Invincibility Myth No More
Israel's reputation faces reality.


John O’Sullivan

As the guns fell silent, the tanks went back over the border, and refugees began to return to their homes in Lebanon yesterday, the U.N.-brokered ceasefire looked as if it was a success. What is more (and more surprising), the terms of the ceasefire are reasonably fair — i.e., not unfavorable to Israel.

Barry Rubin, the biographer of Yasser Arafat and a skeptical observer of U.N. behavior in the Middle East, gave a detailed examination of the ceasefire terms in his column. Let me list some of the terms he sees as either favorable to Israel or at least better than expected:

1. The recent war and resulting deaths are blamed on Hezbollah for attacking Israel.

2. The Israeli army is to leave southern Lebanon not immediately, as the Arab League proposed, but only when the Lebanese army arrives to takes it place.

3. The Lebanese army is to be the sole military force in Lebanon (with the exception of U.N. troops) and other militias such as Hezbollah are to be disbanded.

4. The U.N. force that will police the ceasefire and southern Lebanon is not to be the toothless existing UNIFIL force, as Lebanon wanted, but a 15,000-strong new military force.

Now, these terms are not very different from those that U.S. Ambassador John Bolton and the French cobbled together two weeks ago at the U.N. and to which Hezbollah, Lebanon, and the Arab League bitterly objected. Taking note of their protest, France then reopened the negotiations, apparently switched sides, risking attacks for duplicity, and hammered out these new terms which are — well, see above, much the same as the old ones.

Something else is odd about them too. If they are what they seem, then this is the first occasion on which the losing side in a war dictated the terms of the peace. Okay, maybe not the first occasion, but certainly the first time that such a perverse result benefited Israel. And if the cease-fire went better for Israel than the war, that suggests the other side — Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, the Arab League — does not regard its terms all that seriously but sees them as temporary stopping places on the way to another war.

But that begs the question: Did Israel do badly in the war? Some influential observers. including the president of the United States, maintain that Hezbollah is the clear loser and that Israel won on points.

Let us look at that argument. A win on points would still be a disappointment to Israel and the Israeli Defense Force since they are accustomed to winning by knockouts. But the reality is even worse than that.

Israel engaged in this war not only in self-defense but also for strategic purposes: to destroy Hezbollah and to strengthen Lebanon as a functioning democratic state — and thus transform it from a bellicose enemy into a pacific neutral neighbor. It achieved these objectives in reverse: Israel weakened Lebanon as a functioning democratic state and strengthened Hezbollah.

To be sure, many Hezbollah terrorists were killed and their weapons captured. But because they fought the Israeli Defense Forces bravely and continued to rain down missiles on northern Israel right up the moment of thecease fire, they are now heroes to Arab youths whom they will recruit in their thousands. As for weapons, their principal supplier, Iran, has a bottomless purse to finance other people’s jihads.

Because Hezbollah is now stronger, Lebanon is weaker. All the other parties in the Lebanese parliament will hardly be prepared to stand up to the one party that has a successful militia at its beck and call. It is also genuinely popular.

[This structure -- an electoral “party” allied to a terrorist militia -- was pioneered in its modern form by Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland. It is now being imitated in places as far afield as the Basque country in Spain and in Lebanon. It means, of course, that democracy cannot really function. If such a hybrid party loses the election, its milita can bring out the guns. Everyone knows that and shrinks from opposing the terrorist party. So Hezbollah will not need to win elections, merely to frighten those parties that do win into going along with its, er, policy preferences. Making Sinn Fein-IRA a respectable partner in the “peace process” continues to provide terrorists everywhere with a roadmap around democracy and toward power.]

Another result of the war — perhaps the most important — is that the myth of Israeli invincibility has been shredded. Israel has always been weaker than it looks because it is a small population, living within frontiers that are militarily hard to defend, surrounded by far more numerous enemies. People forgot about these strategic weaknesses and thought of “Fortress Israel” as invincible because it has a powerful well-equipped army that had won its previous wars handsomely. But this war has undermined that belief.

The IDF of a generation ago would have carried out some daringly unexpected maneuver such as leaping over southern Lebanon to attack and destroy Hezbollah’s strategic reserve of fighters in their Bekaa Valley camps. (That, incidentally, would have advanced Israel’s objectives of destroying Hezbollah in order strengthen Lebanon.)

But the modern IDF relied too heavily on air power, stayed with this strategy when it was clearly failing, then carried out a mechanized frontal assault again guerrilla forces dug in for just such an assault, took longer to advance than anyone expected, and had still not achieved its objectives when the referee stopped the game. Maybe its terrorist-to-soldier kill ratio was impressive. But it still lost because it failed to win. Israel will learn from these mistakes. The entire Arab-cum-Islamic world is now less frightened of Israel than a month ago — and more frightened of Hezbollah. And there is no shortage of eager young Islamists eager to take the place of the “martyrs.”

All this suggests that the current ceasefire is merely the preliminary to another war. Hezbollah and its allies will feel that they have the Zionist enemy on the run. But such a war will very likely have a different course and outcome. Israel will be developing strategy and tactics designed to avoid its recent mistakes and to defeat this new sort of enemy.

In order to avoid such a war, several things would have to happen in the next year or so. The Lebanese army would have to be transformed into an effective fighting force with a loyalty to Lebanon rather than several different ethnic-cum-confessional loyalties. An U.N. international force, not only numbering at least 15,000 troops but also being able to call on air and naval power and intelligence resources, would have to be established in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah would have either to disarm voluntarily or, more likely, to be forcibly disarmed by either the Lebanese army or the new U.N. force. And the U.N. would have to enforce the arms embargo on Iran if it attempted to resupply Hezbollah — by, presumably, imposing a set of sanctions on top of those the U.N. hasn’t imposed for its illegal nuclearization program. In other words it would have to enforce the terms of the ceasefire.

All or any of these steps would require a U.N. organization and an “international community” that take their resolutions and their resolution seriously. Nothing we have seen since 1944 suggests that either exists.

John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. This first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.


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