Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, August 17, 2006
Sorry to be posting so sporadically, but I've barely been around, away much of last week and going away again today. Lots to talk about, but I'm going to stick for now to the situation in Israel.

Three things that, to me, seem pretty clear about the Israel-Lebanon war just ended:

One: Israel lost, unequivocally.

Two: It's just a battle, not the war, that was lost. Israel's security situation is marginally, not profoundly, worsened by their failure in Lebanon.

Three: The biggest setback is not to Israel's security situation but to Israel's democratic culture, and we'll see soon how big that setback was.

To the extent that Israel had anything resembling a concrete war aim in attacking Lebanon (which I don't believe they did - as I argued just before Israel launched their ground offensive, Olmert launched this war largely for domestic political reasons, and seems not to have bothered trying to figure out what the military objective was or how it might be achieved), that war aim was to cripple Hezbollah operationally, and incidentally to retrieve the two kidnapped soldiers. These aims were not remotely achieved. Hezbollah survives as an organization and will quickly rebuild both its ranks and its supply of missiles. Hezbollah's position internally within Lebanon and its clout with its Syrian patrons have both been significantly enhanced by its performance in the war. The new UN force will not forcibly disarm Hezbollah, nor will the Lebanese army. And not only have the kidnapped soldiers not been returned, their return is not a condition of the cease-fire. Hezbollah's objective was to provoke Israel into attacking, survive the attack sufficiently well to easily rebuild, and end hostilities on terms that would allow it to flourish. It achieved its aims, Israel failed to achieve its aims - so Israel lost, unequivocally.

The cost to Israel in terms of lives lost is not terribly significant. The economic cost is more so, and we'll see how badly the investment climate in Israel is damaged by the continued threat of attack. But Israel can survive both of these things. The neighboring Arab states have seen the IDF fail decisively for the first time, but they are not so foolish as to think either that they now can win a traditional ground war with Israel (to recover the Golan, say) or that they themselves can attack Israel with impunity (the leaders of the various states have a lot more to lose than Nasrallah does). What they will do is show Hezbollah more respect formally and informally, and will not again trust Israel to "solve" a terrorist problem for them.

The big cost to Israel is in terms of its relationship with the United States - or, at any rate, I hope that is the case. The U.S. gave Israel an extremely free hand in this conflict, and Israel quite clearly failed to deliver. Interestingly, I have heard from more than one Israeli the not-terribly-plausible theory going around Israel that Bush put Olmert up to this war - that we encouraged him to attack Lebanon as a sort of proxy-war against Iran. As I say, I find the story implausible. Domestic pressures are quite sufficient to explain Olmert's decision to take the war aggressively into Lebanon, and it's not at all clear how Israel bombing Hezbollah would either weaken Iran or strengthen America's position in its burgeoning confrontation with that country - and the ways in which the Lebanon war would complicate our position in Iraq were immediately obvious. This Israeli theory strikes me as another instance of a people wishing away their own failures by blaming the United States, a common enough strategy world-wide. But if it were true (and it isn't impossible, just unlikely) it seems to me that this would make the damage to Israel's relationship with the United States worse.

But, as I say, this is just a battle. Israel's geopolitical situation is not greatly changed. Hezbollah's primary strength comes from its financial backers, and these were as motivated before as they are now. Hezbollah is a Shiite power originally created by and still backed by Iran, the would-be Shiite regional hegemon. Syria, controlled by an obscure minority religious group and allied with Iran, has equal reason to be supportive. But Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan: these are all states that are dominated by Sunnis, fearful of their own restive Shiite minorities (especially in Saudi Arabia), and traditionally enemies of Iran. An Israeli victory would have met with quiet toasts in Cairo and Riyadh. But while the Israeli loss will make these powers more respectful towards Hezbollah, it will not make them into supporters.

Nor is Israel's security situation much changed. Before the war, Hezbollah threatened Israel with rockets; they will soon be able to do so again. Before the war, Lebanon could not, practically, control its territory; there is no sign that they will be able to do so now. The presence of an international force complicates Israel's ability to respond to future provocation, and that is a loss, but it doesn't actually prevent an Israeli response, just complicate it. If Hezbollah fires rockets at Israel, Israel will respond, blue helmets or no. (This is one major reason that, so far, the blue helmets have not materialized.) Hezbollah, meanwhile, has not demonstrated that they can defeat the Israeli army, much less seize and hold Israeli territory. Terrorist groups in Ireland and Algeria achieved many of their political objectives by means of terror, but they are a poor analogy to Israel because they were fighting to expel what were, effectively, colonial powers (though both Algeria and Ireland were integral parts of France and Great Britain respectively); Israel, by contrast, is fighting for its home. (The pied noirs and Protestant Irish were, of course, home, but they were not in a position to retain control of their countries without the assistance of the metropole.) So long as Israeli Jews are unwilling to be ruled (or, in the worst case scenario, be massacred or expelled by) Arabs, Israel will endure, and short of a nuclear attack that would completely change the complexion of the Israeli response (Israel reportedly has upwards of 200 atomic warheads, and was prepared to use them in 1973 when national survival was at stake) Hezbollah cannot plausibly "eliminate" Israel - its stated goal.

Nor, finally, is it obvious that Israel starts the next war in a worse position than it did this most recent one. On paper, the diplomatic end-game is surprisingly favorable to Israel. This reflects the fact that nobody but Iran actually wants Hezbollah to be victorious, and that a broad array of states recognize that Israel was, indeed provoked. (Israel has been condemned in many quarters for the conduct of the war, but in most of these she has not been condemned for "aggression" - and those who have condemned Israel for "aggression" are from the quarters that reject Israel's right to exist per se, so what can you expect.) The significance of this basically positive diplomatic context is that Israel has a clear path to resume hostilities in response to any new provocation.

All of this explains why I say that Israel lost unequivocally, but that the loss was not as significant as many commentators have suggested.

So what do I think the most significant consequences of this war will be?

I see four, all ominous for Israeli democracy. In increasing order of importance:

First, Israel is currently governed by a center-left coalition. It is not clear that there is another coalition capable of governing Israel, but it is imperative that Israeli voters hold Kadima (and Labor) accountable for the failure of this war. It is difficult to see how the electorate in Israel will square the circle they are presented with, and punish the current leadership without opting for an even less-plauible leadership. If they fail to do so, Israeli democracy will suffer in one fashion or another - either because the leadership is not held accountable or because Israel will come to be governed by an unstable or even bizarre coalition of special interest groups that hollows out the always fragile center in Israeli society.

Second, Israel is currently governed by a man who has fewer in the way of military credentials than possibly any prior Israeli leader. And he has proved incompetent in handling his first war. The lesson I expect Israelis to take home - and probably should take home - is that Israelis cannot trust their security to a Prime Minister who is not also a general. (The most optimistic scenario for the next government is that Kadima knocks off Olmert and replaces him with former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.) It is very hard to paint such a conclusion as a good thing for democratic culture.

Third, the class divisions in Israeli society have been brought home with a vengeance. Ehud Olmert is known as Israel's first "yuppie" Prime Minister, a proud member of Israel's overclass. His chief of staff, the man responsible for the notion that Israel could beat Hezbollah using air power alone, is similarly typecast. As happened before in the 1970s, Israelis are realizing that their leadership class is in a meaningful sense divorced from the people. The country did not have a good plan for protecting civilians, and they used the IDF not the way it has traditionally been used but more akin to the way Clinton used America's military - Olmert appeared to be more afraid of Israeli military casualties than of whether he would win or lose the war, and this will be interpreted as an expression of the elite's self-interested rather than collective-minded mentality. The same is true of the chief of staff's air-power-centric plan for dealing with Hezbollah in the first place. The same is true in spades of his decision to sell his stock portfolio before launching an attack. All of this will give a strong boost to Israeli populism, and populism is the favorite food of demagogues, not generally good for orderly democratic governance.

Fourth, and most significantly, it is worth noting that a large fraction - I suspect a majority - of Israel's Arab population supported Hezbollah in the war. Several Arab members of the Knesset vocally supported Hezbollah, and even relatives of civilians *killed* by Hezbollah's rockets were quoted supporting Hezbollah. Israeli Jews are not going to forget this. Among the Jewish population of Israel there was wall-to-wall support for the war in Lebanon - in contrast to the situation in the territories, where there are a variety of opinions and usually a clear majority in favor of withdrawing from most of Judea and Samaria. Hezbollah has no legitimate grievances against Israel; their grievance is Israel's existence. For Israeli Arabs to support Hezbollah is as much as to declare themselves not only alienated from the state and eager to change its character but an active fifth column, assisting those who would destroy Israel by violence. I have been growing steadily more pessimistic about the prospects for Israel's survival as a Jewish state with a substantial Arab Muslim minority as that minority has grown steadily more hostile to the state of which they are citizens. It is now hard to convince me that there is any plausible future but re-division of the country. The big winner, long-term, is going to be Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, who has advocated "trading" the triangle region of the Galilee - the most concentrated Arab region in Israel, and also the home of the most radical Islamist groups - to the Palestinian entity in exchange for retention of key settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria (Ariel, Ma'ale Adumim, etc.). Unless this were accomplished by referendum, however, such a "trade" would be a clear violation of international law, as well as a profound violation of democratic principles, as it would entail summarily stripping hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs of their citizenship and forcing them to be citizens of a different polity. Nonetheless, that is where I think Israel is heading. This is the most profound reason why I think this war's most significant casualty is Israeli democracy.

Israel, for its own reasons, wants to get out of the bulk of the territories, because it does not want to suffer the fate of South Africa. Precisely because an Israeli withdrawal would also be a victory for Israel's enemies, those enemies will do everything they can to create conditions that reinforce the - plausible - interpretation that Israel has been driven out by Arab heroes and martyrs. Their attempts to create such conditions will be the spark for the next war, which will come sooner or later, probably sooner. One hopes that Israel will learn enough from their mistakes in the current conflict to be better prepared when the next conflict comes.