Challenge 46 - Editorial

Israeli soldiers generally get the last month of their service off as a leave-of-absence. Recently a group on discharge leave from Lebanon was summoned to a farewell dinner at a base inside the "security zone." The soldiers asked to be spared the honor, saying, "Why should we have to go back into Lebanon? Our battalion has taken enough casualties. We don't need to risk getting killed for a farewell dinner." (Yediot Aharonot, Oct. 31, 1997) The story attests the mood among soldiers stationed in Lebanon today. There is also growing support for a new campaign, known as "The Four Mothers Movement," which calls on the government to get out of that country at once. Above all, there is a long list of operational failures, which have taken many soldiers' lives in the last few months, bringing the army's prestige to an all-time low.

Israel's military establishment remains helpless. In this past year, it admits, the Lebanese guerrilla movement known as Hizballah (the Party of God) has gone through a basic overhaul, enabling it to confront the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on equal terms. "After twelve years of fighting, the Hizballah has learned to spot every ambush and every tank. They have a complete picture of the IDF's tactics and methods... They have reached the point where they can fire anti-tank missiles day and night. They can gauge with near perfect accuracy the IDF's initiatives and responses." (Ron Ben Ishai, Yediot Aharonot, Oct. 31.)

The Hizballah also enjoys advantages in military intelligence and in support from the local population. "According to Israel's Chief of Staff, the IDF finds it extremely difficult to penetrate the Hizballah for information, whereas the Hizballah's intelligence service is constantly improving." (Eitan Rabin, Ha'aretz, Oct. 27.) Then there is the problem of the IDF's shaky ally, the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA) under General Antoine Lahad. The public debate in Israel has cooled the feet of SLA soldiers. In order to safeguard their future, many have openly deserted to the guerrillas, while others stay behind as Hizballah spies and informers.

This unprecedented nadir led Israel's Northern Command to sit down on October 26 with the top brass to reconsider strategy and tactics. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai was there, as well as Air Force Commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu, Chief of Staff Amnon Shahak, and General for the Northern Front, Amiram Levine. On the strategic level, they decided against a unilateral withdrawal. They then had to deal with the question of tactics, focusing on the "understandings" reached with the Hizballah after the operation called "Grapes of Wrath" (April 1996). Several commentators believe that the generals pushed to cancel the understandings, which limit the fighting to military targets. They want to go back to using air power, where Israel remains unchallenged, even though it means hitting civilians. In past operations, however, aerial bombardment has proved counterproductive. It does not significantly hurt the guerrillas. Contrary to Israel's expectations, it does not turn the local population against them – on the contrary, it strengthens their popular support. The guerrillas retaliate by rocketing Israel's northern towns, and then the government has to call in the Americans and Syrians to mediate new "understandings." Thus round after round, the war of attrition grinds on. Meanwhile, the Hizballah keeps gaining strength, while protest in Israel grows. We have seen this movie before.

In an interview in the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayyat on Oct. 16, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah described the situation. Israel at last understands, he said, that his country is not a playground. Yet he does not rule out the possibility that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may go for broke, opening a full-scale war. The aim will be to win back the status of "dominant regional power," on which basis Israel can then force Syria to agree to an Oslo-style treaty.

Such a treaty is the missing piece in Israel's strategy for dominating the Middle East. Officially this country has declared its readiness to withdraw from Lebanon – but only within the framework of an accord with Syria. It can thus blame the Lebanese bloodshed on President Assad. But Assad knows full well what the Oslo accords have done to the Palestinians and Jordan – why should he go along?
The fact is, in the Lebanon of 1997 Israel again finds itself in a kind of "Gaza." After the Gulf War, it will be remembered, Israel sought a "sucker" who would take Gaza off its hands for nothing. It found one in the person of Yassir Arafat, who agreed – for reasons alien to the interests of his people – to extract Israel from the mud in exchange for the position of subcontractor for the Occupation. Assad is made of different stuff. He presides over a sovereign state that seeks to advance its own regional interests. Until the day when Israel bites the bullet – and gives up trying to be the dominant power in a "new Middle East" of its making – operation will follow operation, war will follow war.