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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Hizballah in Lebanon: The War Was Not Supposed to End This Way

Filed under: Hizbullah, Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli Security, Lebanon
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 546    September 2006

  • Israel is not better off strategically than it was at the beginning of the war; this in itself is a Hizballah victory. Israel must prepare to win the next round decisively.

  • The IDF knew that Hizballah could not be defeated without a major ground operation: its plan did not fail – it was never implemented. The failure was primarily of leadership: only go to war with clear objectives and the determination to prevail.

  • The IDF ostensibly applied the initially brilliant U.S. strategy in Iraq – an aerial blitz against military targets and civil infrastructure, to crush the Iraqi system, followed by a decisive ground offensive. In reality, Israel did not launch the follow-on ground operation and, except for transportation, did not target Lebanon’s infrastructure either.

  • Israel must adopt and aggressively implement a realistic deterrent posture, with clear “red lines.” Hizballah attacks, even attempts to redeploy, should cause an immediate and overwhelming response. Israel, not Hizballah, must have escalation dominance.

  • Lebanese and international forces will do little to ensure security and will end up as a cover for ongoing Hizballah operations, hampering Israel’s freedom of movement. Hizballah will neither disarm nor redeploy from the south. Another round is likely.

  • The West Bank consolidation is now virtually dead and with it any prospects for the “peace process.” Only a serious, dramatic Arab initiative can save it. Once again, the Palestinians and their radical allies have been their own worst enemy.

  • Iran remains the primary issue – imagine this war just a few years from now: a nuclear umbrella for Hizballah, threats to Israel’s existence, an international crisis. The good news: Iran exposed its Hizballah deterrent prematurely; Israel learned it can survive Hizballah rocket attacks, an important lesson if Iran is attacked in the future; the world was given a “wake-up call.”

  • A revitalized U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue is more vital than ever.

Hizballah, with the help of its Iranian and Syrian patrons, has handed the Arabs their first military victory over Israel. The IDF achieved a number of hard-won successes in the field, especially given the objective difficulties inherent in fighting a guerilla force so deeply embedded in the local populace, and Security Council Resolution 1701 contains a number of positive elements. Nonetheless, the bottom line is all that matters: Israel is not better off strategically than it was at the beginning of the war. The war was not supposed to end this way, neither in reality, nor in perception. There is no avoiding this painful conclusion.

Precisely because this is the case, Israel must face up to reality, draw the appropriate conclusions, make the best of a bad situation, and now seek to turn adversity into long-term advantage. This analysis looks at how the current situation evolved, and possible future steps.

The IDF’s Plan Was Never Implemented

The primary failure in this war was not the underestimation of Hizballah tenacity, tactical surprises (number of anti-tank weapons, degree Hizballah had dug in, new types of weapons), or the IDF’s fundamental strategy. It has been clear to the Israeli defense establishment for years that there was no simple solution to Hizballah’s 12,000-plus rocket arsenal, that an air campaign alone would not suffice, and that only a major, protracted, ground offensive could make the decisive difference, but even then, still not completely resolve the problem. The IDF’s plan did not fail – it was never implemented. Even the cabinet decision to expand the campaign to the Litani, four weeks after the fighting began, was half-hearted and largely designed as a last-minute attempt to gain diplomatic leverage.

Ostensibly, the IDF followed an approach similar to the brilliant U.S. military strategy of the early days of the 2003 Iraq War – a massive aerial blitz against both military targets and the civil infrastructure, designed to bring about the collapse of the Iraqi government and military as a cohesive, functioning system, immediately followed by a rapid ground offensive to deliver the decisive blow. In fact, Israel not only failed to launch the follow-on ground operation, but did not truly apply the aerial blitz model either. With the exception of a handful of targets, mostly in the opening days of the war, the only “civil infrastructure” Israel targeted was the transportation system. The power (electrical, gas, gasoline), communications, media, and governmental system were all left untouched. As it is, Israeli action has elicited the usual world condemnation and Arab cries of massacre, but most of Lebanon’s infrastructure remains unscathed, the benefits of “collapsing the system” untried.

Secure Enough to be Risk-Adverse

Over the years, Israel has become secure enough to become risk-adverse, to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of action versus restraint, to attempt to minimize military and civilian losses, as well as political costs. In the past, when Israel’s strategic circumstances were even more constrained, every possible setback was considered an unacceptable loss in a zero sum game and Israel was willing to pay almost any price to prevail. This is no longer the case, and the government’s careful and mature approach was justified, but was taken too far, leading to indecision and even paralysis.

Forgetting the “Powell Doctrine”

Israel’s primary mistake was the failure to learn the lessons of the “Powell Doctrine,” formulated by former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, who identified three essential preconditions for entering a war: establishing clear, attainable objectives, with a defined exit strategy; applying overwhelming force in the pursuit thereof; and ensuring public support. Of these, Israel had only public support, with the government failing to heed the clear lessons of Vietnam, Lebanon 1982, and Iraq today – either play to win or not at all.

Admittedly, the government faced extremely difficult circumstances following the kidnappings and other events of July 12, which precipitated the war, and no good options presented themselves. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for its headlong, almost knee-jerk, rush into war without understanding the complexities of the issue and the limitations of the IDF’s ability to deal with it, without defining clear and attainable objectives appropriate to this understanding, and applying the overwhelming means necessary to ensure a successful outcome. If the determination to see the war through to its painful end was lacking – and in broad terms the price was known in advance – the government should have gone through the motions, made some limited response to show its “displeasure” and waited for more propitious circumstances. The six-year-long state of tenuous “calm” (i.e., periodic flare-ups) on the Lebanese border was ultimately untenable, but acceptable in the meantime. Alternatively, the government should have acted decisively from the outset.

Undoubtedly, Israeli restraint would have strengthened Hizballah’s stature even more and encouraged further provocations. Undoubtedly, the northern border would have erupted at some point, in any event. But the timing could have been of Israel’s choosing and when more fully prepared, both militarily and in terms of strategic goals. With Gilad Shalit in captivity in Gaza, the post-Gaza withdrawal security regime going up in flames, the Iranian issue coming to a head in the Security Council, and the U.S. embroilment in Iraq worse than ever, the timing was less than optimal. Admittedly, in Israel’s case, there may never be appropriate timing. This, however, was certainly not it.

A Failure of Leadership in a “One Crisis Town”

If it has been woefully noted that Washington is a “one crisis town,” capable of effectively dealing with only one major issue at a time, this is surely the case of the much smaller, but extraordinarily overburdened, Israeli national security decision-making establishment. Neither Prime Minister Olmert nor Defense Minister Peretz had time to learn the complexities of the Lebanon issue, nor the limitations of the IDF’s capability of dealing with it, focused as they were on the situation in Gaza, possible unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, and the various other professional and political demands of their new positions.

The defense establishment itself has been overwhelmed in recent years with a never-ending series of crises, each of which posed fundamental strategic dilemmas, but none of which was able to receive the full attention it warranted. To note just a few examples, the defense establishment had to gear up for the dramatic proposals and changes in strategic concepts made by Prime Minister Barak in the peace talks with the Palestinians and Syria, as well as the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, only to have this immediately followed by the outbreak of the second intifada and an unprecedented multi-year battle against terror. The war in Iraq posed the threat of non-conventional warfare, but initially led to the promise of a radically improved Middle Eastern strategic outlook and to major defense cuts. The Gaza disengagement required lengthy planning and a huge expenditure of resources. Throughout these years, the Iranian nuclear threat also demanded great attention. Lebanon, too, was given considerable attention, especially in the period following the withdrawal, but the system (perhaps no system) could not effectively cope with all of these issues. Something had to give, Lebanon was apparently it.

The Worst of All Worlds

In the end, Israel will have suffered the worst of all worlds. The northern third of the country was under continual, increasingly devastating fire for over a month, civilian and military deaths mounted rapidly, the economic boom may have been wrecked or at least slowed significantly, Israel’s international standing has eroded rapidly and its deterrence was severely undermined. This would have been an acceptable price for victory, but may have serious repercussions for Israel’s future posture vis-a-vis Iran, Syria, Hamas, and, of course, Hizballah. It may negatively impact Israel’s relations with friendly countries as well, including the U.S., which will now look askance at Israel’s assessments and capabilities.

Imagine if Iran Had Nukes

International attention has been focused on the immediate problem of Hizballah, but this must not divert attention from the truly important issue at hand: the Iranian nuclear program and what the U.S., the international community, and Israel will do after Iran rejects the Security Council’s deadline for ceasing its nuclear activities. Imagine if this war had taken place just a few years from now, once Iran had already developed a nuclear capability: a nuclear umbrella for Hizballah to deter Israel, threats of Israel’s destruction, an international crisis. Iran was and remains the primary issue.

Hizballah’s rocket arsenal has long been thought to be Iran’s “ace in the hole” – a potentially devastating deterrent right on Israel’s border, to be unleashed in the event of an Israeli or U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities. Even if much of this arsenal remains intact following the current round of fighting and not all of its capabilities have been exposed, it was clearly put to premature use, under the wrong circumstances from an Iranian and Hizballah perspective, and presumably Israel will not tolerate its reconstitution.

Indeed, the arsenal has now lost much of its deterrent value. The war has taught Israel an important lesson, for those who still doubted this after the 1991 Gulf War and years of intifada: Israel’s staying power, its national resilience, is far greater than both its enemies and, more importantly, Israel itself, at times, believe. Israeli society has been steadfast, willing to pay the price, indeed, more so than the government. This is a vital lesson, if and when an attack is conducted against Iran’s nuclear facilities and generally, as Israel and the West are increasingly faced by asymmetric warfare, in which radical states and newly empowered non-state actors intentionally target civilian populations.

No Unilateral West Bank Withdrawal

The war in Lebanon has clear ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” as well. Israeli despair over the prospects for a negotiated peace settlement, following the abysmal failures of the 1993 Oslo process and 2000 Camp David summit, led to unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and to Olmert’s election on a platform calling for unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank. The plan may already have been virtually dead politically, following the recent Palestinian attacks from Gaza. Now, the consolidation plan is almost certainly dead, and with it, virtually any prospects for positive movement on the Palestinian track. Quite simply, if neither negotiated settlements, nor even unilateral withdrawals, can provide Israel with a modicum of security, no Israeli government will dismantle settlements and withdraw from the West Bank. In any event, it is abundantly clear that the IDF will have to remain deployed in the West Bank for years, for defensive purposes, even if the settlements are dismantled. The Palestinians, with Hizballah’s gracious help, will have succeeded once again in being their own worst enemy.

Radicals Ascendant in the Middle East

The war in Iraq caused a major, positive change in the regional balance of power, with the “radical camp” greatly weakened. Iraq was forced out of this camp, Libya chose to opt out, Syria was subject to unprecedented international pressure, Iran found itself “surrounded” by the U.S. and its allies, WMD and terror became the focus of international opprobrium, and the balance between Israel and its enemies was greatly improved. Following the U.S. failure in Iraq and Israel’s in Lebanon, many of these benefits now stand to be swept away, leading to a greatly reemboldened radical camp. Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, the insurgents in Iraq and others, will all become even more convinced of their ability to stand up to both the “Great” and “Little Satan,” and to promote WMD capabilities and terror in the pursuit of their extremist ideologies. The radicals’ and fundamentalists’ power will increase, as will the threat to the stability of moderate Arab regimes. With the death of the peace process and hopes for regional reform, the “bad, old” Middle East will truly be back, whose internal dysfunctions will pose an even greater threat to international security.

The Road Forward

While the Olmert government was elected on a unilateral withdrawal platform, desirous of cutting defense expenditures and focusing on socio-economic issues, events have now pushed the Lebanese issue to the fore. It is imperative that the Israeli government now adopt clear objectives regarding the northern border. It can either seek to:

  • Cut its losses and make the best of the new situation, including the deployment of the Lebanese Army and international forces. To this end, Israel can seek to reestablish a long term, if tenuous, state of relative calm on the Lebanon border and await another, presumably more propitious, day.

  • Find a pretext to renew the fighting, which Hizballah will presumably soon provide, bite the bullet, fight to win, and realize that this, too, will probably lead only to a temporary respite.

Escalation Dominance

Much criticism has been directed at the Barak and Sharon governments’ failure to actually implement Israel’s declaratory deterrent posture following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, though at the time it was believed that the intifada and subsequently the Gaza disengagement took precedence.

Israel must now adopt a realistic deterrent posture, with clear “red lines,” and aggressively implement it in practice, at the risk of renewed hostilities. Hizballah attempts to redeploy in the security zone, not to mention actual attacks, should result in immediate and overwhelming Israeli responses and a willingness to further escalate, as needed. Israel, not Hizballah, must dominate the escalation cycle.

Lebanon’s civil infrastructure should no longer be out of bounds. Israel should create a new strategic equation: If Hizballah persists in targeting Israel’s civilian population, Israel will respond, not by hitting Lebanese civilians, but by gradually attacking the civil infrastructure – power plants, communications, and media.

The criterion for renewed and expanded military action has to be efficacy, not artificial territorial delineations, such as the Litani River. This may require a far broader operation, with all of the attendant consequences.

A Robust International Force?

A strengthened international force in southern Lebanon may be the only means of providing Israel with a face-saving means of ending the current round, as well as some possible semblance of greater actual stability thereafter. However, there should be few illusions regarding the actual efficacy of this force. No international force will even attempt to do what Israel has tried to do: confront Hizballah, put an end to its cross border operations, and prevent rockets from being fired overhead, as well as implement UN resolutions calling for its disarmament. The Shiite-dominated Lebanese army will, in all likelihood, do little, if anything, to ensure security in the south and, together, the two forces will probably end up serving as a cover for ongoing Hizballah operations, merely hampering Israel’s future freedom of operation. Moreover, Hizballah will do everything in its power to erode the morale and efficacy of these forces; indeed, it has already begun doing so, even prior to their actual deployment.

In the short run, however, these forces may be able to play some moderating role, restricting Hizballah’s freedom of maneuver by patrolling the newly demilitarized south of Lebanon, reporting its attempts to reestablish a presence therein to the Security Council, and inspecting border traffic with Syria to prevent, or at least reduce, Hizballah’s rearmament by land.

The role of the international force on the ground should be further strengthened by U.S./international inspection of air and especially maritime traffic to Syria and Lebanon, to prevent new shipments of arms from Iran and Syria. U.S. counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation programs, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), already provide international frameworks for such efforts, or the U.S. could do so unilaterally.

Democracy in Lebanon?

The U.S. goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East is, of itself, a laudable one. Lebanon, however, is by no means a positive example of Middle Eastern democracy. Hizballah is already represented in the cabinet and truly democratic elections, which would have to be based on a new national census, which has not been taken in decades, would ensure a Hizballah plurality.

What is needed in Lebanon is stability and an end to the Hizballah “state within a state.” Hizballah will not become a primarily political organization, as various observers naively thought, blend into the Lebanese political landscape, and forego its fundamentally Jihadi identity and commitment to Israel’s destruction. It must be delegitimized, forced out of government, and ultimately disarmed. A terrorist organization cannot be part of a democratic government.

The attempt should be made to make international financing for Lebanon’s reconstruction contingent, at least partially, on Hizballah’s eviction from the government. There is no justification for financing a country which has terrorists in its government. On the other hand, Hizballah and Iran have already begun a major reconstruction program of their own, and leaving the field open for them to further increase their influence in Lebanon is in no one’s interest. A way out of this dilemma may be found in at least making the full extent of international assistance contingent on removing Hizballah from the government, with Lebanon standing to gain significantly more in the event that it does take actual steps to evict Hizballah.

Reengaging Syria?

As in previous Middle East crises, numerous observers have called for the U.S. to reengage Syria and try and use the current crisis as a means of renewing the long-moribund Syrian-Israeli negotiating track. Engaging with one’s adversaries is almost always preferable to lack of engagement, and current U.S. policy on Iran is a belated recognition of this. The question, however, is what the U.S. and/or Israel can engage Syria about. The U.S. has repeatedly tried to offer Syria bilateral inducements, such as economic aid, better trade relations, and improved international standing. Despite these efforts, it did not succeed in getting Syria to moderate its territorial demands from Israel, or halt its assistance to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Nor has it managed to pull Syria away from Iran; indeed, their relations are far closer under Bashar al-Assad than they were under his father Hafez al-Assad. The only thing Syria wants is for the U.S. to “deliver” Israel regarding the Golan Heights. Bilateral inducements are of little interest to the Syrian regime, which fears economic or political openness and progress more than it desires them.

The equation is abundantly clear: In exchange for a 100 percent withdrawal from the Golan Heights (including the Sea of Galilee coastline, which is part of Israel according to the international boundaries), Israel stands to gain a 100 percent cold peace. In effect, this means not much more than a state of non-belligerency with a radical regime that may no longer be in power in a few years and which, especially now, may even choose to covertly continue its proxy war against Israel through Hizballah, even after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Even assuming the best of circumstances, it is an open question whether a deal of this sort serves U.S. and Israeli interests.

In the absence of Syrian interest in positive inducements, or realistic prospects for a peace settlement, the U.S. should adopt a combined policy of containment and engagement. To this end, the U.S. administration should do some creative thinking and produce a coherent policy of “carrots and sticks.” To cite a few examples of possible “sticks,” the above-mentioned inspections regime regarding aerial and maritime traffic to Syria should be implemented. The U.S./UN should call for “inspections” of suspected terror and WMD sites in Syria; Damascus will refuse, of course, but the regime will be further isolated internationally and embarrassed at home. Jordan and Turkey can be encouraged to curtail relations with Syria, including cross-border trade; while both seek correct relations with Syria, neither has an interest in its ascendancy. The investigation of Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri should be expedited and international pressure on Syria renewed.

Moreover, the U.S. should resume talk of “regime change” in Syria, without actively pursuing it in practice. Actual change may result in the rise of an even more dangerous regime, though given Syria’s role in the assassination of Hariri, its support for Hizballah and Hamas, and its role in the Iraqi insurgency, this is hard to imagine. Nevertheless, the very possibility that the U.S. was pursuing change would make the highly paranoid Syrian regime take notice and possibly even act more cautiously.

A Revitalized U.S.-Israeli Strategic Dialogue

The U.S. and Israel maintain intensive, ongoing consultations at all levels and on virtually all issues. Talks, however, are often more in the form of an exchange of information, rather than a truly open policy dialogue, with neither side actually willing to put its cards on the table. Partly, this is the way of sovereign states and not much more can be expected; partly, neither side has fully formulated coherent policies on some of the primary issues (Iran, Palestinians, Hizballah); and partly, the in-depth dialogue that has taken place has been limited primarily to the level of the White House-Prime Minister’s office. This is, of course, the ultimate locus of strategic dialogue, but it is an inherently limited one, given time and political constraints, and discussion between the two national security establishments is necessary.

It is time for a far broader and more in-depth policy exchange at both senior political and bureaucratic levels. Existing strategic fora, such as the JPMG (Joint Politico-Military Group), must be given new life, infused with a truly substantive policy approach, and conducted at more senior levels.

It is more urgent than ever that the two sides agree, or at least fully explore, the strategic options open to them on Iran. On this issue, neither side can afford the failed assessments, expectations, and outcome of the war in Lebanon.

Greater joint attention, including funding, will have to be devoted to the development of weapons systems and tactics for dealing with the new form of asymmetric warfare posed by Hizballah in Lebanon and the insurgents in Iraq.

U.S. disappointment over Israel’s poor showing in Lebanon cannot fail to have a negative influence on Israel’s image as a strategic partner. This makes deepened dialogue that much more essential.

The prospects for renewed progress on both the Syrian/Lebanese and Palestinian tracks are minimal at best. Nonetheless, one way to overcome the current impasse and transform crisis into opportunity is for one or more of the regional players to initiate a “tie breaker,” a sudden, dramatic Arab initiative that changes the rules of the game.

One of the unanticipated effects of the second Lebanon war was the decision of several Arab regimes to openly express their opposition to Hizballah. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt were actually a part of a quiet strategic consensus with Israel with regard to the danger emanating from Iranian adventurism in the current crisis. The longer the war went on, the more this common position was compromised by the rage of the Arab street, but at the elite level, the shared concern of the Arab states and Israel with Iran and with what Jordan’s King Abdullah has called “the Shiite Crescent” still holds.

Whether this can be leveraged to limited moves in the peace process needs to be tested. But creative diplomacy should be explored nonetheless, from backchannel contacts to more bold initiatives. An effective U.S. attempt to promote such an idea is now essential.

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Dr. Chuck Freilich, formerly Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser, is now a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.