on the Lebanese front. Ironically, success in Gaza, where the enemy is weaker, could be more elusive. Despite the tactics Olmert has chosen, the fighting has deepened doubts in Israel about a unilateral pullout from the West Bank. A Tel Aviv University Peace Index poll early this month found Israelis now opposing the plan by a 47% to 39% margin.

The doubts make sense, said Yoram Meital, head of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. The American-backed peace “road map” is a dead letter, he said, but so is the approach of pulling out unilaterally and “throwing the keys” over the fence. Israel, he said, cannot leave the West Bank as France did Algeria, because millions of Israelis and Palestinians will continue to live next to each other in a small land. The current conflict has shown that unilateral pullouts from both Lebanon and Gaza were flawed.

After an immediate cease-fire, Meital suggested, the best step would be a new diplomatic process. That would mean talking to those in Hamas willing to discuss a hudna, a long-term cease-fire, with Israel — “for instance, those who support the Prisoners’ Document,” an intra-Palestinian accord calling for a state in the West Bank and Gaza. “I think that to say that Hamas isn’t a partner is a mistake in terms of Israel’s interests,” Meital said. The goal would be more modest than full peace, and better than a stalemate.

The bottom line is that in Gaza, too, “victory” would require new diplomacy. That’s not what Israel was gambling on when the fighting began, but the gamble itself may have changed what it means to win.






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