Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Reworking the equations

Israel calculated that the conditions were ripe, including the tacit ascent of Arab governments, to take down Hizbullah. So far, it appears vindicated, writes Emad Gad*

On 12 July, Hizbullah launched a combat operation against Israel leading to the death of three Israeli soldiers and the capture of two. In the course of the Israeli pursuit, Hizbullah forces succeeded in destroying an Israeli Mercava tank and killing four soldiers. Following the operation, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah announced his conditions for releasing the two Israeli captives. This would be to release Lebanese and Arab detainees in Israeli prisons, which would be arranged through indirect negotiations via a third party, as occurred with German mediation in the past. From Nasrallah's tone, it was obvious that he was very confident that this is what would happen. Israel might retaliate at first with a couple of raids against Hizbullah locations in Lebanon, but once it vented its anger it would plump for negotiations to secure the release of its soldiers.

Israel did not act as expected. To the Israeli government, the Hizbullah strike was of an entirely different order to the attack on 25 June by a unit comprised of members from three Palestinian resistance factions (Hamas, the Popular Resistance Committee and the Army of Islam) against Israeli military locations near Karem Abu Salem passage, leading to the death of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third. Whereas this took place in the context of an open military engagement, the Hizbullah strike, from the Israeli point of view, was an unprovoked attack by a foreign power on Israeli territory.

In addition to the blow to the prestige of the Israeli army, a number of factors contributed to the Israeli decision to launch a full-scale war with the aim of changing the political and military equation along its northern border with Lebanon. One was the position of the less than three-month-old Israeli government. Prime Minister Olmert, who initially stepped into the post as the result of Sharon's sudden stroke, has no military expertise and is not a particularly charismatic leader. His minister of defence, Amir Peretz, a civilian who had set his sights on the Ministry of Finance but was handed this portfolio instead, is equally bereft of military expertise. Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, by contrast, is a career military man and a reputed risk- taker. As none of these figures could politically afford to look weak in the face of repeated raids to capture Israeli soldiers -- especially from inside Israeli territory -- a strong and decisive response was in order.

The situations inside Lebanon, in the Arab world and internationally helped Israeli leaders make up their minds. Inside Lebanon the question of disarming Hizbullah had come up on the negotiating agenda and Hizbullah was evading it. Lebanese society, according to the Israeli reading, was strongly divided over the issue and, therefore, would not stand unified behind Hizbullah in the event of a showdown between it and Israel.

Israel simultaneously predicted that regional powers, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, would not support Hizbullah for a variety of reasons pertaining to the peace process, domestic sectarian factors, the rise of radical Islamic movements in the region and the growth of Iranian influence via Hizbullah. Indeed, on the last point, some Arab governments strongly suspected that the Hizbullah raid against Israel had been motivated primarily by current Iranian political concerns. As a result, official statements from Riyadh, Cairo and Amman described the Hizbullah action as reckless and inimical to Lebanese and Arab interests. Israel quickly surmised that these governments would tacitly favour a military intervention in Lebanon that would generate a political situation in Lebanon that would lead ultimately to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, including the disarmament of Hizbullah.

At the international level, Israel knew that it could count on the full support of the US in putting an end to the military existence of Hizbullah. It also knew that the Security Council would never issue a resolution condemning Israel and that the prospect of a certain US veto would bury any censure before it even got to the formulation stage.

So, instead of behaving as Hizbullah leaders expected it to behave, Israel took advantage of the circumstances it found propitious and launched a massive offensive to eliminate Hizbullah militarily. In so doing, it kept its sights focussed on Hizbullah locations inside Lebanon, rather than extending its campaign to Syria, the logic behind which was to augment the Lebanese people's anger and resentment against Syria, sitting peacefully while they pay the price for Syria's policies. Similarly, in targeting Lebanese civilian infrastructure, Israel hopes to generate a tide of popular anger directed against Hizbullah, whose action brought on the Israeli retribution that will turn the clock in Lebanon back several decades.

Israel has set four conditions for a ceasefire. It wants the release of the two Israeli captive soldiers. Secondly and thirdly, Hizbullah must evacuate its forces to the north of the Latani River and the official Lebanese army must take their place in the south. Fourthly, it has called for a larger and heavier armed international force in the border area. For Hizbullah to accept these conditions would effectively end its existence as a military force and pronounce the end of the political career of its secretary- general, which is why the party leadership has been so adamant in rejecting these conditions.

Arab reactions have largely played out as Israel had anticipated. Governments indirectly laid blame for the Israeli offensive upon Hizbullah, which they charge had acted to promote the interests of a non-Arab party. It came as little surprise, therefore, that the Arab foreign ministers' summit could not resolve to come out in support of Hizbullah. If, at the conclusion of that meeting, the secretary-general proclaimed, "The peace process is dead!" and vowed that the Arabs would bring the matter to the Security Council, his declarations were a far remove in substance and tenor from those of the major Arab powers. These were voiced by Mubarak, who held Hamas and Hizbullah responsible for the war that Israel is currently waging and who charged Hizbullah of destroying the opportunity of securing the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for the one prisoner being held by Hamas.

It thus appears that the Arabs, or at least such central players such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have set their hopes on the belief that when the war clouds clear over Lebanon there will be an environment more conducive to the resumption of Middle East peace negotiations because the forces of "extremism" in Palestine and Lebanon will have been greatly reduced. That is as far as their vision extends for the time being.

* The writer is an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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