Monday, February 8, 2010

Israel-Hizballah conflict on the horizon?

"Everybody and their brother thinks that 2010 will witness a second round between Hezbollah and Israel," says Qifa Nabki; like him, I hope that's not the case and don't see it as inevitable (at least for the next few months, barring a game-changing event--which, in today's Middle East, is not too unlikely). The post is worth reading--it features a few different takes on what might be the catalyst for a conflict between Israel and Hizballah and how Hizballah and/or Israel (depending on the scenario) might try to spin it.

The short version of my opinion: you never know, it doesn't take much for these two, but it would be stupid on Israel's part. The long version is below.

Nabki's reason for thinking conflict doesn't have to happen too too soon is that the current situation is mutually beneficial: "Israel gets a quiet northern front and Hezbollah gets to re-group, re-arm, and weigh their options while certain relevant regional powers weigh theirs." (Cough cough Iran.) I think there's one more reason: the current Israeli leadership doesn't have any hawk cred to prove or warlike, manly flexing to do. They're still pretty fresh off Operation Cast Lead and they're not due for elections anytime soon.

In addition, Operation Cast Lead didn't exactly go well for Israel in global public or diplomatic opinion--I mean, who outside of Israel was happy about that? Anyone? Not even the U.S. was on board (okay, maybe Charles Krauthammer)--and another war, even one provoked by Hizballah, would not help Israel in that department. The Goldstone Report is still being investigated by both sides, and the U.N. will probably send it to the Hague--a reasonably ominous development for Israel and its ongoing investigation, since according to The Majlis "Richard Goldstone recommended the UN send the report to the International Criminal Court only if both sides aren't willing to conduct legitimate investigations." Human rights groups are still on the scent. Israel doesn't need to give them new material.

I think the half-life on Goldstone will have a lot to do with whether we see a full-scale conflict in Southern Lebanon, even if Hizballah provokes--Israel has a choice to escalate, and right now there are few upsides and lots of downsides to taking it. (Indeed, that choice is a large part of what won Ehud Olmert such opprobrium in the aftermath of 2006's July War, and has won him the privilege of being referred to as "stupid," "idiotic," etc. forever after whenever that war is discussed.)

Of course, that hasn't always stopped them before. Nabki says, "Israeli strategists are talking about the Dahiyah doctrine and the concept of punishment, not dissimilar to Ops Accountability and Grapes of Wrath in 1993 and 1996. Next time, they say, we won’t bother try to defeat Hezbollah, instead we’ll smash Lebanon to demonstrate to the Lebanese the folly of tolerating them."

On the one hand, not trying to crush Hizballah is probably wise. It didn't go well last time and will just add fuel to a number of fires. On the other, punishing the people for a group's politics and actions hasn't been working too well in Gaza, nor, as Larison keeps hammering away (here too--there are too many good ones), does it generally in the case of sanctions (against Burma, Iran, Gaza, ad nauseam) or in principle.

What's more, while I have no doubt in Israel's ability to lay waste to Lebanon no matter what Hizballah does (unless Nasrallah is hiding a large air force very well), they still have to deal with the risk of Hizballah's managing to make them look bad tactically. Israel doesn't just have to win to avoid that; they have to embarrass Hizballah. Otherwise, in the context of asymmetrical expectations, the specter of 2006 combined with an impressive or even decent showing from Hizballah will not help the nyah nyah narrative one bit.

Finally, I fail to see how this plan works out well for Israel in the strategic long run. Even if it goes brilliantly, they'll then border an impoverished, destabilized Lebanon full of a lot of very mad, very suddenly poor people for whom employment with Hizballah could start looking very good (especially if Iran is smart and sends a bunch of cash Hizballah's way to pay recruits--Hizballah was offering $100-$200 a week back in the mid-eighties, thanks to their Shi'i parent). Hizballah, in this scenario (only the one-sentence version, to be fair), will be left more or less intact, and it will be ready, willing, and able to make Israel's northern border very unhappy (especially given their stated intention, per Nabki, to go on the offensive "next time" rather than fighting "defensively and reactively" as they did in 2006). (Though Syria has a role to play here, too, which I think could go either way in terms of giving the green light.) The Israeli government will probably have a reasonably doubtful chunk of the electorate on its hands, especially if the government is seen to have started or disproportionately escalated the conflict that created this situation.

This particular plan of attack would really, really not help Israel on the human rights front, either--Hizballah is their best target from the point of view of avoiding civilians and hitting an internationally unpopular enemy, despite recent softening from Britain and international observers toward the group in response to their new platform.

All of this said, I wouldn't be shocked if it happened: Hizballah is maybe due to remind everyone of its war-waging chops (it's coming up on four years now)--they did just redeploy their rockets deeper into Lebanon, raising the stakes of a conflict--and Israel has been known to get in deeper than necessary when the IDF feels it has something to prove (cf. Israeli-Lebanese war, 1982-2000), which it probably does with regard to Hizballah. On that front, it's at least promising that Ariel Sharon isn't Defense Minister, even if Netanyahu isn't a huge improvement on Menachem Begin.

Plus, well, in this arena, it doesn't take much. But if there's a good option for Israel that includes conflict, I don't see it.

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