November 16, 2010

Israel’s Insanity Eclipses Hezbollah’s

Even casual observers of the Middle East have been submerged in the flood of reports predicting war between Israel and Hezbollah. A matter of when, not if. The situation has reached a perverted stage of positive thinking - the odds are rising simply because each side believes conflict is inevitable.

Whether or not an appeal to probability has been committed remains to be seen, although Murphy’s Law often rules in the Middle East. But attributing war to powers beyond humans would ignore their many faults. Hezbollah’s response to the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is self-destructive not just to the state but to its own base. Meanwhile Israel, confident of America’s tacit support, is doing everything possible to destabilize Lebanon and scapegoat Hezbollah.

Naturally few Western officials would agree, but of the two instigators Hezbollah (and its Syrian/Iranian muscle) comes off as the most rational. As Thanassis Cambanis, a veteran Lebanese journalist and former Mideast bureau chief for The Boston Globe, explains in his new book, A Privilege to Die, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah keeps himself up to date on Israeli reading material such as biographies and war accounts. Cambanis found Israeli officials lacking in comparative interest of Hezbollah’s history.

As for US officials, “A trio of diplomats briefed me on aid, military cooperation, and politics. I hoped they were lying to me, because their assessments were so out of kilter with reality.”

In addition to the potential assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Hezbollah’s current position towards the STL is egregious and conflicts with its image as a protective force. None of its recent behavior enjoys justification, whether Nasrallah’s threat to “cut the hand that reaches out for any one of them” or the gradual military saturation of Beirut. Cambanis recently told Charlie Rose that thousands of proxy fighters loyal to, but not full-time soldiers of, Hezbollah are arming themselves in preparation for the STL’s final judgment and high-level arrests.

Weakening Hezbollah’s position even more, beyond its fundamental risks, is the possibility that Hezbollah could do better. As the world’s leading guerrilla movement, successfully transforming its military strength and social base into legal political power, Hezbollah retains the option of diplomatically resolving the present crisis. Though Rafiq’s son Saad, Lebanon’s current Prime Minister, warned Nasrallah that, “I don’t give in to threats,” he nevertheless added, "I'm ready for calm and constructive dialogue.”

Hezbollah feels it must shield its own to protect its autonomy and integrity, regardless of the cost. Yet passing up the opportunity to avoid widespread confrontation, after losing popularity from the last Beirut flare-up, would commit a grave strategic mistake - and Nasrallah prides himself on learning from the past. Why risk the power he has acquired? Giving up the guilty few implicates Nasrallah, but might also allow Hezbollah to escape relatively unharmed.

In her own response to Nasrallah, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "The problem in Lebanon is not the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The problem is that some are threatening violence in order to try to stop justice.”

She’s correct that Hezbollah’s "intimidation or threats" shouldn’t be tolerated - outside or inside the group. Of course, Hezbollah isn’t the only entity waist deep in intimidation and threats.

Believing he can sustain or repair any potential damage within Lebanon, Nasrallah has proven resilient to disapproval created by internal strife. So long as the majority of Shiites remain firmly on Hezbollah’s side, and they have, Nasrallah can likely weather the STL with the right post-crisis strategy. How violent Hezbollah resorts to defend itself is a key factor - it’s entirely possible that Hezbollah irreparably harms itself with neutral Lebanese.

But its objectives aren’t nearly as impossible or illogical as Israel and America’s, who seek Hezbollah’s total destruction.

To date Washington has issued no public warning to Israel, no demand to halt its intimidation tactics. On Lebanon’s ground and in its airspace, Israel has been accused of countless violations while expanding its intelligence network. War jets regularly buzz across the border while the Lebanese army and Hezbollah actively pursue a sophisticated Israeli spy-ring. Such tactics are common in war, except Israel’s military provocation has brought al-Hariri and Nasrallah closer together.

And for those quick to point out Hezbollah’s own provocation, holding Israel to guerrilla standards underestimates the advantage of the moral high-ground and leads to defeat.

Back in Israel’s private meetings a steady flow of threats reinforce its aggressive behavior. After failing to cripple Hezbollah’s military strength or political support in 2006, then watching it rearm from 13,000 to 40,000 rockets along with other unknown tricks, Israel’s stated goal is the obliteration of Hezbollah’s stockpile and infrastructure. In a recent farewell with the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, outgoing Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin ominously warned of a large-scale conflict that will drag in Syria and Iran (and thus America).

“The next conflict, even if it is limited in scale,” warned the former IAF general, “will be much bigger, much broader, and with many more casualties than we saw in Operation Cast Lead or the Second Lebanon War.”

Whether Syria and Iran get sucked in or not, Hezbollah and Israel promise a war to dwarf the last. But only Israel can actually deliver such massive destruction, and appears intent on exploiting this destruction to lure Syria or Iran directly into the fight so as to justify an attack on them too. Now, with new reports circulating of Hezbollah suspect Mustafa Badreddine, IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi told Israeli radio that Nasrallah may order a coup to prevent the STL’s decision.

Not the worst propaganda, but obvious fear-mongering. Israel has always resented Beirut and would like nothing more than for Hezbollah to seize power - to justify total warfare. Nasrallah is well aware of this.

Meanwhile America’s position towards Hezbollah has utterly failed to contain it, having grown militarily and politically since 2006. Washington continues to follow a short-sighted and immoral policy of denying legitimate political power to democratically elected movements (Hamas, Muqtada al-Sadr), creating distortions in their states’ social fabric. While fully backing Israel’s aggression, Washington has ignored the Palestinians and wasted its political energy trying to isolate Hezbollah.

And apparently is foolish enough to believe it can be destroyed militarily.

There’s no disputing that Hezbollah poses a threat to Israel, and for this reason Israel logically desires war. However, the way it intends to go about war is illogical. Conflict is doomed from the start without overt provocation from Hezbollah. And even in self-defense, which Israel always claims, retaliation rapidly escalates into a disproportionate offensive, spawning an eventual stalemate and thus defeat in fourth-generation warfare.

Unless Hezbollah commits a totally unprovoked attack, Israel will always fail to blame Hezbollah for its own destructive actions. It cannot win the majority of Lebanese “hearts and minds” and turn them against Hezbollah through massive bombardment. Once the destruction, conveyed through the media, reaches an international limit, Israel is then pressured to cease fire by European and Muslim states who ultimately overrun America’s wall. Israel reluctantly withdraws more unpopular and isolated than before.

Conversely, any attack that Hezbollah can partially justify grants automatic victory, so long as it holds its own on the battlefield. The cache won in 2006 was largely due to Hezbollah lasting longer than any Arab army, which dishonored the IDF, and through highly-mobile warfare may be able to dodge Israel's next offensive as well. Dead civilians will be blamed not on Hezbollah but Israel. At the most basic level, any Israeli attack reaffirms Hezbollah’s ideology and existence.

Cambanis describes Nasrallah’s platform as “rapture, resistance, revolution.” Hezbollah needs resistance to live and Israel is all too eager to oblige.

Though Nasrallah maintains a public position of Israel’s destruction, the defensive nature of Hezbollah ensures that he never actually attempts the impossible. Only madness would believe Shia could be bombed out of their support for Hezbollah, and Israel has tried before. Cambanis interviewed many locals along Israel’s border and most are still willing to die for Nasrallah. Kill them and new recruits will pick up their weapons - a truly futile strategy.

Failure to learn this lesson will yield the appropriate consequences.

When will Israel and America finally understand that technology and resources can’t overcome deficiencies in ideology and strategy? Israel and Hezbollah’s struggle is defined by narrative and Cambanis argues that Hezbollah is winning, even if by default. Despite Hezbollah’s polarizing existence in the Arab and greater Muslim world, Israel lags far behind in providing an alternative to perpetual war. Drunk with US support, Israel instead continues to threaten the Lebanese and negotiate behind the Palestinians, playing right into Hezbollah’s message.

Israel can only delegitimize Hezbollah by respecting the Palestinian and Lebanese people; it cannot defeat Hezbollah with military force. Even if it did Hezbollah would probably grow back.

At the grand level Cambanis believes, as does this writer, that a two-state solution would dry up Hezbollah’s platform and deplete its momentum faster than any third-generation war. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted a hostile attitude towards the Palestinians, twisting US President Barack Obama into lopsided terms through his many allies in Washington. The Lebanese are watching Netanyahu run wild over Obama, witnessing the possibility of a fair two-state solution recede into darkness.

And with it any real possibility of delegitimizing Hezbollah.


  1. Great to see that your article was the lead story on P.C.

  2. Not sure why that happened. It's almost a week old.