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Who Really Won the Second Lebanon War

| 2 Comments

Israel's recent war in Gaza was waged for the simplest of reasons: to deter Hamas from firing Qassam and Grad rockets. Whether or not the Israelis succeeded is an open question. An Israeli soldier - who, by the way, was an Arab - was killed by a roadside bomb next to the border with Gaza a few days ago. But if the aftermath of the less successful Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006 suggests anything, Hamas is likely to cool its guns for a while. Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared a "divine victory" in August of 2006, and most Israelis agreed. Bombastic boasts to the contrary, however, Hezbollah lost, and Hezbollah knows it.

I'm hardly the first to point out that Hezbollah sat out the Gaza war. Somebody fired a salvo of rockets into Israel from South Lebanon on January 8, and Hezbollah couldn't distance itself from the attack fast enough. If the 2006 war was such a success, why wouldn't Nasrallah want to rack up another divine victory? He could hardly ask for a more auspicious time to launch the next round if that's what he was planning. The Israel Defense Forces were busy and preoccupied in Gaza, and much of world opinion had already turned sharply against the Israelis. If Nasrallah's passivity doesn't prove he feels more reluctant to pick a fight than he did in 2006, it certainly strongly suggests it.

There's something else, though, that only a handful of analysts have remarked on. Very few people in Lebanon sincerely think Hezbollah won the 2006 war. It's mostly Arabs outside Lebanon who take Nasrallah's declaration of "divine victory" seriously.

Leave aside the fact that ten times more Lebanese than Israelis were killed in that war, and that the centers of entire towns in South Lebanon were destroyed from the skies. It's theoretically possible that the Lebanese could delude themselves into thinking they won. Most Egyptians, after all, think they beat Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, though they most certainly did not. And denial is a river that flows through other lands besides Egypt.

Nasrallah, though, was all but forced to apologize to Lebanese for the death and destruction he brought down on their heads. "We did not believe," he said on Lebanon's New TV station, "even by one percent, that the captive operation would result in such a wide-scale war, as such a war did not take place in the history of wars. Had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war we would not have carried it out at all."

These are not the words of a man who thinks of himself as a victor. Nor are these the words of a man speaking to those who think they have won. He did not issue his apology because he hoped to appease his Christian, Sunni, and Druze opponents in Lebanon. He routinely, and absurdly, dismisses their March 14 coalition as the "Zionist hand." No. Nasrallah apologized because his Israeli adventure devastated his own Shia community.

It's not easy finding Lebanese who are interested in a repeat. I drove from Beirut to South Lebanon shortly after the war to survey the destruction with a couple of Hezbollah's political enemies. My guide Said succinctly summed up the reaction I heard from most when we parked amid the rubble of downtown of Bint Jbail. "So this is our victory," he sarcastically said. "This is how Hezbollah wins. Israel destroys our country while they sleep safely and soundly in theirs."

Don't assume only March-14 Lebanese feel this way. The Shias of South Lebanon feel it more acutely than most since they suffered the brunt of the damage. But even many of Nasrallah's allies elsewhere in Lebanon aren't interested in more of the same. "Both sides lost and don't want to do it again," a supporter of Hezbollah's ally Michel Aoun said to me in Beirut. "The situation in the South is finished. If it happens again, Nasrallah will lose his case."

Predicting the future in a bottomlessly complicated society like Lebanon's is a risky business, to be sure, but a clear majority have no interest in yet another bloody conflict. Most Lebanese, like most Israelis, prefer to be left alone. And most of Nasrallah's supporters will tell you they want Hezbollah to deter Israeli invasions, not to invite Israeli invasions.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

2 Comments

I'm not sure if Gaza and Lebanon are comparable. Michael makes a good argument that Israel won something of a strategic victory over Hezbollah by successfully deterring continuing rocket attacks, even if the tactical side left much to be desired.

For the moment that appears to be true. But I would argue that Hezbollah's failure to come to the aid of Hamas is not proof positive that Hezbollah will be leery of reopening the rocket attacks if and when it benefits Hezbollah more directly. If I'm Nasrallah, I don't see a lot of upside for my situation by interrupting Israel from making a mistake in Gaza by punching a pillow that is Hamas (and the political capital that costs). If anything, staggering regional wars with Israel can be argued to be more damaging to the integrity of the state over time. Israel can fight on two fronts now or face a war on different fronts every year or two... the more frequent fighting is probably more damaging in the long run.

Either way, the fact that Hezbollah may be deterred doesn't automatically mean the latest Lebanon war was a victory for Israel. Rocket fire was never ultimately going to subdue the state, its ultimately an irritant, not a game changer. Israel still failed in Lebanon by shooting their bolt and utterly failing to decisively defeat Hezbollah (and thereby change the math of the region). Israel may have gained a respite from rocket fire in the north, but it also removed any fear from the region that Israel's legendary military power could at any moment be unleashed with decisive results as it has in the past. One could argue Hamas rocket fire was encouraged by the results in Lebanon. In which case the results on a larger strategic scale are even more in doubt.

Another possible reason for the silence of Hezbollah:

Obama will possibly change the balance of the Middle East. As part of this change, the Syrian will probably become of the good guys. It means that there will be progress in the Syrian-Israeli peace process.

Syria wants the Golan Heights which is now belongs to Israel. Israel want to keep the Golan Heights for itself – as it became highly populated in the last 40 years – or at least keep some strategic points there (the previous Syrian border is watching a fertile Israeli valley which contains the largest Israeli sweet water reservoir).

Syria also wants Lebanon. Nobody really care about the Lebanese interests. Lebanon is now weak and it has a strong radical militaristic opposition in the south – the Hezbollah.

To makes things worst, Hezbollah is supported by Iran. There is a good chance the Iran will remain part of the bad guys in Obama’s new order and nobody will talk to her (not without a Turkish mediation anyway).

If Hezbollah would attack Israel (and it should be remembered that the timing of Gaza’s war was the 3 weeks before Obama’s inauguration so his opinion was still flexible), then it could be an ideal excuse to let Syria “help” Lebanon to suppress its violent terrorist opposition in the south. In any case that would strengthen Hezbollah’s position as a part of the Iran-Hamas-Other-bad-guys against the Syrian-Lebanese-etc. front.

Regarding the Gaza war: stopping the Qasam was a secondary reason, IMO. The reasons were mainly to keep the Hamas away of the west bank; and to force Obama to give high priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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