This story has been edited and updated from the print version (2006/08/18)
Common sense has prevailed. Most of the Israeli troops who were sent into south Lebanon last weekend have already retreated, and the last thousand or two will be back inside the Israeli frontier by next weekend.
They're not waiting for the Lebanese army and the promised international peacekeeping force to come in and "disarm Hezbollah." They're getting the hell out.
The last-minute decision to airlift Israeli troops deep into the 1,000 square kilometres of Lebanon south of the Litani River made good sense politically. That way, Israel didn't have to fight its way in and take the inevitable heavy casualties. It just exploited its total control of the air to fly its troops into areas not actively defended by Hezbollah just before the ceasefire, in order to create the impression that it had defeated the guerrilla organization and established control over southern Lebanon.
However, those isolated packets of troops actually controlled nothing of value, and they were surrounded by undefeated Hezbollah fighters on almost every side. Hezbollah could not have resisted for long the temptation to attack the more exposed Israeli units, perhaps even forcing some to surrender. So the Israeli troops are coming out now, in order to give Hezbollah no easy targets.
General Dan Halutz, the Israeli chief of staff, was right to make this decision, but it removes the last remote possibility that Israel can extract any political gains from the military stalemate in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah says it has no intention of disarming, and Lebanese defence minister Elias Murr says his army will not try to disarm Hezbollah. The French, who are supposed to lead the greatly expanded United Nations peacekeeping force in the area, say they will not commit their troops until Hezbollah is disarmed.
There will probably be some kind of fudge in the end that allows at least token numbers of Lebanese army troops and a somewhat expanded UN force to operate in southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah is staying put and so are its weapons. Over 1,000 people killed, much of Lebanon's infrastructure destroyed, significant damage in northern Israel as well, and at the end of this "war of choice" Israel has achieved none of its objectives.
Israel's assault on Hezbollah was as much a war of choice as the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Seymour Hersh claims in this week's New Yorker that the Bush administration approved it months ago, and the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a senior Israeli officer made PowerPoint presentations on the planned operation to selected Western audiences over a year ago.
"By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out," political science professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University told the Chronicle, "and in the last year or two it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board."
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was seduced by this plan because, lacking military experience himself, he needed the credibility of having led a major military operation. Otherwise, he would lack support for his plan to impose unilateral borders in the occupied West Bank that would keep the major settlement blocks within Israel while handing the rest to the Palestinians. So he seized on the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others by Hezbollah on July 12, the latest in an endless string of back-and-forth border violations, as the pretext for an all-out onslaught on the organization.
But it didn't work. The Israeli armed forces have effectively been fought to a standstill by a lightly armed but highly trained and disciplined guerrilla force, and there will be major repercussions at home and abroad.
Israel's humiliation might be a blessing in disguise if it persuaded enough Israeli voters that exclusive reliance on military force to smash and subdue their Arab neighbours is a political dead end, but there is little chance of that. The Israeli politician likeliest to benefit from this mess is Binyamin Netanyahu, hardest of hard-liners, who flamboyantly quit the Likud Party last year to protest former prime minister Ariel Sharon's policy of pulling out of the occupied Gaza Strip.
That split Likud and forced Sharon to launch a new party, Kadima, which now dominates the centre-right of Israeli politics and is the nucleus of Olmert's coalition government. But Kadima may not long survive this disastrous war, and the heir apparent, at the head of a resurgent Likud, is Netanyahu. The last opinion poll in Israel gave him an approval rating of 58 percent.
Much graver, in the long run, is the erosion of Israel's myth of military invincibility. It is always more economical to frighten your enemies into submission than to fight them, but Arabs have been losing their fear of Israel for some years now. This defeat will greatly accelerate that process, and there are a lot more Arabs than there are Israelis.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad summed up the matter brutally but accurately when he said Monday that Israel is at "an historic crossroads. Either it moves towards peace and gives back [Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese] rights [to Israeli-occupied lands], or it faces chronic instability until [an Arab] generation comes and puts an end to the problem." Of course, he didn't mention that an Arab military victory over Israel would also effectively put an end to the Arabs, since Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons.