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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What next?

Middle East expert, Professor Martin Kramer was interviewed in HaAretz. Here are some highlights.

Why do you think this crisis is happening?


"Nasrallah allowed a personality cult to develop around himself, and Hezbollah marketed him as the only strategic genius in the Arab world. Increasingly, it would seem that the higher echelons in Hezbollah began to believe their own propaganda.

"I doubt Hezbollah expected the Israeli reaction to be as swift, extensive and destructive as it has been. Hezbollah probably believed it would score a few points in Arab public opinion by a cross-border operation, and that it would make one more incremental change in the rules of the game.

"It was a strategic miscalculation. Hezbollah didn't internalize changes in the broader strategic climate. The top regional issue today is Iran's nuclear drive, not the fate of Hamas or the Palestinian issue. If Hezbollah had understood this fully, it would have laid very low until needed by Iran in a mega-crisis with the United States. At that point, its threats against Israel would have been added to the overall deterrent capabilities of Iran, and might have caused the United States to think twice.

"Hezbollah apparently didn't understand this. If Iran was directly involved in the decision, it also shows an erosion of discipline in Iran's own decision-making process. Iran had nothing to gain from this little adventure, and a lot to lose. It may well be that President Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is beginning to cloud judgment in Tehran.

"In any case, it is in the interests of Israel and the United States to deal with the Hezbollah threat now, and not later in the midst of a far more dangerous crisis over Iran's nuclear plans. So a war now to degrade Hezbollah is a shared Israel-U.S. interest, which means that Israel can wage it without many constraints.


What is the way to end the crisis? And can Israel defeat Hezbollah?

"Ending the crisis is obviously not an end in itself. The objective has to be to reduce Hezbollah to a negligible factor in larger calculations, to degrade and deplete its capabilities, to the point where it's about as significant a constraint as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Jordan. It will take some time to reverse the years of neglect, and Hezbollah will not allow the halo around it to be smashed without fighting back. But Israel has a U.S. license to take its time now and get it right, and it would be foolish not to use it.

"In any event, Israel has no choice. Islamism has come to fill the space that used to be occupied by Arab nationalism in Nasser's time: an ideology of rejection, resistance and false promise of a Middle East without Israel. Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, whatever their merits, have only fed this Islamism with lore of sacrifice and victory. The Islamists have a narrative, and they think the world conforms to it. The narrative is based on a very partial reading of reality. It has to be defeated, just as Nasser's narrative had to be defeated. It took the 1967 war to demolish the Arab nationalist/Nasserist narrative. Israel has no choice but to deliver a blow sufficient to destroy the Islamist narrative, in which Hezbollah looms large.

"Incredibly, Nasrallah is making the same mistakes as Nasser. By puffing himself up, he isn't deterring Israel; at this point, he's only making himself and his movement a bigger and more legitimate target. Hezbollah has become a prisoner of its own myth, which is that at any moment it can go one-on-one against Israel - and win. It can't,, and now is the best opportunity to prove it - to Lebanese Shiites, to all Lebanese and to the rest of the Arab-Muslim world.


How popular, influential and strong is Hezbollah in Lebanon?

"Lebanon is a divided society. Hezbollah's power base is limited to the Shiite community, and even there, allegiance is not total.

"Hezbollah basked in the admiration of many Lebanese after Israel's withdrawal, but that aura has been eroded steadily over the past few years. This is because, following Israel's withdrawal, Hezbollah's continued 'resistance' along the border fell outside the national consensus.


Do you expect this crisis will tear apart the fragile fabric of Lebanese society?

"I don't know about the society, but I do expect it to tear apart the fragile fiction of Lebanese politics. An independent Lebanon is incompatible with an extra-legal, extra-territorial status for any militia. This fact could be papered over before; now it is exposed for all to see.

"Of course, no one faction in Lebanon is in a position to disarm Hezbollah, and neither is the government. Only Shiite opinion can achieve this. So it is up to Israel to demolish Hezbollah's argument that its arms deter Israel. Israel must demonstrate the opposite: that Hezbollah's arms invite Israeli attack, especially against Shiites. Only if the Shiites themselves realize this, and only if they become the main source of criticism of Hezbollah's strategy, will Hezbollah feel compelled to modify it. This will not happen overnight; it could take months or years.

Later in the same article, HaAretz interviews Colonel Charbel Barakat, former deputy commander of the South Lebanon Army:

In contrast to Israeli interviewees, Colonel Charbel Barakat does not mince words. He calls his Lebanese brethren "cowards," perhaps because he now lives in Toronto, far from the long arm of Hezbollah. He makes his living as a contractor and writes articles for Internet sites "for my soul." He is a Christian from the village of Ein Ibel, in southern Lebanon. The village was bombed in the past few days by the Israel Air Force and some of the houses were hit. However, he says, the village residents understand and are not angry at Israel. Hezbollah, contrary to the will of the residents, launched Katyusha rockets from the village.

In the 1980s, Barakat was the deputy commander of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), under Antoine Lahad. He then commanded the western brigade and after a disagreement with Lahad dealt with the SLA's foreign relations. After Israel's withdrawal in 2000 he fled to Israel by the skin of his teeth, leaving behind all his property, including his photo albums. "I'm not surprised by what's happening," he says by phone from Toronto. "I expected it. If you raise a lion in your house and let it grow without taming it, in the end it will try to devour you."

And the moral?

"Hezbollah is an organization that lives on blood. If you do not satisfy its appetite, it will turn to prey. Regrettably, you allowed the Hezbollah monster to grow under your nose. That happened in 2000, when Israel fled from Lebanon. Israel betrayed us, its friends for 40 years. It was more important for prime minister Ehud Barak to fulfill his election promise that by July 2000 the IDF would be out of Lebanon, than to take care of restraining the monster."

Could it have been done differently?

"Of course. Barak should have posed conditions to the United Nations and to the Lebanese government which would not have allowed Hezbollah to situate itself in the south, certainly not with arms. By his action he gave Hezbollah what even they never dreamed of - all of southern Lebanon. But Barak is not the only one to blame. [Ariel] Sharon also contributed to the situation when he agreed to capitulate to Hezbollah and exchange prisoners - not only Lebanese, but from all the Arab states - in return for one Israeli who had set out to deal in drugs. Israel helped make Nasrallah the true leader of Lebanon."

What about the government of Lebanon?

"The prime minister, Fouad Siniora, should have gone to the UN months ago and asked them to come in and expel Hezbollah from the south of the country. But instead of that, he tried, because of his weakness, to talk to them. I hope it is not to late to do this [expel them - Y.M.]

Is there a way out of the crisis?

"The problem is bigger than Hezbollah. The problem is Iran and in fact, the whole Middle East. The Arab leaders are stupid if they do not see that if Hezbollah wins, after Lebanon will come the turn of Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which also have their Nasrallahs and bin Ladens who are just waiting for a show of weakness."

Former prime minister Barak declined to be interviewed. But interlocutors who spoke with him formed the impression that he is not moved by the criticism and that he has no regrets for the decision to leave Lebanon or for the way it was done. In Barak's view, the international support that Israel is now getting, support which is making it possible to extend the offensive until Hezbollah withdraws from the border, has its origins in his decision to withdraw to the international border.

Barak also takes pride in the six years of relative quiet that the withdrawal brought to the north of the country. He also attributes the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon after a quarter of a century to the decision to pull the Israeli troops out. And in any event, he also noted that even before the pullout Hezbollah had some 7,000 Katyusha rockets and another 100 long-range rockets with a range of up to 70 kilometers, which could reach south of Haifa, as far as Hadera. In other words, although Hezbollah took advantage of the withdrawal and the Israeli laxness to arm itself and almost doubled its Katyusha arsenal, it had a large supply from the outset. At the same time, some intelligence sources who are knowledgeable about the data maintain that Hezbollah had only 2,000 Katyusha rockets before the Israeli withdrawal.
Read it all.


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