The war on Lebanon seems to be over, at least for the time being. But the effects of that war will be felt for a long time. In stark contrast to the Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank, the Lebanon War, as we shall see below, was much more about American designs than Israeli ones.
It looks very much like we are at the beginning of a long period of renewed and intensified conflict in the Middle East. It is important to understand how these events came about, and to at least try to understand the motivations of the players involved. Jewish Voice for Peace brings you this extensive in-depth analysis. There's a lot of information here, so you can use the Table of Contents below to get to the subjects you want to learn more about.
The Lebanon War
Who and What Is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah and Lebanon
In order to understand the current situation in Lebanon, it is important to understand what has happened since Israel withdrew from the southern part of that country in 2000. It is also necessary to cut through what has amounted to an enormous propaganda campaign by both the mainstream press and, unfortunately, many parts of the peace movement, about Hezbollah. This includes propaganda that has unfairly demonized Hezbollah as well as some that has disproportionately idealized it.
After an occupation that lasted 18 years and cost hundreds of lives, far more Lebanese than Israeli but significant for both sides, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. The withdrawal was seen as a great victory for Hezbollah, which was credited as the first Arab force to beat back the Israelis. This was only partially true. Israel had proven itself unable to defeat the guerilla tactics of Hezbollah, but in the last analysis, it was domestic pressure, rooted in the quite accurate perception that the occupation of southern Lebanon was a pointless waste of lives and resources, that brought about the Israeli decision. Of course, it was also Hezbollah’s tactically strong and steadfast resistance that made the occupation so costly.
The United Nations certified a full Israeli withdrawal, but Israel maintained control of the disputed Sheba'a Farms area. Interestingly, while Lebanon claims this area as its own, Israel's claim is that it is actually occupying Syrian territory. No one claims the area legitimately belongs to Israel, not even Israel. Israel also reneged on an agreement to hand over maps of many tens of thousands of mines they laid during the years of occupation.
Hezbollah also has made claims of Israel holding Lebanese prisoners. These combined with the factors listed above to cause cross-border skirmishes and regularly occurring attacks in the Sheba’a Farms region over the past six years.
These grew more intense in May, after a car bomb killed a leader of Islamic Jihad in Lebanon. Israel is generally believed to have been behind this act, and the man arrested for it claimed to have been working for the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. An exchange of fire followed soon after, greatly raising tensions between Hezbollah and Israel leading up to the July 12 Hezbollah attack.
The Lebanon War
On July 12, while Israel was continuing its assault on the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah crossed the southern Lebanese border into Israel, and attacked an IDF post. They killed three soldiers and took two. This act was a clear violation of international law, as were their subsequent attacks on civilian targets within Israel. That Israel had committed its own violations such as routines over flights of Lebanese airspace, its ongoing presence in Sheba’a Farms, and occasional incursions of its own across the border does not change this, as the Hezbollah action was not a defensive one aimed at stopping these Israeli violations. However, the violations by both sides only serve to accentuate the fact that the international community has allowed this issue to fester for far too long.
Hezbollah had internal reasons as well as external ones for launching its attack. Hezbollah had come under significant pressure to disarm and allow the Lebanese to deploy in the south of the country. A UN Security Council resolution demanded this, and the new, more pro-Western government desired it. While Hezbollah had attained a heroic status for having fought Israel until it ended its 18-year occupation of Southern Lebanon, that was six years ago. It is a permanent fixture in Lebanon politically, but it was beginning to look like Hezbollah's days of being able to independently run its own military affairs in Lebanon were drawing to an end. Ironically, this is what Israel wants, yet its invasion has made this goal much harder to achieve.
The Hezbollah attack precipitated a major escalation in the already dangerous situation in the Middle East. It gave Israel the excuse it needed to launch a major attack on Lebanon. It has to be unequivocally stated that, having said that Hezbollah violated international law, Israel’s immediate targeting of civilian infrastructure and use of disproportionate and overwhelming force is a major war crime. Israel completely decimated much of Lebanon's infrastructure, internally displaced some 1,000,000 Lebanese and the death toll was well over 1,000, the vast majority of them civilians.
In fact, Israel's invasion of Lebanon has drawn nearly universal scorn, has caused many people who are generally supportive of Israel to criticize its behavior and has severely eroded global good will to Israel. After the initial Hezbollah attack, several Arab countries severely criticized the move. This is unprecedented and was a real opportunity for Israel to advance its own goals in conjunction with Arab states who are quite concerned about Hezbollah’s connection to Iran and the latter’s growing regional influence. Instead, Israel pressed forth with a massive attack on Lebanese civilian infrastructure, and Arab criticism of Hezbollah was quickly reversed.
Similarly, the Lebanese populace was initially somewhat divided over the Hezbollah attack. While many supported it, many others were angry that Hezbollah unilaterally risked plunging the entire country into a devastating war. Again, though, the Israeli onslaught and high number of civilian casualties quickly united the Lebanese population against Israel and in support of Hezbollah.
In Gaza, casualties were initially lower than one might expect, were at first mostly combatants and grew steadily with an increasing proportion of civilian casualties as Israel continued its onslaught. But the death toll in Lebanon rose very quickly and was almost entirely civilian from the beginning. Hezbollah responded with missile attacks on Israeli cities, killing dozens of civilians. Human rights organizations correctly pointed out that both sides were committing war crimes by targeting civilians. Israel also put the Lebanese shoreline under siege and barred air travel. It only lifted those sieges in mid-September as Lebanese and foreign troops replaced the Israeli military.
UN Security Council Resolution 1701 settled a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah. The resolution was brokered by the US and France. That the US was one of the two primary authors speaks volumes, which will be discussed further below.
The essential elements are that UN troops along with the Lebanese army would deploy in the south of Lebanon and, as they deploy, Israel will gradually withdraw. At this writing, that deployment and withdrawal are nearing completion. Thus far, the cease-fire has mostly held.
The resolution calls for international aid for Lebanon, and it is also significant that the United States has made it clear that Israel must foot the bill for this war themselves. Clearly, the US is dissatisfied with Israel’s performance.
Neither the UN troops nor the Lebanese military intends to disarm Hezbollah, nor will the UN deployment extend to the Syrian border to prevent future arms deliveries to Hezbollah from Iran via Syria. Lebanon is called on to prevent this by the resolution, but their ability and incentive to do so seem negligible. Syria, on the other hand, has pledged to work against weapons shipments. But being that Hezbollah is virtually the only card they have to play against Israel in the hopes of bringing about a return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967, it would not seem to be in Syria’s interest to see Hezbollah significantly weakened without a deal with Israel.
Who and what is Hezbollah?
Hezbollah came together as a reaction to Israel’s 1982 invasion and subsequent occupation of Lebanon. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite group, representative of Lebanon’s largest sectarian group. It officially announced its existence and positions in February 1985. In their initial manifesto, it was stated that Hezbollah wishes to see an Islamic republic emerge in Lebanon; it wishes to remove Western influence from Lebanon particularly that of the US and France; and it wishes to see the state of Israel eliminated.
Over the years, these positions have been refined, as Hezbollah has become more of a legitimate political force in Lebanon and has enjoyed more and more popular support among the Shi’a of Lebanon. While these stated goals officially remain, Hezbollah has also taken the position that it would not force abandonment of the Lebanese system of sectarian representation. Hezbollah has stated that, while it would remain ideologically opposed to Israel’s existence, it would not oppose a solution accepted by the Palestinians, even if that solution meant Israel’s continued existence and even Israel’s continued control over at least part of Jerusalem.
On the other hand, Nasrallah and other spokespeople for Hezbollah have repeatedly been accused of making anti-Semitic, not just anti-Israel statements. This is always a difficult arena, since the overwhelming majority of translations from Arabic into English are reputed to be either poor, lacking cultural and other contexts, or come from sources whose political leanings and reputations make them very dubious. Still, there are enough examples of very offensive statements directed at Jews explicitly, not only at Israel, that this is a serious concern. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese Shi’ite scholar, has also characterized Hezbollah’s attitude as anti-Jewish, not anti-Zionist or anti-Israel.
Having said that, Hezbollah’s actions in their conflict with Israel, including the 2006 confrontation, have been confined to defending what they see as Lebanese interests. While they certainly support the Palestinian cause, this has mostly taken the form of moral and rhetorical support. They do not have the means to support Palestinian militant groups significantly with weapons or funding. The best they have been able to do has possibly been to help facilitate the delivery of weapons to Palestinian groups. Hezbollah’s own attacks on Israel have been confined to military targets for years. They have long since abandoned attacks on anything other than Israeli targets, and have for years, before 2006, limited their attacks on Israelis either to military targets or to response to Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians.
Hezbollah began as a militia fighting Israel’s occupation. Its first political leader, Abbas al-Musawi, was seen as a relatively moderate figure compared to others in Hezbollah. Israel assassinated Musawi in 1992, and Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s current leader who is more hard-line than Musawi was, became Hezbollah’s new political chief.
However, the situation for Hezbollah also changed not long after Nasrallah ascended to leadership. According to a Congressional Research Service report, Hezbollah had not been involved in anything classified as a terrorist attack since 1994. In the last years of Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah held to what they called the “rules after Qana”, meaning that they would refrain from attacks on civilians as long as Israel did. For the most part, this held until the withdrawal.
Under Nasrallah’s leadership, Hezbollah greatly expanded its social services network, and has often provided the overwhelming bulk of the services in Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah quickly became the voice of many of the Shi’a of Lebanon, who are concentrated primarily in the south of that country.
In terms of fighting, Hezbollah waged a guerrilla war against Israel that was quite effective. The occupying soldiers were constantly unsure of where their targets were, so when attacks came, the Israeli soldiers were more often unprepared and when the attackers then disappeared again, retaliation became difficult. Various ambushes and traps were used to great effect. The result was that the occupation of Southern Lebanon was much more costly than Israel had anticipated. Still, it would be a mistake to say that Israel was forced into a retreat. More than anything else, it was the view of the Israeli populace, led by the voices of the Four Mothers group which advocated unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon, that the occupation of southern Lebanon was pointless (in contrast to the view of the occupation of the West Bank) and costly that brought about the Israeli withdrawal. Of course, it would not have been so costly were it not for Hezbollah’s military abilities. But it would still have been just as pointless.
Since the withdrawal, Hezbollah has become a permanent part of Lebanese politics, and a group held up as heroes in the Arab world. But over the years, pressure grew within Lebanon for Hezbollah to disarm, to allow Lebanon to become one country with one army and for Hezbollah to become a political party like any other (the other major Shi’ite militia, the Amal, has largely shelved its arms and most of its fighters have joined the Lebanese army). This pressure grew as Hezbollah lost some ground with the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005. Though Syria remains involved in Lebanese politics, its influence was diminished considerably. The war has reinvigorated considerable support for Hezbollah, although since the cease-fire, more criticism of Hezbollah for sparking the war has surfaced in Lebanon. Only time will tell how much traction the push to disarm Hezbollah has lost in Lebanon, but that it has lost considerable momentum is certain.
Israel and Hezbollah are far from the only players in these events. It’s time to look at what might be the goals and thinking of Israel and Hezbollah as well as the US, Syria and Iran, all countries that are also involved, albeit in less visible ways. We’ll examine their thinking before the war, what the results of the war were for each and what they might be planning for next.
This war was the biggest military failure in Israel’s history. Although in truth, there was never any real attempt to retrieve the two soldiers taken by Hezbollah, it is certainly not lost on the Israeli public that those two soldiers remain in Hezbollah’s hands. Israel’s stated goals of first destroying Hezbollah and later damaging them or driving them from Southern Lebanon all failed.
Moreover, this was the heaviest toll in civilian damage that Israel has seen in a cross-border war since 1948. 44 Israeli civilians were killed. Israeli cities were hit as never before, and some 500,000 Israelis were forced to flee. The sectors that were hit the hardest were Arab and Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern descent). Significant damage was done to Haifa, and many other cities and towns in northern Israel.
Of course, Israel retains a massive military advantage over any one or any combination of the Arab states around it. Hezbollah is not a threat to Israel’s existence and never was. But this war did demonstrate that Hezbollah is capable of hitting and harming Israel and that Israel’s military prowess, however considerable, is not able to destroy a well-placed, well-armed militia group like Hezbollah.
The Olmert government is facing a great deal of domestic criticism over the Lebanon War. Yet, the vast majority of the Israeli public is not questioning the decision to go to war, but rather the way the war was managed. There is very little consideration of the damage done to Lebanon, and even the damage done to Israel; the criticism has focused mostly on the failure to achieve anything and to the cavalier way in which Israel threw its soldiers into high-risk situations, leading to many deaths. These are serious considerations of course, but only the “hard left” in Israel seems at all concerned with their country’s responsibility for the suffering of others. This has to change if there is to be hope for the future.
Israel’s political leadership is extremely weak right now, probably the weakest it has ever been. It is the military, even more so than usual, which made the decisions regarding the war. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz followed; they did not lead. Their own lack of military experience, itself unprecedented among Israel’s major leaders historically, led to a lack of confidence, both on their parts and on the part of the Israeli public. It certainly precluded any possibility of reason entering into the thought process.
To the extent that this war was an Israeli one, it was largely the creation of Dan Halutz, the Chief of Staff. As we shall see below, the United States played a very prominent role. But Halutz was one of numerous Israeli military people who were deeply opposed to the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon and have been preparing for a renewed assault on Southern Lebanon ever since.
Plans for a re-invasion of Lebanon had been in development since the withdrawal. More is often made of this than it merits—militaries of all countries have all sorts of plans and contingency schemes, most of which are never implemented. That Israel had a plan for invading Lebanon again did not make it inevitable that they would do so by any means.
In fact, it was not Halutz’s original intention to execute the re-invasion plan in full. He had boasted, both to Israeli leaders and to Americans, that the Israeli Air Force (the branch of the military where Halutz rose through the ranks) would be able to rout Hezbollah without the need for a ground invasion. That such an absurd contention could have been taken seriously shows how absent any sense of reason or thought is among Israeli and American leadership, even when it comes to military matters.
At the beginning of the war, some suggested that it was an attempt at regime change in Lebanon. This was never the case. The Lebanese Prime Minister is backed by the US, and the attack was very much aimed at Hezbollah, perhaps with the hope that their defeat would lead to the loss of Hezbollah’s presence and influence in the Lebanese government. This would also have the effect of further diminishing Syria’s role in Lebanon (which is still considerable, even though it was diminished by the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon) as well as Iran’s influence. Both countries are connected to Hezbollah.
The trouble is that this was never a realistic possibility and that Israel has pursued it only demonstrates, again, their lack of understanding of Lebanese politics and society. Hezbollah as a political party is deeply woven into Lebanese politics. As a militia, Hezbollah was losing its grip before the Israeli attack. But Israel's actions have reversed this. During the war, the pro-Western Prime Minister of Lebanon told the American Secretary of State that she was not welcome in Lebanon unless she brings a cease-fire with her and he openly thanked Hezbollah, heretofore his bitter rival, for defending Lebanon.
While Israel waves its flag and says it is acting for the security of its citizens, its foolhardiness and adventurism has cost Israeli lives, on top of many hundreds of Lebanese lives. And their actions only made Israel less secure going forward.
But there is some reason for hope. Israel has always operated in a climate of fear, and reliance on their military prowess has become almost a religion. This has only been reinforced in the post-Oslo era, as Israelis have mostly bought into the falsehood that the Palestinians spurned an offer of “almost everything they wanted” in 2000 and instead chose to launch the second intifada. The election of Hamas, the increasingly threatening rhetoric emanating from Iran and increasing international opposition to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories have also bolstered this feeling.
However, historically, military setbacks for Israel have produced an increased willingness to engage in constructive diplomacy. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, proposals from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat found much more receptive ears in Israel than they had before. After the first intifada, Israel was suddenly willing to negotiate both Palestinian autonomy and a potential settlement with Syria over the Golan Heights, though the latter fell apart after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.
In the wake of the Lebanon failure, Israel is confronting new circumstances. Iranian influence throughout the region is growing. This constitutes a much greater threat to other Arab regimes, especially some of the major oil producers, than to Israel, but it is cause for concern for Israel as well. Israel’s air of military invincibility has been dented, though far from crippled. Syria is renewing its call for negotiations over the Golan Heights. International pressure is growing for Israel to end its occupation of the Palestinians. Arab moderates are facing greatly increased pressure, but they have also renewed their call for peace with Israel based on the 2002 initiative approved by the Arab League. That initiative calls for full peace and recognition of Israel and the establishment of fully normal relations with her, in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all of the territories it captured in 1967 and a “just resolution” of the Palestinian refugee problem.
Israel essentially ignored the 2002 initiative, to its own detriment. However, as the wounds of the Lebanon War begin to heal, Israel may realize that negotiations based on that initiative, a far better basis than the absurd “roadmap” advocated by the Bush Administration, are very much in their best interests. Short of that, it may finally dawn on the Israeli and American leadership that the best way to curb Iranian influence, particularly in Lebanon is to reach a peace agreement with Syria, based on a return of the Golan Heights. This would take Syria, a country already uneasy in its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, out of the equation and would likely leave Hezbollah as an independent actor, still nationalist and representative of the Shi’a of Lebanon, but no longer able to call on Iran for arms to help them mount independent offensives.
While this may sound, and may well be, far too sensible for Israel and the US to pursue, there is no time when it is more likely to be pursued than one such as this, when Israel has suffered an embarrassing military setback.
Internally, it is no longer a matter of if the Olmert government will fall, but when. The only reason it has not fallen by now is that there is not yet a strong enough opposition. Polls suggest that were elections to be held now, the Likud and their leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, would win, but no party is emerging with a very strong showing, so they are holding off for now on bringing Olmert down.
The misadventures in Lebanon and especially in Gaza have sounded the death knell for Olmert’s misguided “convergence” plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. While the passing of that bad idea into oblivion is a welcome development, it also means the Israeli political system is thrown into chaos. Olmert’s Kadima party was pulled together based on continuing Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plan, and now there is little binding the party. The shameful performance of Labor’s leader, Defense Minister Amir Peretz has seriously compromised that party. Peretz completely abandoned any pretense of being a peacemaker in favor of a “tough-guy” act that blew up in his face. Worse for Labor, in order to do that, Peretz also abandoned his platform of social reform, completely selling that out to Kadima in order to bolster his position in the government.
Ehud Olmert is attempting to soften the blow over the bungled Lebanon war by forming the commission of inquiry in his favor, as best as such can be done and still come out with an outcome that won’t be laughed off in Israel. This sort of political chaos is somewhat reminiscent of the scene in Israel after the Yom Kippur War. This can mean many things in terms of Israeli politics. It could result, as mentioned above, in increased willingness to engage in diplomacy, or it could further strengthen the right in Israel. Both of those were outcomes of the Yom Kippur War. Only time will tell what the full repercussions of the Lebanon War will be in Israeli politics.
Hezbollah and Lebanon
Hezbollah emerged from the war strengthened, despite the loss of many of its fighters. Six years after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah had lost some of its prestige as the group that claimed to have “chased Israel out”. This war, where Hezbollah was able to hit Israel and survive a fierce Israeli onslaught has restored that prestige and more, especially in the broader Arab world.
After an initial division of opinion among Lebanese, some of whom were quite critical of Hezbollah for unilaterally plunging the country into a war with Israel, the enormity of the Israeli onslaught overcame those divisions and the country was united in its fury at Israel. Now, there is again more debate. Many Lebanese very much wish to see Lebanon become one country with one military under a unified command. Many also do not wish to see Lebanon further embroiled in Syria’s dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights. However, many others remain concerned that the Palestinian refugees will be left in Lebanon, that Israel remains a hostile presence on their borders and many respect Hezbollah for effectively battling Israel, both during the 18-year occupation and this year. So that debate continues and is actually intensifying.
Some have suggested that the Hezbollah action of July 12 was motivated purely by a wish to help the besieged Palestinians in Gaza. There’s no doubt this was a factor on several levels—including many in Hezbollah who genuinely wanted to help the Palestinians, and the fact that Hezbollah is now the one Arab group that has come to the Palestinians’ side in all of this, increasing their popularity. However, there have been many such opportunities in the past six years, and Hezbollah has never acted like this before, implying that there is much more to it.
Hezbollah’s own position in Lebanon has been a bit more tenuous since the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon. Though Hezbollah was not named in the resolution, everyone understood that they were its prime target. With the departure of the Syrian forces that supported Hezbollah and the election of a government that was much more pro-Western than the previous one, Hezbollah may well have felt threatened. Hezbollah still enjoys tremendous support because it is perceived as having driven Israel out of southern Lebanon after 18 years of Israeli occupation of that area, that was six years ago. They may have felt a need to boost their prestige and support back up.
There are also outstanding issues between Israel and Lebanon on which there has been no motion in six years, and which were surely a factor in Hezbollah’s decision to launch their attack. One is that Israel had promised, upon its withdrawal in 2000, to hand over maps to Lebanon of mines they had laid during the occupation. This never happened, and periodically, Lebanese civilians are injured or killed by Israeli mines left over form the occupation. This issue remains unresolved after the war, although Israel did at least provide detailed maps of areas where they had launched cluster bombs during the war so that effective clean-up measures could be taken.
Israel also holds Lebanese prisoners. Although some are guilty of heinous crimes against Israeli civilians (most notably, Samir al-Kuntar who took refuge in an Israeli home after a guerilla operation and killed a father and his four-year old daughter), Lebanon contends their capture and detainment were illegal, and they have an arguable case. In any case, this was definitely a prime motivating factor in the Hezbollah operation as prisoner exchanges of this type have happened in the past. Indeed, it now appears clear that such an exchange will happen soon to free the two Israeli soldiers being held by Hezbollah—which, naturally, brings us back to the question of what the point of all that bloodshed this summer was.
Finally, Israel continues to occupy the Sheba’a Farms area, which Israel claims is captured Syrian territory and which Syria and Lebanon claim is Lebanese territory. All of these issues need resolution and mediation by the UN, and if such is not forthcoming, more flare-ups of this summer’s battle will be the inevitable result.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, has claimed he would not have launched the July 12 attack if he had known what Israel’s response would be. Of course, we cannot know exactly what Nasrallah knew or believed, but it is difficult to credit this contention. After all, Israel had, only two weeks before, responded to a similar Palestinian operation with overwhelming force, anti-Hezbollah rhetoric had been ratcheted up in recent months by the Bush Administration, and Israeli and US officials had only recently met to discuss a possible strike on Hezbollah. While Nasrallah might credibly have been unaware of that last point, he was surely aware of the first two, so it is hard to believe he did not expect a strong Israeli response. More likely, this claim is being aired to deflect some of the criticism that Hezbollah has gotten.
We will explore more about Iran’s position below, but there is little doubt that Iranian interests figured at least to some degree in Hezbollah’s decision to attack. Still, there is no substantive reason to doubt Nasrallah’s statement that Hezbollah had been planning this attack for some time, had always intended for it to be carried out this summer and expected to be able to exchange some Israeli soldiers for Lebanese prisoners.
Iran’s role in all of this is not extremely clear, but we can be certain that they are somehow involved. On one level, the escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, and especially between Iran and the US, certainly made it much more desirable for Israel to try to cut off Iran’s agents in Lebanon, Hezbollah. In addition, if Hezbollah could be eliminated, Israel would not have to fear a retaliatory strike from a militia situated on its border in the event of an attack on Iran. For Iran’s part, they are under extreme pressure from a country they really cannot strike out at, so instead they would welcome seeing their proxy, Hezbollah, hit America’s proxy, Israel.
Aside from Israel, Iran is the most economically and politically stable and most militarily powerful country in the Middle East region. Iran most certainly has ambitions of much greater regional influence, and sees opposition to Israel as the best way for them to increase that influence.
With Iran under increasing US pressure over its nuclear program and knowing that the US and Israel would like nothing more than regime change in the Islamic Republic, Iran has every reason to want to act against the US and its ally, Israel. However, none of those parties is eager for open warfare between Iran and Israel, let alone between Iran and the US. Having Hezbollah fight Israel instead is a way to assert Iran’s influence by demonstrating that there were forces capable of opposing US-Israeli aims in the region. It was this consideration that led Saudi Arabia to condemn Hezbollah’s attack on Israel.
It is a particularly opportune moment for Iran to make such a move because of the US’ continuing stagnation in the mire of Iraq and Israel’s absorption with battling Hamas. These conditions lessen the already moderate risk of the fighting spreading to include Iran.
All of these factors explain why Iran would have green-lighted the Hezbollah attack. Hezbollah’s relationship to Iran is similar to Israel’s to the US. Hezbollah is not under Iran’s complete control. They are a nationalistic, Lebanese group. But Iran supports them and arms them, and Hezbollah is expected to support Iranian goals and to respect Iranian wishes in return, much like Israel and the US.
Israel has been increasing its antagonistic stance toward Syria for some time. In part, this is in support of US anti-terror rhetoric, and in part it is due to Bashar al-Asad’s uncertain strategy regarding Israel. This stands in contrast to his father, Hafez al-Asad, who was a stronger leader and whose agenda was much clearer. Still, Israel has also objected to American notions of de-stabilizing the Syrian regime, believing that deposing Asad would lead to a regime that was much more threatening to Israeli interests.
Since Syria’s departure from Lebanon, and despite their continuing influence in Lebanon, they have had much less influence over Hezbollah. This likely explains why Syria made some efforts to defuse the situation this summer. They have been engaging with both Hamas and Hezbollah to secure the release of Israeli soldiers, although these efforts have not exactly been maximal.
Syria is largely caught in the middle now. They are outside the world of Arab states friendly to the US. They are the only Arab country that has offered anything like significant support to Palestinian militant groups, although even that support is often vastly overstated. Their alliance with Iran and Hezbollah is not entirely comfortable for them, as the Syrian regime is not Shi’ite, and Syria’s interests and Iran’s are not always the same. Yet they have also tried to mend their relations with the West, although not with Israel, reconciliation with whom will remain impossible as long as Israel holds the Golan Heights.
Syria has made some overtures about the Golan Heights and has indicated that they are willing to resume negotiations about a land-for-peace deal with no preconditions. These overtures have been completely ignored by the US, although there were some indications that Israel at least noticed them. Shortly after the cease-fire in Lebanon, Amir Peretz said that Israel should start talking with Syria. He quickly reversed this position after enormous outcry from within the Labor Party, before anyone else in Israel could attack him for it. Several Arab members of the Knesset made a recent trip to Damascus to talk to President Bashar al-Asad. The controversy over that has at least kept the notion of talks with Syria in the air. Israel would do well to engage in such discussions sooner rather than later.
No party could have been done as much to change the entire scenario of this past summer as the US. The escalation in Gaza is directly attributable to the Bush Administration’s decision to abandon the entire Israel-Palestine issue with the lone exception being efforts to undermine the legitimately elected Hamas government. Nothing dramatic would have been necessary, just keeping some slight restraint on Israeli actions and maintaining the material support on which the Palestinian people are dependent. Instead, the US acted to increase the tensions until they blew up.
The Lebanon War, in contrast to the Israeli attacks on Gaza, was largely about US interests. This is not to suggest that Israel was an unwilling participant, or that there was not support for it among the Israeli leadership even before the taking of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. However, when the attack was actually carried out, it was intended to serve American more than Israeli interests.
Just before the war began, Israel and the US met about the plan for a re-invasion of Lebanon. Yet the plan was only partially executed for the bulk of the war. The part that was executed was the aerial bombardment, the aspect that had a close relationship to the sort of attack the US might be contemplating on Iran, and for which the US had provided specialized bombs to Israel. The stated initial goals of the attack--retrieving two Israeli soldiers and destroying Hezbollah--were not aligned with the Israeli bombardment tactics. It was obviously impossible to achieve these goals through the aerial bombardment.
In the early days of the war, the Lebanese President, Fouad Siniora, called for a cease-fire. Ehud Olmert responded by discussing the sort of terms Israel would require. The US (both George Bush and Condi Rice) immediately rejected any kind of cease-fire. When the time came, it was the US who decided when the war should end, even though the terms of that ending were extremely unfavorable to Israel. Israel accepted a position that left it worse off than when the war began. These are all reasons to suspect American centrality in this war.
Ze'ev Schiff is Ha’aretz’s military correspondent. On July 27, he wrote,
"U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the figure leading the strategy of changing the situation in Lebanon, not Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Defense Minister Amir Peretz."
There is also the following, from another source: "Amid the political and diplomatic fallout from Israel's faltering invasion of Lebanon, some Israeli officials are privately blaming President George W. Bush for egging Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into the ill-conceived military adventure against the Hezbollah militia in south Lebanon… As part of Bush's determination to create a "new Middle East" - one that is more amenable to U.S. policies and desires - Bush even urged Israel to attack Syria, but the Olmert government refused to go that far, according to Israeli sources." The Jerusalem Post also referenced the American urging and Israeli refusal to attack Syria.
Israeli peace activists had a similar view. This is from a July 23 report in Ha'aretz on an anti-war protest in Tel Aviv: "Beside the usual calls for the prime minister and defense minister to resign, this was a distinctly anti-American protest. Alongside chants of "We will not kill, we will not die in the name of Zionism" there were chants of "We will not die and will not kill in the service of the United States," and slogans condemning President George W. Bush."
Seymour Hersh was non-committal on the question of whether the US or Israel was the driving force, but here are some quotes from his article:
"The Bush Administration, however, was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preemptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground."
“The White House was more focused on stripping Hezbollah of its missiles, because, if there was to be a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hezbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel. Bush wanted both. Bush was going after Iran, as part of the Axis of Evil, and its nuclear sites, and he was interested in going after Hezbollah as part of his interest in democratization, with Lebanon as one of the crown jewels of Middle East democracy.”
“A Pentagon consultant said that the Bush White House ‘has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a preemptive blow against Hezbollah.’ He added, ‘It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.’”
Stephen Zunes had the following to say: "There is increasing evidence that Israel instigated a disastrous war on Lebanon largely at the behest of the United States. The Bush administration was set on crippling Hezbollah, the radical Shiite political movement that maintains a sizable block of seats in the Lebanese parliament. Taking advantage of the country's democratic opening after the forced departure of Syrian troops last year, Hezbollah defied U.S. efforts to democratize the region on American terms. The populist party's unwillingness to disarm its militia as required by UN resolution—and the inability of the pro-Western Lebanese government to force them to do so—led the Bush administration to push Israel to take military action."
Zunes: "...the Bush administration needed to get rid of Hezbollah's capacity to retaliate against Israel in the event of a U.S. strike on Iran, which apparently prompted Hezbollah's buildup of Iranian-supplied missiles in the first place."
Zunes: "The Bush administration's larger goal apparently has been to form an alliance of pro-Western Sunni Arab dictatorships—primarily Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—against a growing Shiite militancy exemplified by Hezbollah and Iran and, to a lesser extent, post-Saddam Iraq. Though these Sunni regimes initially spoke out against Hezbollah's provocative capture of the two Israeli soldiers that prompted the Israeli attacks, popular opposition within these countries to the ferocity of the Israeli assault led them to rally solidly against the U.S.-backed war on Lebanon."
There is another point that none of these scholars has touched on, and that is the initial condemnation of Hezbollah by numerous Arab states, whose only real commonality was that they were US clients. This was an unprecedented event. Why did they choose this incident? The only plausible answer is that it was part of a US program. Any other answer begs the same question of why this Hezbollah attack was so different from so many other attacks on Israel, many of which were at least as apparently "unprovoked". Moreover, this was an attack on a military target. Such an unprecedented call would have made at least a little more sense in response to an attack on civilians. That the countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, were forced to quickly reverse course under popular pressure changes nothing. They were undoubtedly acting under American direction, coupled with their own very strong interest in opposing the spreading of Iranian influence in the region.
No one is saying that the US dreamed this up on its own and ordered an otherwise unwilling Israel into it. But it was US, not Israeli interests that drove this war. That seems clear because Israeli interests were not well served by the tactics used, nor could they possibly have been, while American interests could have been and one might even argue they were.
The Bush Administration’s lack of any informed or clear thinking on the Middle East is bearing its poisonous fruit. Policy, such as it is, is even turned against itself. Israel’s attacks are harming the long-term stability of the Lebanese government, a government the US supports. The US’ main concern in the region is Iran, and, while Israel certainly uses Iran for rhetorical and propaganda purposes, and is definitely concerned about Iran’s nuclear potential, Israel is far more concerned about the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah. Whether this obvious fracture in US policy will have any impact on the situation remains to be seen.
As always, it is the US that has the most power to change things.