With its war goals constantly in flux, what will constitute victory for Israel’s armed forces in Lebanon?
That was the crucial question hanging in the air this week as Israel widened the ground war in its battle against Hezbollah, and its leaders vowed not to stop until victory was attained.But will that be when Israel secures a strip two miles deep along its border? Ten miles? Fifteen? To the Litani River, some 18 miles north of Lebanon’s border with Israel, or even beyond? Israeli officials have at various times mentioned all of the above.
Will it be when Hezbollah is disarmed, its rockets destroyed, and its re-supply routes from Iran and Syria blocked? Or will it be when Hezbollah as an armed threat is “degraded?” Israeli leaders have named both as their goal, sometimes in the same speech.
Some say it will be when Hezbollah unconditionally releases the two Israeli soldiers it grabbed in the daring July 12 cross-border raid that set off the current conflict. Others say it will be when Israel releases three Lebanese in exchange for its two soldiers. Israeli officials have issued contradictory statements about this, too.
Perhaps most importantly, whatever the scope of territory Israel takes, will ultimate success consist of the arrival — necessarily with the agreement of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah — of an international force of soldiers from countries yet to be determined? Without this, Israel could be left to hold the ground itself, exposing it to a Hezbollah war of attrition like the one that bled it in South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.
On the other hand, a similar force of Americans, French and Italians quickly left in 1983 after suicide attacks — widely alleged to have come from Hezbollah — destroyed their outposts and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, leaving 241 U.S. Marines dead.
Perhaps success will only be vouchsafed when the international force —assuming one arrives — stands its ground and fights in the not unlikely event that Hezbollah challenges it.
In a speech Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was vague on these questions, even as he depicted victory as imminent. As Hezbollah continued to launch rockets on northern Israel in response to Israel’s bombing campaign, Olmert spoke at various points in terms at once sweepingly absolute and carefully hedged about just what that victory would be.
Israel was “winning the battle” in its 21-day offensive against Hezbollah, he declared. “Every additional day is one that erodes the power of this cruel enemy. Every additional day, the Israeli Army reduces their ability to fire and also their ability to strike in the future.”
The prime minister said he had never promised the Israeli people that the offensive would destroy all Hezbollah’s missiles. “We have said we would agree to a cease-fire once we know with certainty the conditions in the field will be different than those that led to the eruption of this war,” he explained.
Yet at the same time, he said, “The threat will not be what it was. Never will they be able to threaten this people they fired missiles at.”
That sounded like a far-reaching vow to disarm Hezbollah of its entire rocket arsenal, whose very existence Israelis see as a Damoclean sword over northern Israel.
But the day after Olmert’s speech, a senior Israeli military official told Haaretz that Hezbollah retained some 9,000 to 10,000 Katyushas, with a range of 12 miles, and hundreds of rocket launchers for them. The official said the group still had numerous longer-range rockets, too — ones that could reach up to 125 miles — with the ability to hit Haifa and even Tel Aviv.
It was an astonishing admission, given that Israel had originally estimated Hezbollah’s missile arsenal at some 13,000. Indeed, the capability of its long-range missiles meant that even if pushed back to the Litani River, Hezbollah, if not disarmed, could still hit Tel Aviv, and any area up to it, at will.
To Chas Freeman, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security, these facts meant that Olmert’s speech “from a military point of view had no credibility.”
“There’s been a steady process of retreat from the definitions [for victory] first put forward,” he observed. “It’s been defined in ever less grandiose terms.
“The objective of the government now is to create an impression of victory, not failure,” he said. “Yet Israel has failed. It will not succeed in ejecting Hezbollah as an armed military force.”
Judith Kipper, an adviser for Middle East programs with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Olmert was maneuvering to quit fighting and spin it as a success.
“There is a realization they are not going to ‘defeat’ Hezbollah or remove their missiles,” she said. “They badly don’t want to be seen as succumbing to U.S. or international pressure for a cease-fire. At the same time, they realize they have to end it.”
Even Daniel Pipes, director of the hawkish, pro-Israel Middle East Forum, said, “I’m convinced there is no possibility of fixing the south by staying in the Lebanon theater.” Terming Israel’s campaign “a war of choice” in response to “a relatively small incident,” Pipes urged Israel to attack Syria —Hezbollah’s principal patron along with Iran. But this is a step Israel has so far indicated it will not take.
To be sure, with its expanding ground campaign this week, most analysts said Israel, with its massive superiority, could ultimately take whatever territory it might decide to — if it was prepared to pay a steep price in blood against a deeply dug-in foe that lived where it fought. And no one denied that Hezbollah was suffering serious losses of its own it amid the intense bombing and fierce fighting.
But during the Vietnam War, the United States, in strict military terms, also won the 1968 Tet offensive the Communist Viet Cong launched against it — at least in the sense of killing many more Viet Cong than vice versa and successfully defending every city and town. Yet it was a turning point in the war. Thanks to the enemy’s surprise ability to launch a wide, fierce and sustained attack, and to keep coming back for more, the offensive was viewed universally as a U.S. debacle.
“Much of it is perception,” acknowledged Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, currently chancellor of Tel Aviv University. “Right now, the issue is how to end the war, with both a substantive and evident victory.”
After an initial, unsuccessful phase of relying on air power in the hope of quickly knocking out Hezbollah’s capability; after the humanitarian disaster of last weekend, in which Israel bombed a home in Kana killing a reported 54 civilians, most of them children, sparking worldwide outcry; after the bombing of a UN outpost that killed four UN observers the week before; and in the face of Hezbollah’s continued ability to fight, or just survive, a perceptual victory for Israel could prove even more difficult than a substantive one.
Rabinovich, like many Israelis interviewed, looked hopefully toward the new phase of expanded ground operations Israel was entering for greater success. But Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said, “The question is, how long do we have?”
Early this week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of securing an agreement within the UN Security Council to end the fighting within “days, not weeks.” Still, Alpher noted there could be significant lag between the resolution’s passage and its implementation with an international force on the ground.
As with the issue of victory, Israeli leaders were all over the map on time. Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said he thought the fighting would end in “weeks not months.” Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Eliezer, a former general and defense minister, said it would take “around 10 days to two weeks.” Senior Labor Party Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a former general, said, “We can achieve the results in several weeks,” speaking of a campaign to gain and hold territory “apparently up to the Litani.”
On Tuesday, the same day Olmert gave his speech, Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned, “A terror organization cannot be completely obliterated, since it can claim to exist and have influence even when operating very few militants.”
On the other hand, he stressed, Hezbollah has suffered a significant blow from Israel’s campaign.
Israeli leaders, said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, a former president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, are “preparing their own world and the Jewish world to claim victory if there’s a cease-fire soon.”