Crisis Unabated in Middle East

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

July 26, 2006

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Fairfax, Va.: Do you think that the “law of unintended consequences” has fully kicked in as the current conflict unfolds or is everything going about as expected by Israel and Hezbollah? What evidence do we have, if any, that this is a “proxy war” as some have suggested in the press and media?

Martin Indyk: Funny you should ask. I’m writing a book about U.S. diplomacy in the ME and it’s provisional title is “Unintended Consequences.”

In this case, Hezbollah has admitted that it did not expect the Israelis to react with such ferocity. Nasrallah thought it would just be a repeat of previous kidnappings and prisoner swaps. That’s why he called Israeli PM Olmert an “idiot” because he didn’t play by the established rules of the game.

On the other side, the Israelis were already dealing with one kidnapping in Gaza. To them, this looked like an Iranian attempt to hijack the Palestinian cause on the eve of the G-8 summit. And they had been watching Hezbollah build up its forces and rocket and missile stocks for six years. They were in effect waiting for an opportunity, but certainly didn’t expect it to come at this moment. The Israeli Army wasn’t prepared for this level of fighting.

Given that the war itself was “unintended” both sides are groping for achievable objectives. Nasrallah is trying to show that he can be “the last man standing.” The Israelis have gone from declaring their objective to be the destruction of Hezbollah, to the stripping of its rockets, to the clearing out of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, to the establishment of a buffer zone along Israel’s northern border. Nasrallah’s inability to get Israel to back off its military campaign is leading him to ever more escalatory actions. He is now declaring that he will attack beyond Haifa. It’s not clear whether this means missiles on Tel Aviv or terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. But if either of those things happen, we can expect an Israeli escalation in response.

The ultimate unintended consequence will be, I fear, an Israeli-Syrian confrontation. Even though both Israel and Syria declare they don’t want it, unfortunately I don’t think the crisis ends until it rises to that level.

Washington, D.C.: Israel’s bombing of Hezbollah targets is comprehensible, but I fail to understand why they are bombing parts of the country not affiliated with Hezbollah. If the idea is to have the Lebanese government act against Hezbollah, how does weakening the Lebanese government further that aim? Thank you for taking my question.

Martin Indyk: The Israelis do a lousy job of explaining their targeting. Today, they are bombing Tyre (a city in southern Lebanon) because the rockets that are hitting Haifa are launched from there. They are hitting the southern suburbs of Beirut today, in retaliation for the attacks on Haifa (on the principle that for every attack on Haifa, ten buildings in Hezbollah’s southern Beirut enclave will be destroyed, according to an unnamed Israeli security official).

In the early days of this campaign they hit roads, bridges and airports to make it more difficult for Iran and Syria to resupply Hezbollah with rockets and missiles. They have not hit the power grid or the water supply.

After the surprise missile attack on their battleship, the Israeli Air Force attacked naval radars all the way up the Lebanese coast, including the lighthouse in downtown Beirut.

So there is method in what might often appear to be blind rage. But that doesn’t take account of the targets that are hit by mistake in such an intensive bombing campaign, which include civilians and now a UN post.

The Israeli Government needs a strong Lebanese government to insist on the disarming of Hezbollah and to send its Armed Forces to the south. But it also needs to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities. And the two objectives are often in contradiction. 

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