Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Olmert’s Bet on Bush for Time Pays Off for the Time Being

PM Ehud Olmert appears to have won his bet that Bush would override Condi Rice’s efforts to get the US to join the international community in seeking a quick cease-fire in Israel’s war with Hizbullah and the destruction of Lebanon. After talking with Bush, Rice is now gating a cease-fire on conditions for first meeting conditions for its stability, including the deployment of an international peace keeping force. Since the UN Security Council is unlikely even to authorize this force before next week, the war will contine for weeks, if not months. That extension should give IDF the time to occupy the area south of the Litani and turn it into a buffer zone. This means clearing the area of all inhabitants, Hizbullah and civilians alike.

Olmert says that Israel would relinquish control of this zone to an international peace keeping force, but is unclear whether this excludes a strip along the border that Israel would control, per his colleague Peretz. Moreover, Israel will probably demand that this force prevent the return of civilians to the area for fear Hizbullah will infiltrate with them. Given these sticky points, look for an Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon lasting months, maybe years. This prediction sadly reminds me of a story from the Israel 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Several days after it began, a peacenik friend had a politically savvy printer make up several thousand bumper stickers reading “Israel out of Lebanon.” The printer looked at the text and said “It will be good for a long time.”

What do Israeli leaders expect? First, they expect the Lebanese, Palestinians and Arab world will see a defeated Hizbullah, signified by its fighters being expelled from southern Lebanon and prevented from returning. But that might not a clear sign, if Hizbullah can mount guerilla attacks on IDF forces in the south, as in did in the 1990s, and thereby reassert its claim to be a national resistance force. Israel’s obvious dislike for such attacks and the enhancement of Hizbullah’s reputation might therefore force it to compromise somewhat on the timing, extent and condition of the peacekeepers deployment.

Second, Israeli leaders expect a disarming of Hizbullah. They will only be partly satisfied. While military operations continue, this goal is partly achieved through attrition – Hizbullah using up some weapons in its own attacks, others being destroyed in IDF attacks – and keeping Syria and Iran from rearming Hizbullah. The leaders anticipate additional disarmament as Hizbullah fighters and resources are caught between the hammer of Israel forces in the south and the anvil of a Lebanese army, strengthened by the international force. However, I don’t think the international force will receive a mandate to forcibly disarm Hizbullah, and, even if it did, its troops would be reluctant to do the job. And as British experiences with the IRA shows, armed sub-national groups do not willingly disarm without some ideological demobilization on their own parts and incentives from others.

Even with these more restrained and realistic goals, Israeli leaders are likely to be disappointed. There will neither be the clear victory they loudly seek nor the birth of a new Middle East. Much of the disappointment they should attribute to their own failures: These include the hasty decision to rush into wide scale operations with insufficient military intelligence and unclear goals. But another failure is a mentality that unfortunately construes the present conflict as a zero-sum game and regards the enemy as a cancer to be obliterated.


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