Monday, July 17, 2006

Ten Years Ago

There is one man in the current Israeli government who cannot help but feel pangs of "what if" as the current shoot-out with Hizbollah enters its 6th day. That man is Shimon Peres, who ten years ago watched his entire political career slide into oblivion over Lebanon. There is a further back story to Peres' demise, but I'll get to that later...

Shimon Peres was PM of Israel in 1996, the inheritor of that job after his nemesis Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995. Peres at the time had his country's and the world's sympathy, and after a bit of hesitation he called for a snap election in May, 1996, to seal his tenure as PM. In those days Israel occupied a "security zone" in south Lebanon and propped up a Christian proxy army to help in the struggle against Hizbollah, and Syria occupied eastern Lebanon.

In March and April of 1996 Hizbollah carried out a number of suicide bomb attacks on Israeli and South Lebanese Army emplacements, killing a number of soldiers. It then followed up with a number of short range Katyusha firings into northern Israel, wounding 36. On April 11 Peres ordered a series of air-based "surgical strikes" against Hizbollah launching sites and infrastructure targets throughout Lebanon, including Beirut for the first time since the 1982 invasion. At the time, there was much speculation in the Israeli press that Peres wanted to appear stronger than his historic reputation. Peres endorsed his generals' plan for effecting a strategic change in Lebanon. Over 400,000 Lebanese became temproary refugees as they tried to flee the battle zone. The Clinton administration gave support to Israel in its battle against Hizbollah.

And then one week into Operation Grapes of Wrath, at least a dozen Israeli howitzer shells fell on a UN outpost at Qana, Lebanon, killing more than 100 refugees. Israel maintained it was an operational error, and of course there were accusations in the Arab world that the artillery salvos were a deliberate effort to terrorize the population. After the shelling of Qana, American support for the operation dried up, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher hammered out a murky cease-fire which left Hizbollah in southern Lebanon to fight another day.

But the anger of the Arab world over the carnage of Qana poured over into the Israeli Arab community, and many traditional Labor supporters within the Israeli Arab community refused to vote for Peres in protest. In the May 29, 1996 parliamentary elections, the once certain shoo-in candidate Peres went to bed at midnight with Israeli television predicting a close win, but by morning Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was the clear winner.

That was the end for Peres, the perennial Adlai Stevenson of Israeli politics. And now to the back story...Four years later an opening occurred in the largely ceremonial but symbolic position of President of Israel. Peres, the elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize winner, ran hard for the position tailor-made for his aspirations. But Likud wanted someone else, and selected the completely insignificant Moshe Katzav, a minor Likud politician, to the job. Just 3 weeks ago, a sex scandal erupted in the President's office, and Katzav has now been accused of sexual harrassment by a number of former female employees. Katzav's slight reputation has now been permanently tarnished. For the 83 year-old Peres, this is yet another tragic irony in a long and checkered career. In 2005 Peres ran to lead Labor and was rejected by primary voters in favor of rising star Amir Peretz; Peres bolted from Labor and joined Sharon's Kadima party, and even held the lofty slot of #2 on the Kadima list, with hopes of serving as foreign minister in Sharon's government. But that was not meant to be. Now Vice PM Shimon Peres (also Minister for Development of the Negev and Galilee) looks on, and must be suffering from a strong sense of "deja vu" and frustration that yet again, the country has turned another way.

But there is another point to the this trip down memory lane. For the moment, PM Ehud Olmert enjoys near-complete domestic support for endorsing his generals' plan to "change the rules" of Lebanon and take on the Hizbollah arsenal, and he also has American cover against a growing chorus of international efforts to arrange a cease-fire. But with each passing day, the potential for a Qana-like event grows stronger. There are two trend lines in play here which have not yet intersected: one trend line is the effective degradation of Hizbollah C3 (command, control & communications) capabilities; the other trend line is domestic and US governmental sympathy for the operation. The calculated bet in applying air power against Lebanon and its infrastructure is that the trend line for support of the operation may deteriorate before the strategic goal is realized. And then instead of "new rules," Olmert & Co. will be faced with a slightly degraded Hizbollah, another meaningless cease fire agreement, and no change in the regional equation.

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