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The Hezbollah Challenge

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a policy luncheon on July 28, 2006 with Daniel L. Byman, Saban Center Nonresident Senior Fellow and Professor at Georgetown University, and Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and co-chair of Set America Free. Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center, chaired the discussion. The presenters expressed their views on the challenges posed by Hizballah to Israel’s security and U.S. interests in the region, and the policy responses required from the United States and Israel to meet these challenges.

Byman began his presentation by admitting that he, like many Middle East analysts and observers, was surprised by Hizballah’s decision to carry out a cross-border attack against Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers patrolling the Israeli-Lebanese—an operation that resulted in the kidnapping of two soldiers and the killing of another six. He argued that although Hizballah clearly articulated its motives for the operation (the freeing its prisoners from Israeli jails), more was at stake. Implicit in the operation, Byman said, was the goal of embarrassing the anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon. Byman cautioned against forgetting Hizballah’s ideological commitment to the destruction of Israel and to supporting Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

Byman proceeded to argue that Hizballah made a mistake by assuming Israel would conduct a limited counter-attack. Hizballah thought Israel would act as it had done so in the past, undertaking limited strikes in response to its operations. With this assumption in mind, Hizballah believed it could secure a prisoner swap similar to the one conducted in 2004, when Israel freed more than two dozen Lebanese and Arab prisoners from Israeli jails in return for Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli whom Hizballah had abducted, and the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed in a Hizballah attack in 2000.

Byman laid out the reasons why the situation today is different. The Israelis take the view that Hizballah’s initial action broke long held rules of engagement. Hizballah did not strike in the Sheba’a farms, a disputed mountainous area that is adjacent to Lebanon’s southern border and that has been under Israeli occupation since 1967. As the conflict progressed, further rules of engagement were broken, such as the firing of rockets deep into Israel. As such, Byman argued, Hizballah is no longer perceived as fighting in the name of Lebanon’s defense.

Given the great risk involved in returning to the status quo ante, Byman explained, Israel had no option but to respond aggressively. Targeted air campaigns have a history of failing and their successes depend on conditions, namely superior intelligence, that Israel does not possess. Even attacks on the Hizballah leadership, said Byman, are not a practical option given Hizballah’s deep well of potential leaders. Byman also offered a few general thoughts on the limits of a military solution to Hizballah, arguing that the organization, despite its military losses, has been able to sustain considerable damage and even, to an extent, control its war of attrition with Israel.

Byman argued that with time on its side, Hizballah only needs to survive to be able to claim that it has won. In addition, although Hizballah may have lost some support among the Christian communities in Lebanon, it has garnered increased support from its core constituency, the Shi’ah community. A large factor leading to the increased support for Hizballah, he argued, is that for many people “resistance” and successful defiance of Israel are regarded as indicators of success.

Byman addressed the issue of a potential international force that might be deployed in southern Lebanon. He was skeptical about its usefulness because the current international force, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), has such a poor record. No nation, Byman maintained, would accept an international force that has combat capabilities. Therefore, the deployment of an international force will only be possible following the cessation of hostilities between the warring parties.

Commenting on the roles that Syria and Iran are playing in the Israel-Lebanon crisis, Byman reasoned that while Iran may not have pushed for Hizballah’s operation, it certainly has blessed it. Byman argued that Syria is the key to solving the crisis. Having been ignored by the United States and Israel for years, Syria is now looking forward to being reckoned with and assigned a role in ending this crisis. Byman argued that there are costs to Syrian intervention in the current crisis. For example, Syria is likely to demand an end to the ongoing UN investigation into the murder in February 2005 of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister. Syria is also likely to seek to resume its control over Lebanon as a price for its assistance in brokering a solution. The United States faces a challenge in dealing with Syria to end this crisis, because Washington has few inducements to offer Syria and few sticks to employ against Syria. The United States will therefore have to balance its goal of supporting democracy in Lebanon with its desire to elicit constructive Syrian intervention to resolve the crisis.

Luft began by saying that the necessary first step is to properly name the problem. He singled out Hizballah, or the ‘Party of God’, as the problem and described the conflict between Hizballah and Israel as being, in Hizballah’s eyes, religious. For the ‘Party of God’ the conflict is about God, not about the Sheba’a farms or any other territorial issue.

Luft agreed with Byman that Hizballah only needs to survive in order to be able to claim that it has won. He criticized former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from southern Lebanon in May 2000 by arguing that Israel is today reaping the bitter fruits of that mistaken withdrawal.

Luft, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the IDF reserves who served five years in Lebanon, proceeded to discuss what Israel could define as a victory. He explained that the views currently being held in Israel are unrealistic. According to Luft, victory cannot be defined in military terms. A military strategy that aims at knocking out Hizballah, which is a popular movement, and at ending the rocket and missile threat, is not practical or realistic.

Luft argued that Israeli restraint had put Israel in a difficult position and had narrowed Israel’s policy options. Israel had failed to deliver any significant reaction to repeated Hizballah provocations. As a result, Luft argued, Israel was left with no option but “the mad dog doctrine”, by which he meant a fundamentally unpredictable response that is extremely dangerous for the other side.

Luft argued that while Hizballah may hold some tactical advantage in the fighting, it will face an internal challenge once there is a cessation of violence. Hizballah will face problems domestically as it will need to explain to the Lebanese people why they are returning to battered cities and towns that lack infrastructure. Luft suggested that the United States should play a prominent role in assisting Lebanon with its reconstruction and prevent Hizballah from taking credit for the rebuilding efforts.

Luft concluded by offering recommendations regarding the potential deployment of an international force in Lebanon and the leading role that Turkey could play in such a deployment, the value of targeted air strikes against Hizballah’s leadership, and a defensive military strategy for Israel, an anti-rocket system, that could obviate the rocket threat posed by Hizballah.

Agenda

Chair

Presenters

G

Gal Luft

Executive Director, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security

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