Friday, July 28, 2006

"Bogged Down"

In the annals of the Arab-Israeli conflict, two battles are remembered well by both sides, though neither was particularly decisive for the military equation. One battle occurred in March 1968 in Karameh, Jordan; the other took place in 1982 at Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon. In 1968 Israel launched a reprisal raid against a Fatah stronghold in the Karameh camp after an Israeli bus had been blown up, killing a doctor and nurse. Fatah forces were tipped off to the reprisal and put up a defense which took a high toll from the Israeli forces. In levelling the town and killing 120 Fatah fighters, the Israelis lost 28 men. But the memory within the Palestinian community was of valiant resistance against the "great" Israeli military machine, and forever since Karameh has become taken on mythic status within Palestinian circles. Indeed, the Palestinian narrative of this battle is credited with the growth in popularity of Fatah and Yasser Arafat in the 1970s.

When the IDF invaded Lebanon in June 1982 it encountered a number of difficult battles, including the so-called "Masada" of the Palestinian movement, the battle of Ein al-Hilwe. But it was early on, at Beaufort Castle (a crusdaer ruin on the border with Israel), which first gave Israelis pause in their ultimately successful dash for Beirut. The PFLP fighters defended the observation post at Beaufort to the last man, and the elements of the Golani brigade which attacked it suffered 25% casualties. The IDF and PM Menahem Begin were shocked by the effort encountered at Beaufort. Beaufort Castle became another mythic symbol to Palestinians and the Arab world that the IDF can be met with strong confrontation.

Bint Jubayl will likely go down in the annals of Hizbollah narrative as their own mythic struggle. While one Israeli minister is reported to have preferred levelling the town with air attacks, the IDF is struggling to gain the upper ground with casualties that are generating criticism in the Israeli media. Having rhetorically prepared the Israeli hinterland for a grandiose war which will "change the rules" of the Hizbollah-Israel equation, the Israeli press is now reporting that its generals are "surprised" and confounded by the defenders of this Hizbollah stronghold. One Pentagon source was quoted today as describing the IDF as "bogged down" in Bint Jubayl. It has been said that in 1982, Israel found its Vietnam. In 2006, the makings for another slog through the hills of southern Lebanon seems quite the possibility. Neiher Ehud Olmert nor Amir Peretz could survive another Vietnam-like experience in Lebanon. And having launched this war of choice, engaging Syria now militarily would likely constitute political suicide, even if the outcome preserved Israeli control over the Golan Heights. With Condoleezza Rice returning to the area this evening, armed now with a Joint British-American call for a cease fire, it looks like only the most minimal of the IDF strategic goals -- "the diminishing of the Hizbollah threat" -- is in hand. No 12-mile buffer; no 1-mile buffer; no dead Hizbollah leadership; no breaking of Hizbollah command and control. If the fighting ends soon, the Israeli warriors and their newly tested civilian leaders will be judged rather harshly as having failed to effect a decisive military result in anticipation of a political arrangement.

As Tom Friedman pointed out earlier this week, Israel will have to diplomatically reengage Syria if it hopes to achieve protection from the Hizbollah missile threat, exactly as the IDF war gamers in 2004 envisioned. The battle of Bint Jubayl, carried out by Israel and Syrian surrogates, may very well become the battle which led to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Neither side has bet "all in" just yet. But the stakes are being raised, and no one is bluffing.

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