Era of Israeli invincibility is over: Hezbollah proved tough foe
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.”
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.