Israel’s To Lose

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The New York Sun

Even as the fighting escalates, Israel has won the war against the Hezbollah in Lebanon. It must now do everything it can to ensure that it does not, as it has done after military victories in the past, lose the war’s aftermath.

When the president of Lebanon, Fuad Siniora, in a Saturday night speech and press conference, stated that Lebanon is prepared, following a ceasefire, to “extend the state’s authority over all its territories, in cooperation with the United Nations in southern Lebanon,” he was publicly declaring that Israel’s major war aims have been almost entirely met. If the Lebanese government is indeed now ready to send its army south to the Israeli border, as it has refused to do since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, and to see to it that Hezbollah ceases its military operations there, every shell fired and every bomb dropped by Israel in the past days will have been worthwhile.

The problem with the Lebanese army has never been military. Although it may not be a powerful force, it has more than enough power to whip Hezbollah soundly in any armed confrontation. The problem has been a lack of political will. What has kept the army in Beirut is the threat of the civil conflict that Hezbollah has threatened to unleash should its grip on southern Lebanon be challenged.

If President Siniora is now seriously prepared to face this threat down, Israel should do everything to help him. It can do this by trying as quickly as possible to work out with him, with the active assistance of America, the terms of a ceasefire and the implementation of the new Lebanese policy announced by him.

This means making certain that, in the time it takes the Lebanese army to deploy, no Hezbollah forces remain in, or return to, southern Lebanon. Even after a general ceasefire takes hold, Israel must insist on the right to keep the area clean of Hezbollah until Lebanese troops are ready to move into it. This is a Lebanese interest too.

Of course, any United Nations resolution or other agreement that puts an end to the fighting must also call for the release of the two captive Israeli soldiers whose abduction started the hostilities. Yet it would be wrong, as Israel’s first reaction has been to do, to make their release a precondition for ending the fighting, because the Lebanese government, which does have the ability to send its army south, does not have the ability to free them – certainly not immediately. They are presumably well-hidden, and since one may assume that Hezbollah will refuse to hand them over to the Lebanese government and cannot be easily forced to, they should be dealt with as a separate issue that will demand time and internal Lebanese negotiations. As important as their welfare is, it should not be allowed to destroy the opportunity for a major strategic breakthrough.

If such a breakthrough can be achieved, and the military threat of Hezbollah to Israel be eliminated once and for all, there is a lesson to be learned from it. This is that while caution is a good counselor, fear is not. For years Israel put up with Hezbollah provocations on its border because of the worry that a strong reaction might lead to a major flare-up in which thousands of Iranian-produced rockets would rain down on the Israeli north with cataclysmic effects.

The rockets have indeed fallen like rain – close to a thousand as of Sunday afternoon. And yet its psychological dimension aside, the “cataclysm” has resulted so far, even after the killing of eight Israelis in Haifa yesterday morning, in less deaths and serious injuries than have been caused by many single suicide bombings. 90% of the rockets fired have fallen in open areas, as might have been expected of weapons notorious for their inaccuracy. A less panicky appraisal of their probable effect might have led Israel to take the measures that it finally took this week at an earlier date and to have cleared Hezbollah from its border long ago.

As for the world, the fighting in Lebanon has demonstrated once again what was hardly a secret beforehand. Israel has one real friend, the Bush administration in Washington, and a host of pseudo-well-wishers in Europe whose advice, at least on matters of security, should be routinely shredded.

Over and over this past week, as on countless occasions in the past, Europe’s leaders have warned Israel against “overreacting,” against the “disproportionate use of force,” against recklessly attacking “civilian targets.” (A high percentage of which were roads, bridges, airports, and seaports that could have been used to replenish Hezbollah’s armory, heavily depleted by Israeli air attacks.) Yet had Israel heeded these calls for moderation, its military campaign would have had no real effect, President Siniora would never have made the declaration that he did, and things would have gone back in the end to being exactly the same as before, with Hezbollah still sitting on the Israeli border and the Lebanese army playing cards in its barracks.

With the possible exception of England and Germany, Israel has no reason to trust Europe and should not rush to welcome it as part of the new peacekeeping operations that will eventually have to be put into place. If anything, a number of Arab leaders, such as President Mubarak and King Abdullah, played a more positive role this week than did President Chirac or Prime Minister Zapatero. One would welcome a statement from as to what exactly the “proportionate” use of force in such a situation would have been.

Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.

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