Israel Needs to Rethink Its Lebanon Policy

In the wake of this week's flare-ups of hostilities in Lebanon and in the south, Israel would do well to reconsider its assumptions about the IDF's power of deterrence.

The border incidents this week - in the north, and to a lesser degree in Eilat and the area around Gaza - called into question Israel's operating assumptions during the past four years, since the end of the Second Lebanon War. The relatively low number of casualties, as well as intelligence information indicating the Lebanese Army was responsible for the gunfire in the north, enables the Israeli leadership to keep claiming that what happened this week does not necessitate serious reconsideration of its policies. Even after these latest incidents, the prevailing trend this summer - of maintaining relative quiet despite mounting tensions - still appears intact. But these incidents, particularly the Lebanese sniper fire that killed reservist battalion commander Lt. Col. Dov Harari near Misgav Am, raises the question of whether the stories we've been telling ourselves about the Second Lebanon War and its ramifications are still applicable in August 2010.

The Israel Defense Forces, according to conventional wisdom in the defense establishment, employed such great force in the last two wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008, that the Arabs were frightened off, and therefore Hezbollah and Hamas are wary of another round. When GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot elaborated on this idea (in a much more sophisticated way ) at a lecture at Tel Aviv University a few months ago, he was approached at the end of his talk by former defense minister Moshe Arens. You're right, Arens told the major general, but you forgot to mention the other side of the equation: Hezbollah is also using deterrence - against us.

Ever since the Gaza flotilla affair in late May, there has been a bad feeling in the region. Provocateurs of every stripe have discovered the potential for diverting hostilities into unexpected channels. Fighting need not take place just on the battlefield or under conditions chosen by Israel. Indeed, the country's enemies have a whole array of reasons for starting a confrontation: to prevent harsher sanctions on Iran; to escape the looming International Court of Justice indictments against senior Hezbollah figures over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; or to provide a response to the isolation Egypt is imposing on Hamas in Gaza.

Lebanese army outpost

On a small scale, there were confrontations already this week. Hamas opened a new front against Israel by firing rockets from Sinai at Eilat. Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army snipers ambushed IDF reservists removing vegetation along the border, on the (false ) pretext that Lebanese sovereignty had been violated.

The report two days ago of an assassination attempt targeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems dubious. True, Iran is under pressure because of sanctions and the American threat to use military force against it, but its back is not yet against the wall and it has some room for maneuver. And yet, one cannot be certain that all the players in the region will behave rationally. It was Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah who admitted, in a rare moment of candor at the end of the last war, that had he known that there was even a 1-percent chance that Israel would respond with such force to the abduction of two reservist soldiers, he would not have approved the operation in Lebanon.

In private army forums, Eizenkot often presents the following assessment: The Second Lebanon War was a tactical failure that led to a strategic success, and Operation Cast Lead was a tactical success that ended up as a strategic failure. He is referring to the implications of the Goldstone report: The IDF's use of extensive force amid Gaza's civilian population drew scathing international criticism, which could tie the army's hands in the next confrontation.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Israel's deterrence appears to be eroding. A significant part of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War, has never been enforced: prevention of arms smuggling to Hezbollah via the Syrian border. The incident on Tuesday also illustrated the weakness of some of the resolution's other directives. The efficacy of the resolution relies on the cooperation of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL, which deployed in the south in order to block Hezbollah's presence there.

In this same vein, the photo of the week was taken by Agence France-Presse and published two days ago on the front page of Haaretz: Lebanese soldiers firing on the IDF as UNIFIL personnel in their blue berets look on without doing a thing. This is precisely what Israel complained about to the UN years ago, especially after UNIFIL personnel sat and watched as three soldiers were abducted from Har Dov in October 2000.

Since the 2006 war, the Israeli public has been told that the army is on high alert along the northern border, determined to demonstrate sovereignty over every millimeter of its land so as not to abandon it to Hezbollah's machinations. But this week, the shooting of the battalion commander who was killed, and the company commander who was wounded, took place outside an IDF-protected position. At first glance, it appears that the forces were deployed in a way that did not indicate the IDF anticipated a shooting attempt. If this was a deliberate, planned Lebanese ambush, why didn't the army have prior intelligence about it?

After the incident, senior IDF personnel stated with full confidence that it was a "local" initiative by some Lebanese army officers and that Hezbollah was not involved. One would presume this assertion would be based on solid intelligence. However, can it really be that Hezbollah recruited a Shiite Lebanese Army officer, and the organization's activists in the field were not aware of this? Just a week ago, when the Hariri assassination affair came up again, the IDF discussed the possibility that Hezbollah might try to spark a flare-up on the border.

It's also hard to ignore the fact that placing the blame (not just the responsibility ) on the Lebanese Army is somewhat convenient for Israel. Thus, perhaps, the IDF's measured and controlled response and avoidance of a wider escalation may be enough. In any event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not keen to repeat the entanglements of his predecessor Ehud Olmert.

The words and the attack

IDF intelligence's blanket exoneration of Hezbollah ignores the fact that about half of the soldiers in the Lebanese Army are Shiites, as are about a third of the senior officers. In May 2008, a violent clash erupted between Hezbollah and the anti-Syrian camp in Lebanon. Hezbollah started the violence, offering two justifications: The Siniora government's decision to reject the organization's requests to create an independent communications network throughout the country, and to dismiss the Lebanese Army commander of Beirut airport security, Wafiq Shqeir, who is considered close to Hezbollah.

"Shqeir shall remain as head of the defense system at the airport. The fate of any other officer who tries to obtain that position is preordained, no matter what sect he belongs to," Nasrallah announced. And the Lebanese government backed down.

On Tuesday evening, Nasrallah wanted to talk about the unity of Lebanon, the weapon of "resistance" and Hezbollah's firm determination in its struggle against Israel. The following morning was the incident, which reinforced his comments. In the hours after the shooting, the television stations in Lebanon broadcast songs about national unity and "the country's army."

Even the Al-Mustaqbal station, owned by the Hariri family, took part in the patriotic effort. The International Court of Justice was forgotten, and instead hours of airtime were devoted to the heroism of the Lebanese troops.

The Hezbollah station Al Manar reported that the Lebanese soldiers received a clear order to prevent any violation of Lebanese sovereignty - meaning, to shoot at any more cases of tree-pruning next to the border. The A-Nahar newspaper, which is also identified with the anti-Syrian camp, published a cartoon depicting a hand emblazoned with an Israeli flag trying to cut down the Cedar of Lebanon, and a second hand with scissors cutting off the Israeli hand.

Nasrallah, in his fourth speech in two weeks, immediately clarified who Lebanon's real ally is, promising that his organization would defend the Lebanese Army from any further aggression on Israel's part. At the end of this speech, he promised another address, on August 9.

The Israeli response to that fourth speech came the next day: Prime Minister Netanyahu - as if he too were being forced to hide in some bunker - distributed a brief pre-recorded statement to the television channels. He recommended that the Lebanese Army (in the north ) and Hamas (in the south ) try not to test Israel's determination.

"We will continue to respond with strikes after every attack," Netanyahu declared, but his comments sounded more like an effort of self-justification than a threat. For the time being at least, Israel is choosing restraint.