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Thursday, June 24, 2010

The next war in Lebanon

Lee Smith reports on one of Israel's problems with its next war in Lebanon: The United States now considers Israel a 'strategic liability.'
In Washington the assumption is that it’s only a matter of time before Israel and Hezbollah will be at war again. But what’s worse is that, according to policymakers and analysts I’ve spoken to, the United States is sharply opposed to Israel finishing the work it failed to get done in its two previous Lebanon wars (1982-2000; 2006). This isn’t just because the Obama Administration wants to keep things cool in the region to allow for relatively peaceful U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and to keep terrorists off the streets of U.S. cities. The more disturbing reason is that Israel is no longer trusted to do the job right.

Once regarded as a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel is now perceived, correctly or not, as a strategic liability. Before the flotilla incident last month—an event that, yet again, earned Israel the opprobrium of the international community—there was the Gaza war in the winter of 2008 to 2009, an inconclusive battle that ended with Hamas still in control and with the Israelis ultimately having to face the Goldstone Report. In July 2006 there was the Second Lebanon War, popularly understood as a Hezbollah victory—or as its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, describes it, a divine victory. But perhaps Israel’s largest strategic blunder was its 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. Even while Defense Minister Ehud Barak continues to defend the decision he made as prime minister, the facts are clear: Israel abandoned its ally in the South Lebanese Army, made its citizens vulnerable to Hezbollah rockets, and effectively rewarded terrorism as a negotiating tool. Now Hezbollah has 40,000 missiles and rockets.

It is peculiar that most U.S. policymakers and bureaucrats do not believe that the United States has an interest in pushing back against an Iranian asset in the Eastern Mediterranean and going after a terrorist group that operates inside U.S. borders. But the fact is that if Israel has become a strategic liability, U.S. policymakers—from the Clinton Administration through the Bush and Obama Administrations—have helped make it one, forcing Jerusalem to accommodate terrorists and the states that support them, thereby putting our own interests and citizens under fire. Now, instead of asking how we can ensure that our ally wins its next war with the Shia militia, the question in Washington’s halls of power, its think tanks, and dining rooms is: How do we deter Israel from going to war against Hezbollah?
It's especially interesting that Smith puts such an emphasis on the withdrawal flight from Lebanon. While most people in Israel now regard that move as a mistake (and certainly nearly everyone here regards the failure to react to Hezbullah's rocket buildup between 2000 and 2006 as a mistake), most people here pin our 'strategic liability' status on the failures of 2006 rather than on 2000 or for that matter on Operation Cast Lead. Does that matter? Well, maybe.

The flight from Lebanon in 2000 was a foolish move, but it wasn't one that flew in the face of Israel's commitment to the United States. And while Israel failed to finish the job in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, one of the reasons for its failure to do so was Barack Obama's demand that the war be over before he was inaugurated. That failure can be regarded as America pulling the rug out from under us (although I frankly doubt that the Olmert - Livni - Barak team would have finished Hamas off even if there was not a change in power at the White House, and I believe they could have finished Hamas off before the inauguration had they chosen to do so). But in the Second Lebanon War, the Bush administration went out on a limb to give Israel time to finish the job. Bush also gave Israel a green light to attack Syria. But the Olmert - Livni - Halutz team couldn't bring itself to do what needed to be done. And Israel's relations with the Bush administration were never the same.
Did the administration expect Israel to attack Syria?

"They hoped Israel would do it. You cannot come to another country and order it to launch a war, but there was hope, and more than hope, that Israel would do the right thing. It would have served both the American and Israeli interests.

"The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space… They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its strategic and important ally should be hit."

"It is difficult for Iran to export its Shiite revolution without joining Syria, which is the last nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran, that it would have weakened it and changes the strategic map in the Middle East.

"The final outcome is that Israel did not do it. It fought the wrong war and lost. Instead of a strategic war that would serve Israel's objectives, as well as the US objectives in Iraq. If Syria had been defeated, the rebellion in Iraq would have ended."

Wurmser says that what most frustrates her is hearing people close to decision makers in Israel asking her if the US would have let Israel attack Syria.

"No one would have stopped you. It was an American interest. They would have applauded you. Think why you received so much time and space to operate. Rice was in the region and Israel embarrassed her with Qana, and still Israel got more time. Why aren't they reading the map correctly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?"
Ehud Barak was not involved in the Second Lebanon War - he was a private citizen then. And I believe that he has learned his lesson about not letting a war go to waste. (I believe that most of his stupidity in Washington this past week was the result of pressure from within his party to withdraw from the coalition). Given another chance, I don't believe Ehud Barak will leave Hezbullah standing. And I certainly don't believe that Binyamin Netanyahu or Avigdor Lieberman will.

Would the Americans try to stop Israel from destroying Hezbullah? Well, maybe. But I expect it to happen so fast that they won't have time to act. Besides, as Smith points out, Sa'ad Hariri has staked his career on Hezbullah being destroyed.

Read the whole thing.


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