When the fighting is over, both Israel and Hezbollah are likely to declare victory. But the truth will be far more complicated.
Hezbollah looks certain to be pushed back from Israel’s border, but its standing in the Arab world will remain high. Israel appears set to achieve its goal of getting Hezbollah off its doorstep, but the guerrillas can say they stood up to Israel and lived to tell the tale.
Because of each side’s deep-seated need to appear victorious, a thunderous show of force is not unlikely in the time before a cease-fire deal is arranged — perhaps a Hezbollah rocket hitting Tel Aviv, or a massive Israeli ground offensive northward toward the Litani River.
Israel hopes that its offensive in Lebanon, which has already killed more than 500 people, will serve as a warning to Iran, Syria and all Islamic radicals in the Middle East that the price for attacking the Jewish state is too high even to contemplate.
And it hopes its ability to withstand an onslaught of nearly 2,500 Hezbollah rockets will send a strong message of defiance to its enemies.
“Israeli society showed the myth of a weak society is not true,” said Efraim Inbar, a professor of political studies at the Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “I think the region will pay attention.”
Hezbollah remains undeterred
Israel has not achieved the deterrence it hoped for, however — and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Hezbollah will feel defeated.
The Shiite group, which sparked the crisis by crossing into Israel and capturing two Israeli soldiers July 12, has kept up its rocket barrage, including some 190 rockets Friday. Hezbollah also made good on its threat to strike deeper and deeper inside Israel, hitting the town of Hadera, 50 miles south of the border, for the first time Friday.
Israel’s initial condition for a cease-fire — the disarming of Hezbollah — has been replaced by the far more modest goal of pushing Hezbollah away from the border to make room for a new multinational peacekeeping force.
The group has proven itself to be a more formidable foe than expected. Forty-four Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting, in addition to 30 civilians killed by rocket attacks.
“In their minds they (Hezbollah) won this one,” said Timur Goksel, an American University of Beirut professor who spent more than two decades as a senior U.N. adviser in south Lebanon. “And their credibility within their own community is very high. Their credibility in the Muslim world is very high. They fought the Israelis for three weeks without buckling under.”
Added Ephraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad spy agency: “Hezbollah built a force of mutual deterrence against Israel. But it’s not Hezbollah that built it. It was Iran.”
Familiar feeling for Israel
For Israel, the victory narrative is a matter of life and death.
The conflict in Lebanon has reinforced Israelis’ deeply ingrained feeling that they are surrounded by enemies who want them dead, bringing a rare sense of clarity to a national psyche blurred by the moral murkiness of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Most Israelis believe winning the war — and being perceived as winning it — is essential for the Jewish state’s long-term security.
That helps explain why popular support for the Lebanon campaign remains extremely high despite a growing chorus of media commentators complaining that the war has been poorly conceived and executed.
Israel’s Channel 10 TV released a new poll Friday night showing 84 percent of Israelis are satisfied with the army’s performance, with only 8 percent dissatisfied. No margin of error was given.
Most Mideast observers agree that to be seen as winning, Hezbollah needs only to emerge from the conflict with its war machine still functioning — an outcome that now appears very likely.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the disarming of Hezbollah will come only after a cease-fire is in place and a beefed-up multinational peacekeeping force takes up positions in south Lebanon — an arrangement the U.N. Security Council is now seeking to put together.
Firing ‘over their heads’
William Brown, U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1988 to 1992, said that even if Israel succeeds in pushing Hezbollah away from its northern border and an international force moves in, Hezbollah’s rockets will still be able to reach Israel, firing “over the heads” of peacemakers.
“Unless you get a more comprehensive type of solution, the arms will continue to flow in from Iran through Syria,” he said.
Disrupting that arms supply explains Israel’s decision on Friday to target bridges in the Christian heartland north of Beirut for the first time.
Israeli military officials said Friday they completed the first phase of the offensive, securing a 4-mile buffer zone in south Lebanon, though pockets of Hezbollah resistance remained.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz has told top army officers to begin preparing for a push to the Litani River, about 20 miles north of the border — a move that would require Cabinet approval and could lead to many more casualties.