Jerusalem–To most Israelis, supporters of Israel, and especially to the IDF soldiers I spoke to on the border over the past few days, the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah that recently went into effect is viewed as a cruel indignity, a dangerous projection of Israeli weakness and equivocation, and a plucking of defeat from the jaws of victory. These were my thoughts as well. The IDF was inflicting heavy, lopsided — one might even say disproportionate — damage on Hezbollah men and materiel. Stopping the war seems inexplicable, other than as an expression of total Western cravenness and appeasement to Islamic radicalism.
But people like John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have a proven track record of sobriety in these matters. It’s difficult to believe that Bolton would have thrown United States support behind a patently unwise agreement, or that Israel would have agreed to a resolution thoroughly harmful to its own interests. So herewith, in what may rightfully be construed as an exercise in wishful thinking, is an alternative explanation for U.S. and Israeli acquiescence to the U.N. cease-fire resolution.
Undoubtedly, the most important and highest-priority U.S. and Israeli objective in the Middle East today is thwarting Iran’s nuclear-weapons project. It is likely that the confrontation with Iran will not be resolved diplomatically, and that in the decisive moment it will be America, not Israel, that dispatches its military forces to destroy the Iranian nuclear sites. This basic calculus is the context in which American and Israeli Middle East strategic thinking takes place today.
Israel’s actions against Hezbollah thus must fit within the greater shared U.S.-Israeli strategy for the region. That strategy always must consider the danger of an Arab League or OPEC decision to curtail oil sales, as in 1973. An oil embargo is the Arabs’ secret weapon: Gas rationing and triple-digit per barrel oil prices would cripple the global economy, enrage the American public, and possibly engender anti-Israel popular sentiment in the U.S. Even the threat of an embargo would send oil prices skyrocketing. American support for Israeli military actions must therefore always be wary to the risk of Arab hostility to Israel uniting behind the cause of restricting the sale of Middle Eastern oil.
The heart of the strategic conundrum thus becomes this salient fact: If the U.S. is to strike Iran, Israel must be deterred from being provoked into the conflict and jeopardizing the abstention of other Arab states from interference in the clean execution of the mission and its aftermath. Because Iran, in conventional terms, is largely defenseless against an American bombing campaign, Iran’s first objective upon being attacked will be to draw Israel into the conflict. This is almost the exact same scenario as in the first Gulf War, and then it took intense diplomatic pressure to prevent Israel from retaliating against Iraq for its repeated missile attacks. It is almost unthinkable that Israel could be called upon again to summon such self-restraint.
The way Iran would drag Israel into the war and dramatically complicate the U.S. mission would be through Hezbollah, which until recently was firmly entrenched on Israel’s northern border, fully armed and spoiling for a fight. Thus, even given Israel’s curtailed and incomplete war against Hezbollah, the U.S.’s — and arguably, Israel’s — primary objective in the conflict has been accomplished: creating a state of affairs in which Iran cannot use Hezbollah to drag Israel into the U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, incite Arab opposition to the U.S., and threaten a global energy crisis. The partial war against Hezbollah has accomplished an important additional objective: what was previously a looming unknown — Hezbollah’s military capability on Israel’s northern border — has been engaged, partially destroyed, and is now a known quantity.
Iran still has many other means to deter, complicate, and retaliate against a U.S. strike: International terrorism and an increased campaign of destabilization in Iraq are two of the most fearsome, but its most reliable and effective course of action would have been to use Hezbollah to rain down destruction on Israel. Assuming the ceasefire period prevents the re-arming of Hezbollah and the reinfiltration of Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border — two very big, and possibly foolish, assumptions — Iran’s most worrying means of retaliation against an American strike has been defeated.
But why stop Israel now? Wouldn’t all of the benefits to the American-Israeli strategic position be even further solidified by a more complete destruction of Hezbollah? Perhaps. But there are complications: One is the unrest the conflict is causing in Iraq. The U.S. doesn’t need Muqtada al-Sadr to feel any more emboldened than he already does. Moreover, American pressure on Israel to stop the war is likely a concession to Europe and the U.N. in advance of needing (or believing to need) those alliances to be healthy in anticipation of the Iran confrontation. Also, the Cedar Revolution and the partial wresting of Syria out of Lebanon are two of the most tangible victories of the Bush administration’s Middle East democratization project. A continued Israeli assault on Lebanon that is seen by Lebanon’s ostensibly pro-Western Christians, Druze, and Sunnis as being needless American-approved destruction threatens the sympathies of the nascent Lebanese moderates. In particular, France retains some prestige in Lebanon and can be useful in preventing the reversal of U.S. accomplishments there. Pressuring Israel is a way to give the Europeans and the U.N. something they want now in return for something the U.S. wants later, which is a basic level of unity and fortitude in dealing with Iran.
Finally, one of the most surprising occurrences in the past month was the hostility expressed by the Sunni Arab world to Shia Hezbollah’s provocation. The importance of this should not be understated: Arab regimes like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia actually publicly condemned other Arabs who were fighting against Israel. Why? Because the Sunni regimes are worried about the ascendance of a Shia alliance comprised of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran that could manipulate the region with proxy terrorist armies (such as Hezbollah) operating under the safety of an Iranian nuclear umbrella. The Sunni states dislike Hezbollah and Iran enough to condemn the “adventuresome” attack against Israel, but detest Israel enough — and are sufficiently aware of the contours of their own domestic public opinion — to oppose a protracted Israeli reprisal. Given their fear of a nuclear Shia Middle East, the Sunni states can likely be counted on to tacitly accept a U.S. strike on Iran. Hence, pressure from them to make their acquiescence to an Iran operation contingent on U.S. endorsement of the ceasefire, in the interest of pacifying their publics.
Sober-minded observers are right to be wary of a new flight of fancy emanating from the United Nations, especially a U.N. led by the venal and treacherous Kofi Annan. The inclusion in the ceasefire deal of an open-ended, unrestricted weapons-inspections regime in Lebanon with pre-approved sanctions imposed on any country caught re-supplying Hezbollah would have been an important indication of seriousness. The failure to articulate such a premeditated penalty is a further indication to our enemies that the Western diplomatic community is devoted to toothless half-measures. The ceasefire has damaged Israeli morale, prevented a more thorough destruction of Hezbollah, and in the short term spared Syria and Iran from the humiliation of seeing their proxy military dismantled. But — and this again may be wishful thinking — it also may be tangible evidence that the Bush administration is taking Iran’s nuclear ambitions seriously.
– Noah Pollak is an assistant editor at Azure, the journal of the Shalem Center.