Friday, August 18, 2006

ISRAEL stronger despite defeat. (Tim Hames.)



Israel stronger despite 'defeat'
Hezbollah should not get too carried away with its so-called victory, writes Tim Hames


IF only Israel were as effective at public relations as at military operations, the results of the conflict on and around its border with Lebanon would be so much starker.

As it is, however, the real meaning of the UN resolution that came into force yesterday is being misrepresented.
Hezbollah is hailing a victory of sorts, albeit one of a presentational character. In a bizarre situation, Israeli politicians on both the hard Left and the hard Right appear to agree with the terrorists. All are profoundly mistaken.

What, after all, does this Hezbollah claim consist of? The organisation considers it a triumph that it has not been "destroyed" after just four weeks of fighting. It contrasts this with the dismal record of several Arab armies combined in 1967.

It has not yet been disarmed and may not be formally neutralised in the near future. Nor has it been discredited on the Arab street, where it has enhanced its popularity. Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, thus proclaims himself a "new Nasser", referring to the Arab nationalist and longtime Egyptian leader.

As victories rank, not being destroyed, disarmed or discredited is not that impressive. It is hardly Henry V at Agincourt. The idea that the Six-Day War represents the military standard for the Arab world is a somewhat humiliating notion. Allowing for the feeble record of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Israelis should not be too disturbed by the prospect of another incarnation.

The facts now evident on the ground suggest an entirely different assessment.

First, the damage inflicted by the Israeli Defence Forces on Hezbollah's infrastructure and resources is far, far greater than the equivalent harm that it has suffered. A sizeable proportion of Hezbollah rocket launchers and fighters have been eliminated, while the Israeli army has lost no more than a few tanks and about 100 soldiers. For a body that is used to incessant combat, this is not a spectacular setback.

Second, Hezbollah has deployed a huge percentage of its missile arsenal to very little advantage. Only in the Alice in Wonderland world of the Middle East could it be seen as a "triumph" for a terrorist organisation simply to launch Katyusha missiles in the direction of Israel and roughly 95 per cent of them to hit nothing of any value. It took Hezbollah six years to accumulate a stockpile that, fundamentally, it has wasted.

Third, the administration in Lebanon, which had ostentatiously refused to send its soldiers to the south of that country for the past six years, has been obliged to pledge to the UN that it will now do so.

It will, furthermore, be under the de facto control of a much larger international force than has been assembled in that region before - one that will be judged by the extent to which it keeps the place quiet.

The wider strategic consequences of these recent events are yet more significant.

Hezbollah was, until July 11, a problem exclusively for Israel. That dilemma has been internationalised. It is now of paramount importance to the Lebanese Government and the UN Security Council. If Lebanon's troops cannot pacify Hezbollah, then ministers there well know that Israel's air force will be back over Beirut.

This is an important breakthrough for Israel. If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been told six weeks ago that Hezbollah would cease to be the principal militia in southern Lebanon by the start of September, he wouldn't have believed it possible.

Further, Israel's security has been improved more than has been acknowledged.

Less than three years ago, Israel's northern border was exposed to Hezbollah; its eastern boundary with the West Bank was so porous that suicide bombers regularly broke through it; and its military was engaged in a bitter and often futile attempt to contain Hamas in Gaza.

As of now, it can be confident of pushing Hezbollah back beyond the Litani River in Lebanon; the barrier it erected around the West Bank has reduced the number of suicide blast atrocities to the level of an unfortunate irritation; and Hamas, whose military command was decapitated by Israel in a series of strikes in 2004, is more likely to engage in a civil war with the rival Fatah movement than it is to seriously inconvenience Olmert.

The final dimension to this saga may nevertheless prove the most compelling. The past few weeks have exposed Iran's role as the political patron of terrorism as well as the extent of its ambitions to shape Islam in its image.

None of this has taken Israel by surprise. It has, however, been a severe blow to Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Jews constitute no threat to mainstream Sunni Islam. But the Shia challenge is another matter.

Once the crocodile tears for Lebanon have dried up (which will take a month at most) and the mood on the Arab street has moved on (which will not take much longer), it will become obvious to Sunni regimes that Israel is an ally against Iran. The rhetoric directed against Israel will not abate, but it will be increasingly irrelevant.

In the end, Israel's survival does not depend on Arab "hearts and minds" or opinions expressed by television viewers. It relies instead on winning battles.

If this is a defeat, then Israel can afford many such outcomes.

The Times

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