When the ceasefire went into effect on the Lebanese-Israeli border in 2006, nobody believed — not for a moment — that this was the end of conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. After all, none of Israel’s objectives were met in 2006: Israel Defense Forces’ soldiers were still held captive in Lebanon; and far from being annihilated or weakened, Hezbollah emerged from the war stronger than before, even by testimony of the Israel army. Anybody familiar with the guiding ideology behind the Zionist State understands why 2006 was such a problem for Tel Aviv. The Israelis, simply said, cannot afford to “not win” a war with the Arabs.
Back in 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was forced to resign — not for losing a war, but simply, for not winning it. Much of that reasoning applied to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who stepped down in early 2009, having also not won, neither the 2006 war in Lebanon nor the 2008 war in Gaza.
Since then we have been hearing of a Phase II scenario between the two countries, speculated for the summers of 2006-2009. Why summer? One reason is that all of Israel’s wars have been in the summer, when the skies are clear and the soil is strong for Israeli army tanks, in 1967, 1982, and 2006. Only in March 1968 did the Israelis go into a winter battle with the Arabs — the Palestinians at Karameh in Jordan — and back then, bad weather prevented their air force from intervening, and led to a retreat of their ground forces, after a 10-hour battle. Once again, the drums of war are vibrating throughout the region, as tension escalates between Hezbollah and Israel, signaling that a new war will break out in the summer of 2010.
Israeli military drills, the thundering rhetoric of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, the aggressiveness of top officials in the Netanyahu government, and an indifferent Obama administration have all added to snowballing tension in the Middle East.
Neither the US nor Israel can tolerate the continuation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a powerful player independent from their control, which has effectively shattered the myth of Israeli military supremacy, and lived to tell the story. The fact that the party is strongly represented in the Lebanese government and got its say on all crucial matters in Lebanese domestic affairs since 2006 only makes the reality harder to digest for the IDF.
Once again, this war would be a proxy one, with Israel serving as proxy for the US, and Hezbollah fighting with a fraction of the military might of Iran. The option of a US war on Iran, after all, still stands, although on hold so long as the US remains grounded in Iraq. Hezbollah officials have been saying that unlike 2006, this won’t be a defensive war but one in which the party will use its full strength, hinting that they can delve deep into Israeli territory and occupy colonies along northern Israel, setting a precedent that would bring down the Netanyahu government, then strike at “Haifa and beyond Haifa.”
Last week, the crisis took a new turn as threats were fired back and forth between Damascus and Tel Aviv, with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad saying that Israel was not ready for peace, while his Foreign Minister Walid Al Mua’allem spoke of a “regional war” that would not spare Israeli cities, followed by a statement by the Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Al Otari, who said that Israel will strongly regret a war with Syria.
Who benefits from a regional war? Certainly, Hezbollah doesn’t want it and nor does Lebanon. The Saudis don’t want it, seeing that war would spell economic disaster for Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, along with political trouble, given that Hezbollah is strongly represented in his cabinet, which has pledged to “protect and embrace” the arms of Hezbollah.
Damascus has committed itself to peace following the Madrid Conference of 1991, based on the June 4, 1967 borders of Israel, and has repeatedly called for peaceful solutions in the Middle East, aimed at restoring the Golan Heights to Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, wants this war to happen, for many reasons. One links directly to his Iran-o-phobia, seeing it as a prelude to a future confrontation with Iran.
Another is his desire to rank among Israeli leaders who fought wars with Arab states and won — another David Ben Gurion, Menachem Begin, or Ariel Sharon. He cannot afford to become another Ehud Barak or Olmert, helpless at crushing Palestinian resistance at home, or Hezbollah threats on Israel’s northern border. Fighting a war, and winning it, would empower Netanyahu in any peace talks with the Arabs and spare him the agony of engaging in any serious talks with the Palestinians.
The Israelis sound optimistic about this war, claiming that they learned from all their shortcomings in 2006 and are bent on never repeating them in 2010. For that matter, so has Nasrallah. The Israelis believe that there will be no Phase III for their conflict with Lebanon, claiming that this will indeed be the final battle, which will either bring down Nasrallah or Netanyahu.
Beneath the layers of Israeli rhetoric, everybody understands that the guerrilla tactics of Hezbollah, its lead advantage against the bulky Israel army, still stand. So does the difficult topography of South Lebanon, the grassroots popularity of Hezbollah, and the fact that Hezbollah has not been infiltrated by the Israelis — a factor that resulted in them being unable to strike at Nasrallah or any senior party commander in 2006. So is the religious drive of Hezbollah warriors, the stockpiles of sophisticated weapons, and the unwavering support of regional players like Iran and Syria.
Outcomes in war, however, are unpredictable, especially after 2006.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. This article appeared in Gulf News on February 9, 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.