Friday, October 1, 2010

A new Israel-Lebanon war?

A variety of intellectuals and scholars comment on the possibility and logic for new Israel-Lebanon war centering on the prospect that Israel will launch a new war.  Contributors include Rashid Khalidi, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finklestein, Helena Cobban, John Meirsheimer, Mu'in Rabani, Michael Desch, 'Ashaf Kafuri,  and me.  The war would be a punitive campaign that enacts great punishment on Lebanon, but would be likely to strengthen not weaken Hezbollah, as well fomenting much anti-U.S. sentiment. There is also doubt expressed, notably by Meirsheimer, that the Obama administration would behave very much differently than the recent Bush administration in terms of preventing or ending the war.


Here is my contribution:


We can construct a very rational argument for Israel to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Lebanon rather than attacking for the ostensible purpose of disarming Hezbollah.  Notwithstanding the tree incident in early August, the border has been very quiet since the 2006 war ended.  With the exception of contested areas of the occupied Golan Heights, notably the Shiba’ farms, the border area was also quiet from the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 until the July 2006.  Since the 1990s the Hezbollah-Israel rules-of-the-game have been well understood and both belligerents have been generally measured in their actions (as opposed to their rhetoric) and reactions.  July-August 2006 was an exception, of course.  
Roiling inter-sectarian tensions, particularly between Shi’is and Sunnis, have erupted in deadly clashes, as they did this week between Hezbollahis and Ahbashis.  Even so, Hezbollah’s resistance narrative is widely supported in the Shi’i community, even if it is derided in some other Lebanese quarters.  The November 2009 ministerial statement that launched the current government embraced the right of “resistance”, while simultaneously and incongruously committing the government to the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.  Although naïve commentary in the U.S. focuses on the need for the Lebanese Army to disarm Hezbollah, it is obvious that resistance to Israel is popular in the ranks and in the officer corps, and the prospects for Hezbollah being disarmed by the army are zilch.  
If Israel were to attack Lebanon with the objective of weakening, if not defeating Hezbollah and destroying a significant proportion of the group’s arsenal of rockets and missiles, it runs the risk of falling short.  If so, Hezbollah’s resistance narrative would not be undermined but validated, again.  Israeli military sources have argued recently that Hezbollah has “bases” in  more than 100 villages in the South.  This suggests an Israeli campaign that would wreak even wider destruction than the 2006 war.  A landscape of smoldering ruins across southern Lebanon is more likely to inspire not dampen support for Hezbollah.
In addition, Israel would not be unscathed.  Withering rocket fire in northern Israel would cause the displacement of a million or more Israelis.  If Hezbollah makes good on the promise to retaliate-in-kind for Israeli strikes on Lebanese cities then the dangers will cascade for Israel.
This adds up to a rational case for not attacking Lebanon.  
Perhaps, but there is good reason for concern that the Israelis will not be deterred.
Israel—with very generous U.S. support—is committed to maintaining its military superiority over any combination of regional foes.  In addition, Israeli strategic culture emphasizes the need for Israel to “maintain its deterrence”.  This means that Israel’s foes will not seriously contemplate attacking Israel because their defeat is certain and Israel will inflict disproportionate military power should they try.  The punitive campaign against Gaza in December 2008-December 2009 is an example of the latter.  
Particularly in the case of Hezbollah, Israel faces a re-armed foe that flaunts its contempt for Israeli hegemony.  Given a pretext or a miscalculation, it is not far-fetched to imagine an Israeli war plan premised on a fierce and rapid ground attack and an accompanying devastating air campaign designed to overcome Lebanese resistance in a matter of weeks.  Israel would ostensibly demonstrate that it will not be deterred by Hezbollah.  
If Israel launches an air campaign on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it is axiomatic that a pre-emptive attack on Lebanon would be on the menu because it is assumed that the first wave of Iranian retaliation would come in the form of Hezbollahi rockets. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have firmly counseled Israel against bombing Iran, and there is little enthusiasm in the Pentagon for starting a war with Iran.  
Given Israel’s strategic culture and its fixation on “maintaining its deterrence”, an Israeli onslaught into Lebanon would also be justified as thwarting Iran’s hegemonial ambitions while reducing the threat posed to Israel by Hezbollah.  In the Bush White House, Senior National Security Council officials actively encouraged the Gaza War.  The Obama White House is far more likely to urge restraint on Israel, but this will not stop Israel from starting a new war if it elects to do so.
Prudent counsel may prevail, and the tense conditions along the Israel-Lebanon border may persist for some time to come.  Unfortunately, unwise and counter-productive decisions by Israel have become increasingly common. Plus, Israeli officials have often succumbed to the fallacy that inflicting pain on Lebanon reduces support for Hezbollah.  This usually does not work, and often has the opposite effect. 


Crossposted with "From the the Field".

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