A week from Friday will mark the third anniversary of the cease-fire that ended the Second Lebanon War. And while the fortunes of war run to infinite varieties of the unexpected, there is one thing of which we can all be certain. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah will appear, if he hasn’t already by the time this article is published, on a video screen from the secret bunker he is afraid to leave, and in between chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” he and his supporters will again proclaim glorious victory over the infidel Jews.
The mainstream media will probably play their part as well, parroting the claptrap Nasrallah peddles to his weary people – as Time magazine did during the Hamas War earlier this year when it ran a cover story titled “Why Israel Can’t Win,” warning of nothing less than the demise of the Jewish state.
(Time would be better served spending less energy worrying about Israel’s future and more worrying about its own as fewer and fewer people read weekly newsmagazines for information available instantly online.)
I digress. But before returning to the discussion of the Second Lebanon War, let’s start with a little background. There are three strategies for fighting low-level warfare: (I) regime change; (II) occupation; and (III) deterrence.
Regime change toppling a hostile regime and replacing it with a friendly one offers by far the best outcome. What could be better than turning an enemy into a friend? What could be better
than handing off the war on terror to allies that will fight it within their own borders?
The trouble, of course, is that regime change is also the hardest to accomplish. Israel tried it in Lebanon in 1982. Ariel Sharon destroyed Arafat’s “state within a state” and engineered the election of Bashir Gemayel, a local warlord he hoped would sign a peace treaty with Israel.
Say this for Sharon; he had the one thing America did not have in Iraq: a well-thought-out plan that had a real chance of success. America pinned its hopes on Ahmed Chalabi, a convicted felon who hadn’t lived in the country in decades (the members of his “militia” began looting the moment they set foot on Iraqi soil). Lebanon already had a constitution, was already nominally a democracy, and had elections planned for just three months after the invasion.
Get rid of the PLO, Sharon thought, and a friendly government waiting in the wings could immediately take its place.
Unfortunately, the plan worked better on paper than on the ground. In the end, the campaign was a disaster.
Whereas terrorism had resulted in the deaths of perhaps twenty Israelis per year on average, the First Lebanon War took the lives of more than six hundred. The war cost billions to fight – it brought the country to the verge of economic collapse – and inflicted irreparable damage to Israel’s image (no small thing for a nation that relies on arms manufactured overseas).
Now for the worst part: when it all ended, terrorism came back as if nothing had happened. Katyushas were fired on northern Israel before the war and Katyushas were fired after the war. Terrorists murdered Israeli civilians before the war and terrorists murdered them after the war. Lebanon descended into perfect anarchy, and of course Israel never got its peace treaty.
In our time, the U.S. hasn’t faired much better in its own nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. After thousands of lives lost and over a trillion dollars spent, there’s still no end in sight and no guarantee of a positive outcome.
Israel succeed at regime change? It’s not even clear a superpower can.
If you can’t install a friendly regime to fight terrorism, you can always stay and do it yourself. This is the tactic of occupation (“fight ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight ‘em over here”). Israel tried this in Lebanon too. And like regime change, it too ended in disaster.
Between 1993, when Hizbullah finally consolidated power in South Lebanon, and the middle of 2000, Israel took 239 killed in its self-described Security Zone in Lebanon. That works out to about thirty men per year. The economic cost of maintaining the Security Zone remains classified, but the figure certainly ran into hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Even worse, however, as with regime change, the Security Zone did absolutely nothing to prevent terrorism. Katyushas were fired before the establishment of the Security Zone, and Katyushas were fired after. The statistics don’t lie. After Israel withdrew behind the international border in June 2000, the number of Katyushas dropped to practically zero and the number of killed along the northern border fell to barely three per year, or about a tenth of those killed in the Security Zone.
Once again, the financial cost of maintaining the Security Zone is classified, but it’s safe to say the savings resulting from withdrawal were huge. It only takes a fraction of the men to guard the border, and there’s no longer a need to pay for an allied militia.
Why did the number of Hizbullah attacks fall so sharply after the withdrawal? That brings us to the third tactic deterrence. This one is real simple: every time you are attacked, you respond with an even greater attack. Once the price of terrorism becomes too high, the people who harbor the terrorists force them to stop.
There are real problems with deterrence, but let’s focus on the advantages first. Once you are no longer located inside hostile territory, your forces aren’t vulnerable to roadside bombs, snipers, suicide attacks, or most of the other things that cause casualties. It’s a lot harder for terrorists to orchestrate an attack on foreign soil than on their own.
Deterrence also means an enormous economic savings. No army to garrison far away and no enemy civilian population to care for.
Perhaps most important is the political benefit. If you’re reading this newspaper, the odds are you’re already familiar with the rank hypocrisy sometimes referred to as “international law” to which Israel is subjected. Nevertheless, experience has shown that even the international community will go only so far in this regard. Take away the occupation and you take away any conceivable justification for terrorism. And that makes it easier to fight back.
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After Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped in July 2006, a Hizbullah official told Lebanon’s prime minister not to worry; the Israelis would bomb for a few days and then the international community, including the U.S., would pressure them to stop. That’s what happened in 1993 and again in 1996.
But that’s not what happened in 2006. In 1993 and 1996, Israel was occupying Lebanese soil. In 2006 it wasn’t. Hizbullah attempted to justify its actions; the international community would have none of it.
The Second Lebanon War will long be remembered as the first Middle East war in which Israel was given a free hand to start when it wanted and an equally free hand to finish when it wanted. For 33 days it pounded Lebanon a nation the size of Connecticut with more bombs than it used in 1973 against Egypt and Syria combined. The damage ran into billions of dollars. Even today, much of Lebanon remains in ruins.
To be sure, northern Israel was bombed with Katyushas as well. But the vast majority of them landed harmlessly in open fields. The economy was barely affected Israel finished the year with better than five percent growth.
Sixty Israelis were killed. And though my heart breaks for every one of them, the only alternative was sending in the army in a huge ground campaign that would have taken the lives of hundreds of young soldiers. Instead, the IDF made what I believe was the sensible decision to let Hizbullah fire its rockets and focus instead on establishing deterrence. Once the goal is merely making the other side suffer for its folly, there’s really not much you can do on the ground that you can’t do from the air.
The outcome speaks for itself. Since the guns fell silent in August 2006, there has not been a single attack from Hizbullah. The Lebanon border has not been this quiet since 1968. Some offer the fact that Hizbullah has rearmed as proof it won the war. That’s like saying Egypt won the 1967 Six-Day War because it rearmed afterward. If a country is intent on rearming, it will do so. Sure, you can prevent it. But only with regime change. And that’s a losing proposition every time.
Indeed, we now know that Israel never planned a full-scale ground campaign to stop every last Katyusha. Even those who argued for a ground campaign were pushing for something much different from what took place in the First Lebanon War. In military parlance, they wanted to control South Lebanon but didn’t want to conquer it.
The difference? Conquering means fighting house to house. Controlling merely means taking the high ground and other strategic points so that troops in the field can help direct air fire and artillery. Experience has shown that this can reduce the number of rockets fired but can’t eliminate every last one.
Bottom line: even if Israel had launched the big ground campaign everyone talked about, the results probably wouldn’t have been all that much different. Either way Nasrallah would have declared victory.
And, contrary to popular misconception, Israel never set out to destroy Hizbullah. It knew that this was impossible. What it did set out to do was establish deterrence, evict Hizbullah from southern Lebanon and have it replaced by an international force.
All those goals were achieved. Even the beefed up multinational force has succeeded beyond the most optimistic predictions. No, the Europeans haven’t fought Hizbullah house to house. But they have forced Hizbullah away from the border, out of the open areas and into the villages. This means that if there is another war, Hizbullah will be forced to fire rockets from inside those villages rather than from bunkers hidden in the mountains.
The Israelis have made it clear that if Hizbullah fires from villages, they will return fire into those villages. In the cruel arithmetic of modern warfare, return fire plus villages equals rubble – lots of rubble. In short, Hizbullah can’t go to war without destroying the villages in which its supporters live. Now you know why it’s been so quiet in the Galil.
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Everything that’s happened since the end of the war has only confirmed the extent of Israel’s victory. On February 12, 2008, Israel assassinated Hizbullah master terrorist Imad Mughniya. Before the war, the mere kidnapping of minor officials brought Katyushas raining down on northern Israel and synagogues blowing up in Argentina. This time? Not a peep.
Just before that, in September 2007, Israel destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor. Hizbullah’s reaction? Nothing. During the Second Lebanon War, Nasrallah complained bitterly that his “Arab brothers” did nothing to help him. Nasrallah’s words were thrown right back at him last January as his Arab brothers in Hamas fought for their lives – and Hizbullah didn’t lift a finger.
For the first time in a generation, all is quiet on the northern front. The peace and quiet Israel never achieved with regime change and occupation has been rigidly enforced with deterrence.
So why, one might ask, did Israelis react so negatively to the results of the Second Lebanon War? Why did the Winograd Commission call it a “failure”? Why were so many senior army officers forced to resign?
Because in Israel’s bizarre culture of self-flagellation, any war that doesn’t end in six days with the Temple Mount in our hands is viewed as a defeat. The limits of space prevent us from delving too deeply into this truly strange phenomenon, but suffice it to say that a nation that can spin the Yom Kippur War into a loss can spin anything into a defeat.
The distinguished commentator Amnon Abromovich probably put it best when he said recently that “Nasrallah knew that he’d lost, but then we convinced him that he’d won.”
Which is not to say that deterrence is perfect. True deterrence takes years to establish, at least if you’re Israel. The terrorists have an enormous amount of motivation, they glorify death, and the international community will reflexively pressure Israel to stop any operation prematurely. Put another way, Israel can’t go to all-out war every time a rocket flies over the border – not unless it wants to see itself slapped with trade sanctions.
Nevertheless, it bears repeating: there are limits. Time and experience have shown that even the international community can be shamed into letting Israel defend itself so long as the terrorists and their intellectual allies cannot brand Israel an occupier.
Yes, fringe bloviaters like Jimmy Carter will always condemn Israel – during the Hamas War last January, Bill Moyers used his show on publicly funded PBS (your tax dollars at work) to accuse Israel of “doing exactly what terrorists do.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that the international community was basically silent while Israel spent 33 days flattening much of Lebanon. And that is why Hassan Nasrallah will think two and three times before he starts another war.
Sadly, this strategy means that every 5-7 years Israel will have to fight one of these short border exchanges. This is the other big problem with deterrence: it only works so long, and then the terrorists test the waters again. Nevertheless, an air campaign every 5-7 years still costs a fraction of a large long-term ground campaign. And it yields the best result: a few more years of quiet.
Unfortunately, in the ongoing battle against low-level warfare, there is no final victory. There is only low-level victory. A perfect solution it is not. The only thing it’s better than is everything else.
Uri Kaufman is writing a history of the Second Lebanon War.