Friday, July 14, 2006

israel and hezbollah: toward all-out war?

With the escalation of the crisis on Israel's northern border the Middle East continues to move closer to all-out war, albeit in incremental passes. At this hour, the most recent news is the destruction of the Nasrallah/Hezbollah headquarters in Beirut together with more rocket attacks, causing lesser but hardly insignificant casualties, in northern Israeli cities and towns. While the exact sequence of events is disputed--Israeli television has suggested that Hezbollah units may have fired in error on the city of Haifa, provoking the more massive Israeli attack on Beirut and its suburbs--the situation is clearly as dangerous as any in years.

I expressed skepticism about the Olmert Government's management of the Gaza crisis in a post last week, and see no reason to retract that criticism now. However there is no doubt that Hezbollah's actions--especially the attacks on Haifa, a large city and Israel's industrial and refining center--have changed the situation irreversibly. It is almost impossible to imagine Israel accepting a return to the status quo ante, and it will likely demand the withdrawal of Hezbollah forces and an end to the rocket threat, along with the return of all Israeli prisoners, as the conditions for a cease-fire.

Three factors have distinguished this from previous Middle East showdowns, none of them particularly favorable for the Hezbollah side. The first is the Bush Administration's pointed refusal to pressure Israel to abandon its operation, although it has made some noises about not destroying the internal political settlement in Lebanon itself. Without American pressure, European complaints about the "disproportional" nature of the Israeli reaction are likely to fall on deaf ears.

The second is the mixed feelings that many Arabs have about Hezbollah and its part in the effort to impose a Shia/Iranian stamp on the region under cover of the anti-Israel struggle. Arab Governments have been notably lukewarm in their criticism of the Israeli offensive; some private correspondents have reportedly cheered them on.

The third difference--less sanguine for the Israelis--is the shift in the balance of forces caused by the presence of the kassem and (now) katyusha rockets and the Iranian Government's apparently unlimited ability to supply the latter items. This is not necessarily a good thing for Iran either, since it will likely bring closer an Israeli and/or American attack on their country, which Iran's rather obvious contempt for international organizations has been making more and more probable, anyway. But for the first time in recent memory, substantial portions of Israel are vulnerable to direct, instant attack, and the notion of a one-sided, imposed solution to the Palestinian problem seems increasingly unconvincing.

One bit of comic relief has been Sheikh Nasrallah's apparently genuine outrage that the Israelis have responded forcefully and spurned his offer of a prisoner exchange. It seems that groups like Hezbollah have been at this business so long that they genuinely see nothing wrong with killing a few people, taking a few hostages, and expecting to resolve the whole thing with a handshake agreement. Italian television reported this morning that Nasrallah "may have miscalculated" in gauging the Israeli response. We'll find out just how much.


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