Two weeks into the war, the looming question for Israel is how to end it successfully. Because there are no simple answers, another question lurks in the background: Did the government’s decision to go into battle against Hezbollah in Lebanon include a plan for what would come after?
In the welter of bulletins about ground battles, it’s hard to recall that for the first week of war, Israel stuck to an air offensive. Now several thousand Israeli troops are fighting in the rocky hills of southern Lebanon, mainly around Bint Jbeil, the so-called Hezbollah “capital.” Top officers — so media leaks hint — appear eager to expand the ground war to the area of Tyre, the coastal city from which the Shi’ite organization is firing missiles at Haifa. As of midweek, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz had not given a go-ahead.
Israeli military analysts, including ex-generals-turned-politicians, are virtually unanimous in their support for going to war and for how the battle is being fought. “No country can allow itself to be under the constant threat of thousands of missiles,” said Moshe Marzouk, reserve lieutenant colonel and a senior researcher at Herzliya’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Though he terms Hezbollah’s abduction of two Israeli soldiers a “deliberate provocation,” he says Israel had to respond as it did.
“Iran created an instrument for breaking Israeli society,” said Ephraim Sneh, former brigadier general and the whip of Labor’s Knesset delegation. “The strategic goal is to show Iran that Israel broke” that instrument, Hezbollah.
So far, the fighting has not perceptibly slowed the rain of missiles on northern Israel. By early this week, more than 270 Katyushas had fallen on Nahariya, the hardest-hit Israeli town, and more than 60 on Haifa, the largest city under fire. As of Tuesday, 18 civilians had been killed in the bombardment — 10 of them in Haifa alone — along with 23 soldiers killed in battle in the north.
Perhaps precisely because of the bombardment, civilian support for the war remains extremely high. Even for many doves, there has not been such a sense of moral clarity since the Six Day War in 1967: Civilians are under attack within sovereign Israel, even though Israel does not occupy Lebanese territory.
Another explanation comes from Yagil Levy of Ben-Gurion University’s department of public policy: As happened in the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the early days of a national emergency “create paralysis of independent thinking.”
But that has begun to wear off. The widening of the ground war has spurred criticism from politicians in the ruling coalition. Science Minister Ophir Pines-Paz of Labor, for instance, said that the original plan for the Lebanon campaign had assumed no need for ground fighting.
A subtler hint that plans had shifted came in a business-page item on call-up orders for reservists: The first orders issued were of a type meant for a limited time, and did not cover indirect financial costs of emergency service. Afterward, new open-ended wartime orders had to be issued.
Press reports suggest that military intelligence had too little information on Hezbollah’s military preparedness — explaining why the fighting has dragged on, and setting the stage for postwar inquiries.
Yet the clearest sign that initial plans for the war may have been hastily formulated and vague is uncertainty about the strategic goal of the fighting and what should follow it. What does “breaking” Hezbollah mean?
“It’s impossible to eliminate Hezbollah,” said retired major general and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, now a Labor Knesset member. Rather, he said, the goal is an agreement that will remove the Shi’ite force from south Lebanon. Killing Hezbollah fighters and destroying the organization’s rockets are tactical means to achieve that goal.
An additional goal of Israel’s campaign, terrorism researcher Marzouk added, is to show Lebanon’s Shi’ites that they pay a tremendous price for Hezbollah’s actions.
So far, though, there’s no evidence that the tactical means will produce the desired end — that a weakened Hezbollah will disarm or abandon southern Lebanon. If Hezbollah actually breaks up, Levy argues, the outcome easily could be smaller organizations less willing to accept any ground rules — much like what has happened in the Palestinian territories or, for that matter, in Iraq.
At the start of the fighting, Israeli leaders spoke of the Lebanese army finally deploying in southern Lebanon, replacing the Shi’ite militia with government authority. But the Lebanese army is a weak force, unable to confront Hezbollah. Olmert initially dismissed proposals to put an international force in Lebanon.
But both Olmert and Peretz are now actively seeking a strong international force. Olmert spoke to foreign officials of a European-led contingent — possibly including troops from Arab countries — with a mandate that would include policing the Syrian-Lebanese border to stop the flow of arms to Hezbollah. Peretz was quoted as favoring NATO peacekeepers.
Willingness to rely on international forces represents a major shift in Israeli policy. It reflects recognition that the other remaining alternative — leaving Israeli troops in south Lebanon — would be a political disaster in Israel. In Lebanon, the new occupation would be the best help that Hezbollah could get in enlisting support.
The problem is that other countries support an international force — as long as someone else’s army provides the boots on the ground. At midweek, only New Zealand had openly expressed willingness to send troops. The reluctance makes sense: Hezbollah is likely to label Western forces as occupiers and crusaders and would have few qualms about attacking Sunni Arabs, especially if they were “collaborating” with Israel.
The current exit plan, therefore, depends on as-yet uncertain international help. On the other hand, to simply stop fighting without a diplomatic solution would leave Israel with the military, diplomatic and moral costs of the war, and with no lasting gains.
It’s therefore legitimate to wonder, as public policy expert Levy does, whether the government had “an entrance scenario but not an exit scenario” when it began the Lebanon campaign. That Israel needed to respond to the abduction of its soldiers, and was justified in doing so, does not necessarily mean it had a considered strategy.
Avi Segal, an expert on military policy and strategy at Emek Yezreel College, suggests that Olmert and Peretz — civilian leaders without military backgrounds — may have made choices, but only from a menu of options provided by the military. Without a clear political outcome in mind, those options may have fallen short of satisfying the classic formulation that war should be “continuation of policy by other means.”
A more optimistic reading, he said, is that Olmert has a longer-range goal that he is not yet discussing: a reconstituted Lebanon, in which Hezbollah ceases to be a military force, remaining only a party.
To reach that goal, he says, requires dealing with Syria as part of a diplomatic process that gains legitimacy by including Europe and Arab countries. Hezbollah was created as a Syrian proxy, and “as long as [Israel’s] business with Syria isn’t settled, Syria has an interest to maintain Hezbollah.” But Israel’s “business with Syria” includes the future of the Golan Heights. To bring calm to Lebanon, therefore, Olmert would need to reopen talks on that issue, controversial as it is inside Israel. Trying to deal with Lebanon without talking to Syria is “simply not realistic,” he says.
The Lebanon crisis already has altered Israel’s stance on international peacekeepers. It may require renewing the long-dormant diplomatic process with Syria and putting the Golan issue back in Israeli politics. If that was Olmert’s exit plan ahead of time, it’s understandable that he hasn’t discussed it. If there was no exit plan, he’ll have to find one now.
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