[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

August 6, 2006

 

This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin

 

The beginning of the end

 

At least 10 more military casualties are being reported as I write these lines. At the beginning of the war, I wrote that we know we will be coming to the end of the war when the Israeli generals and politicians begin speaking about victory and when the United States decides that it is enough.  Both of these conditions are beginning to appear. The generals are beginning to speak about their victories against Hizbollah and the politicians are beginning to speak about the creation of new realities in Lebanon.  The United States has been working behind the scenes, mainly with France, in the Security Council to produce a resolution that will be acceptable to Israel. 

 

The military goals of this war without a name were to decimate the military capabilities of Hizbollah, to push them north, to kills as many Hizbollah soldiers and leaders as possible, including Hassan Nasrallah.  The political goals of Israel were to make the Government of Lebanon take responsibility for its sovereignty, to bring about the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 with an emphasis on the disarming of Hizbollah and to make the Government of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon understand that they will pay a very heavy price for supporting Hizbollah and violations of Israel’s sovereignty.  (It is interesting to note Israel’s sudden commitment to UN Security Council Resolutions!)

 

To a large extent Israel was trapped into this war – after the Hizbollah attack killing eight soldiers and capturing two more, Israel had to respond. Olmert, Livni, Peretz and Ramon, lacking the military experience and the control over the army, decided that it was time to teach the terrorists of the region a new lesson – Israel will not bargain with terrorists and will not allow terrorists to have any victories.  There is no doubt that Washington gave its full backing to these messages.  For the six years since the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbollah has been building a massive network of military capabilities all along the Israeli border and throughout southern Lebanon. The explanation of why Prime Minister Sharon chose not to deal with the Hizbollah threat was the belief that with such heavy armaments on both sides of the border a kind of mutual strategic threat and deterrence had been built up that would prevent serious acts of aggression.  The mutual threat and deterrence was broken with the Hizbollah attack.  The other reason, perhaps the real reason, was Sharon’s reluctance to drag Israel into another Lebanon adventure after taking the blame for the 1982 fiasco which led to Israel sinking in the mud of Lebanon for 18 years.

 

Hizbollah was not prepared for such a massive Israeli response nor was the IDF prepared for the massive response and determination demonstrated by Hizbollah. The internal Israeli public arguments about the war are just beginning to appear in Israel.  There’s no doubt that those arguments will increase in the coming weeks. The main question that will be asked is why Israel did so much damage in Lebanon.  People will ask about the wisdom of the massive bombings of civilian targets.  The army and the government will explain that the Hizbollah infrastructures are deeply embedded in civilian areas and that there was no choice. People will also ask why Israel lacked intelligence information about the strength and capabilities of Hizbollah.

 

The Israeli public has also not seen much of the tremendous destruction in Lebanon.  My sense is that the Israeli media is a full partner in the military campaign and the level of self censorship by the media reached new heights.  Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why more than 80% of the public has backed the government.  From the Israeli side there is a clear reality of being under attack.  The civilian population was never so attacked as it was in this war.  More than half a million Israelis are displaced people, having to leave their homes and communities which are under Hizbollah rocket fire. More than 500 Israeli homes have been destroyed by those missiles and the civilian and military casualty rate is climbing by the day.

 

It is also interesting to note the high level of civilian casualties amongst Israel’s Arab population  - some one-third of the civilian casualties have been Arabs, and there is great concern that very few of those citizens blame Hizbollah and Nasrallah for their bad fate.  This war will definitely also have a negative impact on the relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis and this is a matter of great concern.

 

The international scene

 

The recent developments in the Security Council towards producing a resolution that will put an end to the war are encouraging. So far it seems that the US-French negotiations have produced the first version of a plan, but they are yet to find a partner on the Lebanese side. Without the Government of Lebanon and Hizbollah agreeing to the plan no new international troops will be sent to Lebanon. Israel has made its withdrawal conditional on a new multinational effective and robust force in the south that will agree to confront, with force, possible Hizbollah redeployment south of whatever line is determined.  In order for the Government of Lebanon to join and support the process it will demand that the prisoner exchange is much more explicit and less vague than presently presented.  The Government of Lebanon will also demand that the Shebaa farms are returned to Lebanese sovereignty, that the Israeli withdrawal is 100% and immediate and that a large international fund is put into place to rebuild Lebanon. The Government of Lebanon will also want to ensure that Israel will not attack again and that the effective robust multinational force is also able to prevent Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and not only take action against Lebanese.

 

There are much more serious difficulties in getting Hizbollah to agree to the UN Resolution. Hizbollah, despite the massive damage to its infrastructure, has gained much public support in Lebanon.  The time will come when the anti-Syria coalition of Christians, Sunnis, Druze and even part of the Shiite population will begin to ask questions about Hizbollah’s responsibility for dragging Lebanon into this war, but for the time being, most Lebanese citizens regardless of which community they come from, identify with and support Nasrallah and Hizbollah and even adopt the Hizbollah vocabulary of calling them a “legitimate resistance force” against Israel’s aggression. The war has managed to create a new sense of social cohesion and solidarity in Lebanon and throughout the Muslim world.  Instead of weakening Hizbollah, the strength of the movement is on the rise, which will make it a lot more difficult for Israel to claim victory.  Hizbollah is unlikely to agree to any international plan that will lead to the implementation of UN Resolution 1559, meaning the disarming of its fighters.  Only internal Lebanese pressure or directives from Syria could lead to that.

 

The Syria front

 

There are some Generals and some former Generals who would like Israel to use the current war to open another front with Syria.  This past weekend some trucks carrying Syrian workers were hit by the Israeli air force attack that believed that the trucks were carrying rockets.  More than 30 Syrian workers were reported killed. Israeli and Syrian troops are already facing each other on both sides of the Golan Heights and tensions are quite high.  Some people claim that Katyusha rockets that have landed in the Golan are Hizbollah’s attempt to drag Israel into a fight with the Syrians.  Fortunately, it seems that the Israeli decision makers do not want to launch a war against Syria.  That war would be a more traditional war of army against army, unlike the guerilla war with Hizbollah.  Israel would probably destroy the Syrian army within days, but the questions must be asked: then what?  Should Israel occupy Damascus – God forbid. 

 

Instead, it would be wise for Israel to use the new opportunities for renewing the Israel-Syria track, but this is only possible if the United States decides to offer Syria an opportunity of being pulled away from Iranian influence.  It has been said that there are signals from Damascus that Assad would like to move in this direction.  Syria’s price to pay would be the sealing of its border to Iraq, the end of weapon shipments and financial flows to Hizbollah and the closing of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus.  In exchange, Syria would get the Golan Heights (which would be demilitarized and an international force would be stationed there) and massive western and US financial aid.  This seems to be the right hour to move in that direction, but it depends first and foremost of US diplomatic finesse and political will, both of which seem to be in short supply.

 

The Palestinian front

 

The war in Gaza, called Summer Rain, is continuing without anyone paying attention.  Palestinians are being killed everyday and the southern part of Gaza is being destroyed by Israeli bombs and bulldozers. Gaza is completely out of the news. The kidnapped soldier in Gaza, Gilead Shalit, is believed to be alive, but there have been no signs of life from him since his abduction more than a month ago. There have been a lot of negotiations between the parties, mostly through the Egyptians, that include a mutual cease fire and a prisoner release, after Shalit is released.  Israel has made it clear that there are no negotiations with the Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus and all contacts with the Palestinians are through Mahmoud Abbas. Israel has made it clear that any release of prisoners would be “given” to Abbas.  Recent reports have spoken about some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners being considered for early release, including the minors and women prisoners number over 400. Israeli sources have stated that a large scale prisoner release was already in the works prior to the kidnapping of Shalit.  The release was going to take place after the Olmert-Abbas summit that never took place.  It is still completely unclear to me why that summit has not yet taken place.  Olmert and his ministers still talk about the need to strengthen Abbas, but they seem to be doing nothing to work in that direction.   The November 2005 agreement on access and movement has largely not been implemented – something that would help to strengthen Abass and the Palestinian economy as well as other steps that could help to rebuild an Israeli-Palestinian track through Abbas.  The approval of the Palestinian conciliation document between the Palestinian factions empowers Abbas to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians with the approval and recognition of all of the factions.  It is time to serious make plans for renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as well.

 

 

 

Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org