Israel's newest quagmire
Stubbornly, the US and Israel still believe that force can dictate. In Lebanon, as in Iraq and Palestine, this policy will fail, writes Ahmed Abdel-Halim*
Hizbullah's capture of two Israeli soldiers from northern Israel triggered events. The purpose of the operation, according to an official from the Lebanese resistance organisation, was to get Israel to negotiate over the release of Hizbullah prisoners in Israel in exchange for the two Israeli soldiers. Israel's reaction was immediate. Its prime minister pronounced the Hizbullah operation an act of war for which it held the Lebanese government responsible. That was prelude to the massive aerial assault that followed.
If Israel's immediate objective is not so much to secure the release of the Israeli soldiers as it is to clear the south of Lebanon of one of the major threats to it, it is clearly oblivious to why that threat happened to have persisted. Surely it is because Israel has kept the gaping wound of the Middle East conflict open through its various manoeuvrings and machinations to wriggle out of its commitments under various agreements and understandings and, in general, by its failure to handle the peace process in good faith. It is because it allowed the causes of the dispute to remain unresolved that Israel found pretexts to stage military incursions into Gaza and parts of the West Bank and to retaliate with disproportionate force in Lebanon.
Against this backdrop, one cannot help but ask whether the Israeli assault on Lebanon was spontaneous or whether it proceeded in accordance with a ready-made plan for getting rid of what it regards as one of the major obstacles to its scheme, backed by the US, for reordering the Middle East. To answer this question we must turn to the US, which has moved to a war footing to achieve its political objectives since 11 September 2001. Restricting ourselves, here, to the Israeli context, one of the US's aims since it rose to the uncontested pinnacle of the world order has been to secure Israel once and for all on the map of the Middle East by eliminating all threats to it and restructuring the region in accordance with an American-supported Israeli vision.
Once the US completed its military campaign against Afghanistan it set about accomplishing this objective. First came the American-British invasion of Iraq, which has yet to achieve its aims. Then followed feverish American activity inside Lebanon and against Syria, which ultimately succeeded in producing UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Among the most important provisions of this resolution are those that call for the disarmament of Hizbullah and the departure of Syrian forces from Lebanon. At the same time, the US kept up a steadily escalating campaign against Iran and the confrontation between the two played no insignificant part in the current crisis that led to the Israeli military campaign against Lebanon. The US, thus, managed to get Syria out of Lebanon, leaving only the Hizbullah threat against Israel.
This begs a tangential question. If Hizbullah had not captured the Israeli soldiers, would Israel not have launched this brutal assault? The answer to this has to be in the negative. Israeli plans had already been on the drawing board; Hizbullah only helped Israel put them into effect sooner and quicker, just as 11 September gave the US the golden opportunity to forge ahead with its global designs and its designs for the Middle East in particular. Moreover, in view of the overlapping interests between Israel and the US and because the US invariably supports everything Israel does, Israel knew that nothing would stand in its way. So, it attacked, savagely. It bombed airports, roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure, not so much because it believed this was the shortest route to striking Hizbullah but because it hoped to turn the Lebanese government against that organisation and trigger a civil war that would ultimately work in Israel's favour. But so ferocious was the assault that it had precisely the opposite effect, for now all of Lebanon is united against the Israeli aggression.
The performance of Hizbullah in response to this aggression has come as a surprise to all. It has unleashed a barrage of missiles deep into Israeli territory, exposing not only the weaknesses of Israeli intelligence agencies but also the rifts in Israeli society. For, in spite of the surface appearance of solidarity, an angry storm is gathering inside Israel that may ultimately lead to the fall of the Olmert government in the same manner that the Begin government collapsed in 1982 following Sharon's invasion of Lebanon. Also, just as occurred in Lebanon in the wake of the 1982 invasion, the outrage against the Israeli assault combined with the persistence of the region's chronic problems will furnish the environment and climate for breeding more anti-Israeli resistance forces.
Israel hoped to accomplish its objectives by remote control, relying primarily on its fighter planes, ground-to-ground missiles and ships off the coast of Lebanon. After causing a considerable degree of destruction, it began to land forces in limited numbers for targeted operation in southern Lebanon. Israel wants this area, between the Lebanese-Israeli border and the Litani River, to be eventually taken over by an international force. Meanwhile, the features of a political solution that is to be imposed on Lebanon and other countries of the region are beginning to coalesce under American supervision in the Security Council.
But Israel, together with the US, has forgotten that the Arab-Israeli conflict is chronic; it has persisted for decades and appears destined to persist for many more to come. The Israeli assault has damaged all sides. In addition to the loss of life, it has incurred millions of dollars of material losses. For Israel the greatest loss is not so quantifiable. In perpetrating this aggression it has deferred its regional normalisation, which is the only real guarantee of its peace and security, and it has aggravated the anti-Israeli hatred in the region, which will remain a perpetual sword over the security of the state and its people.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sees in Lebanon the beginnings of a "New Middle East," a term that, not coincidentally, was cited much earlier by Martin Indyk, US National Security Council member under Clinton, when, in April 1993, he unveiled his government's new foreign policy for the Middle East. The concept remains essentially the same. It entails eliminating all threats to Israel (Syria and Iran are the ones that are left), preparing the region for negotiations meant to rubber stamp the Israeli-US vision for a settlement and pushing the countries of the region into various forms of political, economic and cultural cooperation with Israel. The overall aim is a comprehensive peace that guarantees Israel's security and puts an end to terrorism as the US and Israel define it.
The vision overlooks one essential point, which is that military might, however brutal, does not resolve political problems. Force might create a more secure situation in the short run, but the threat will remain latent and intensify in the long run. Perhaps Israelis and their government will come to realise this, but by then they will have already sewn the seeds of rancour. The US may accomplish its immediate aims in Iraq and Israel may accomplish its immediate aims in Lebanon and the surrounding environment. However, time will show, and history will bear it out, that the "New Middle East" they envision will remain out of reach.
* The writer is a military expert and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.