IDF in Lebanon / Bulldog or Poodle?

A man stands on a Lebanese road to thumb a ride. A car stops and he gets in. An Israeli question: If the hitchhiker is Hassan Nasrallah, can the car be attacked? An American answer: In this case, yes.

This conversation, word for word, took place on Sunday during a meeting between Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his staff and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her delegation. It illustrates the close ties between the two governments, but also the lack of equality in the relationship: One of the parties requests permission and the other gives its approval; one of the parties arouses expectations and the other is disappointed. And there is also one party that drags its feet while the other does not wait − such that Israel Defense Forces officers were astounded to learn of the decision to suspend aerial strikes in Lebanon from CNN before it was passed on to the forces through military channels.

The focus of the disappointment was not the Qana incident. Who knows better than the Americans that such mishaps occur? Rice made do with "a suspension" in the bombing (or "a restriction," as the Hebrew translation says), and only for 48 hours − and said nothing about a ban on targeted killings or close support for ground forces. The U.S. problem is that the fighting could stop in an instant, too early, and that the threat could be renewed quickly.

U.S. President George Bush is disappointed. This was not how he had pictured the powerful, resourceful and crafty IDF, with all its American equipment. The administration in Washington had hoped that the IDF would operate in Lebanon swiftly and decisively. It called for a bulldog and a poodle turned up.

The IDF believed that it was well prepared for the test, but it made a miscalculation, or else forgot the material. Now it is being allowed to take the exam again - even before the first one is over. The headlines speak of a cease-fire in keeping with a UN Security Council resolution, but the small print shows that such a resolution will not be forthcoming in the week ahead, because of the U.S. insistence that it also include an embargo on Iranian and Syrian arms and a mandate for an international stabilization force that will have the power to enforce the cease-fire.

Agreement to Bush's cease-fire terms by Hezbollah, Iran and Syria would mean their capitulation. Until such an agreement is forced on them, the IDF's ground operation to weaken Hezbollah will continue and even intensify. Thereafter, Lebanon's revived army will receive vast amounts of U.S. funding, just like the Iraqi army received. It will not be the South Lebanon Army, and the IDF will not be involved at all.

What happened to the IDF in the Lebanon operation is one of the biggest and saddest mysteries in the history of the State of Israel. On paper, and in drills, everything looked promising. But in the field, the promise faded - just like with Brazil in the World Cup. When the dust settles, one will be hard pressed to find a senior Israeli political or military official who does not emerge from the campaign bruised, scarred and with a bloodied reputation.

The air of gloom that now hangs over the public and, to a large extent, the army is a natural but only partially justified reaction to the dizzying success of the first days. The rejoicing then was exaggerated, just as the downheartedness now is: The IDF's operations have significantly eroded Hezbollah's power, but Military Intelligence officers admit that if the fighting stopped this morning, Nasrallah would be able to present his survival as a victory.

The Israeli cabinet discussed two basic alternatives last night − beefing up the current operation, or authorizing an expanded operation, from the point of view of both the number of forces and the scope of the battlefield. Neither alternative would chop off Hezbollah's hands; it would only put them in shackles and try to hide the key.Peretz supports the second alternative. He also favors having the air force concentrate its efforts not on the rockets, but on Hezbollah's military and human infrastructure − including, if possible, that elusive hitchhiker, if only he would venture out of his underground hideout.