Thursday, July 13, 2006

Restraint Amidst Chaos

Day 2 of the Lebanese crisis: The coordinated Israeli military response to the breakdown of the status quo on Israel's northern border has so far been one of surprising restraint. By focusing in on the Lebanese area of operation, Israel has avoided directly provoking Syria into the conflict. Syria may yet become part of the military equation, but for the moment it appears that Israel's intent is to put pressure on the weakest link to the north, the barely functioning government of Lebanon and its people. Meanwhile, Hizbollah has fired off from its sizable missile arsenal which it has been amassing since Israel's April 2000 withdrawal (down to the last millimeter, according to the UN) from southern Lebanon. Basically, the entire country of Israel from Acco north has been placed on alert and hundreds of thousands of citizens are being encouraged to stay indoors and sleep in shelters for a second night. Katyushas have landed deep into the Galilee, in Nahariya, Zefat, and Karmiel, and Hizbollah is threatening to fire its longest range missiles at Israel's principal port city of Haifa (population 287,000). A similar disruption of civilian life has taken place in Lebanon from Beirut south to the international border due to Israeli air and naval bombardment. Thus, a battlefield has been carved out which extends 40 or so miles in either direction from the international border, in which well over 2 million people live, and civilian casualties have been reported on both sides, with the Lebanese people suffering far more than their Israeli counterparts. If Israeli civilians are going to suffer, the Israeli thinking requires no less from the residents of Lebanon.

So far the reserve call-up has only numbered in the hundreds (mainly pilots and ground support crews in the IAF), but one can easily imagine that this situation could quickly spiral out of the current "restrained" tit-for-tat into an all-out interstate war. To the south, Israel has kept up its barrage upon Gaza, striking the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building. There are plenty of conceivable scenarios for the worsening of the situation: Israel could fire upon the Beirut suburb of Dahiya, where most Hizbollah leaders live amongst the general population; Hizbollah could fire at Haifa. Alternatively, there are no conceivable scenarios for an improvement of the situation to a cease fire. The first 36 hours of this crisis have produced a tinderbox....expect it to get much worse before it gets better.

As far as internal domestic politics: the civilian Israeli government of July, 2006 is careening down a path vaguely reminiscent of the civilian Israeli government of May, 1967. The non-military PM Levi Eshkol was desperate in May, 1967 to avoid a war; eventually he succumbed to IDF pressure, installed General Moshe Dayyan as Defense Minister, and went to war. In June and July 2006 the non-military PM Ehud Omert (and equally neophyte Defense Minister Amir Peretz) are struggling greatly against the more muscular approach being championed by Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz. For the moment, the civilian authority seems to be controlling the Israeli response (largely because intelligence chief Yuval Diskin is siding with Olmert and Peretz), but the pressure on Olmert is enormous to open up the warfare in order to "change the rules of the game" (Halutz's ominous phrase). The disruption of life in the north, the impact on the Israeli economy, and the mounting cancellation of tourist reservations (Israel was almost back to pre-intifada tourist numbers in the early summer) all mean that this conflict would best be settled quickly and decisively. All this puts great pressure on Olmert to widen the warfare and bring the matter to a quick and decisive conclusion. Unfortunately, short of a complete reshuffling of the deck (through a full-scale mobilization and war posture), there is no quick and decisive conclusion foreseeable on the horizon.

And it is not as if the powerful Israeli military holds all the cards. The trajectory of this crisis is also in the hands of the PA in Gaza, Shaykh Nasrallah (leader of Hizbollah) in Lebanon; and then the regional states, particularly Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. If there were indications that the HAMAS government was prepared to make a deal to end the siege of Gaza, those intentions are now probably off the table. There is little reason for the terrorists of Gaza and south Lebanon to back off - every futher provocation only reinforces the perception that the great Israeli military machine is incapable of rearranging the game rules short of massive (and disproportianate) intervention, which will then eventually be condemened by the international diplomatic community. After years of "restraint" and status quo, the clock in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been turned back 20 years.

I for one see no way out.

1315 Update (2015 Israel time): Hizbollah has fired missiles at Haifa.

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