Era of Is­raeli in­vin­ci­bil­ity is over: Hezbol­lah proved tough foe

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - By Richard C. Gross

Is­rael’s in­abil­ity to de­feat Hezbol­lah and pre­vent it from launch­ing rock­ets into Is­rael may rank as its big­gest sur­prise since Egypt’s and Syria’s shock at­tack that ig­nited the 1973 Yom Kip­pur War — and Is­raeli politi­cians may pay for it.

The halt­ing, cau­tious Is­raeli ground of­fen­sive into south­ern Le­banon marked an army of a dif­fer­ent stripe than the one that boldly swept up to the Li­tani River in 1978 in just a week and roared con­fi­dently into Beirut in 1982 in of­fen­sives against Yasser Arafat’s Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion (PLO). The ob­jec­tive both times was to rid Is­rael of a nag­ging ter­ror­ist pres­ence on its north­ern fron­tier.

But the PLO wasn’t Hezbol­lah, and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ehud Olmert is not Me­nachem Be­gin or even his now co­matose pre­de­ces­sor, Ariel Sharon.

“[Hezbol­lah] is not com­pa­ra­ble to the PLO is any way,” said Shi­b­ley Tel­hami, a Mid­dle East scholar at the Univer­sity of Mary­land at Col­lege Park and a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “They were guer­ril­las pre­tend­ing to be an army. This is a much more clever and bet­ter-equipped force.” ‘A pa­per tiger’

Is­rael to­day is much like the scrap­pier Is­rael of yes­ter­year in seek­ing mil­i­tary so­lu­tions to per­sis­tent Arab at­tempts to re­gain ter­ri­tory seized in the 1967 SixDayWar and to elim­i­nate a Jewish state from the Mid­dle East.

But to­day’s Is­rael, al­though en­cour­aged by the ap­par­ent blank-check sup­port of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, faces a more so­phis­ti­cated op­po­nent in Le­banon, which is backed by Syria and Iran, and is be­dev­iled by a Pales­tinian gov­ern­ment in the West Bank and Gaza run by Ha­mas.

Ha­mas, which the United States des­ig­nated as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, may be em­bold­ened by the war in Le­banon.

At the same time, ab­sent the flash of a Moshe Dayan with eye patch and the swag­ger to match, to­day’s Is­raeli de­fense min­is­ter, Amir Peretz, is a civil­ian and the Olmert ad­min­is­tra­tion lacks the bravado of Mr. Sharon, who as de­fense min­is­ter spurred the army to Beirut. As a gen­eral, he won the war against Egypt in 1973 in a sur­prise ar­mored strike across the Suez Canal, sur­round­ing the Egyp­tian Third Army in Si­nai.

Is­rael has sus­tained high ca­su­al­ties in the cur­rent con­flict and, even late in the war, could not pre­vent Hezbol­lah from con­duct­ing rocket and mis­sile at­tacks against its north­ern cities, de­spite a ma­jor ground of­fen­sive and con­tin­u­ing air strikes in the face of a United Na­tions’ cease-fire call.

The ap­pear­ance of Is­raeli mil­i­tary in­vin­ci­bil­ity ap­par­ently is gone and, with it, maybe Is­rael’s abil­ity to de­ter fur­ther Arab ag­gres­sion.

“The re­sults of this round of hos­til­i­ties are as far-reach­ing as the 1973 war,” Fawaz Gerges, a pro­fes­sor of Mid­dle East­ern Stud­ies at Sarah Lawrence Col­lege, where he holds the Chris­tian A. John­son Chair in In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Is­rael’s de­ter­rence ca­pac­ity has been un­der­mined con­sid­er­ably. The mil­i­tary in­vin­ci­bil­ity has proven to be a myth. Is­rael is a pa­per tiger af­ter all.”

“Is­raeli de­ter­rence will be weaker and Is­rael will be weaker” be­cause of the in­abil­ity to de­feat Hezbol­lah, Mr. Tel­hami said by tele­phone. At the same time, he said, Hezbol­lah leader Sheik Has­san Nas­ral­lah is “the most pop­u­lar man in the Arab world.”

“This is a very big dilemma for the Is­raelis,” Mr. Tel­hami said. “They have al­ready said they can’t af­ford to lose this” war.

“Is­rael’s en­e­mies, and they are many, will con­clude that Is­rael does not have the stamina for an ex­tended en­counter with ter­ror­ism,” wrote for­mer three­time De­fense Min­is­ter Moshe Arens in the news­pa­per Ha’aretz.

“The war, which ac­cord­ing to our lead­ers was sup­posed to re­store Is­rael’s de­ter­rent pos­ture, has within one month suc­ceeded in de­stroy­ing it,” wrote Mr. Arens, one of Is­rael’s top con­ser­va­tive lead­ers. ‘Not a knock­out’

David Makovsky, a se­nior fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, said both Is­rael and Hezbol­lah will de­clare vic­tory in the war.

Is­rael went to war on July 12 af­ter a cross-border raid by Hezbol­lah in which two Is­raeli sol­diers were cap­tured. The U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil de­clared a cease-fire on Aug. 13.

“Each side is go­ing to claim some sort of vic­tory. It’s not a knock­out” by Is­rael, Mr. Makovsky said.

But Is­raeli po­lit­i­cal lead­ers may be knocked out. It hap­pened af­ter the 1973 war, when de­fense forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar was forced to re­sign.

Prime Min­is­ter Golda Meir and Gen. Dayan, the de­fense min­is­ter, both quit in 1974 be­cause of squab­bling within her coali­tion gov­ern­ment and among the pub­lic over intelligence fail­ures be­fore the war.

Mr. Arens, who was de­fense min­is­ter un­der Likud party lead­ers Be­gin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, wrote in Ha’aretz that Mr. Olmert, Mr. Peretz and For­eign Min­is­ter Tzipi Livni “grossly mis­man­aged” the war.

It was “a de­feat suf­fered by Is­rael at the hands of a few thou­sand Hezbol­lah fight­ers. We now know they are not fit to gov­ern Is­rael in th­ese try­ing times.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Hun­dreds of Is­raeli troops re­turned to Is­rael from south­ern Le­banon last week as a ten­u­ous cease-fire held. Some of the troops ex­pressed sur­prise at the fight­ing abil­i­ties of Hezbol­lah mil­i­tants.

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