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Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel

Thomas O'Dwyer
13 July 2006

As Israel's war machine continues to wreak its grim punishment on Lebanon after the crisis that exploded on 12 July, two questions most puzzle middle-east watchers in the country. First, did Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah anticipate the large-scale consequences of the movement's cross-border operation against Israel – or did he simply miscalculate? Second, did Israel have a contingency plan for just such a crisis, or was the plan all along precisely to unleash the relentless military force it has applied?

The answer to the second question at least will become apparent as the Israeli armed forces face the daunting prospect of a three-front war: with Hamas in Gaza, Hizbollah in Lebanon and possibly Syria. The ferocity of Israel's response to the kidnapping of two of its soldiers this week has surprised even Israelis.

"I was indeed surprised that (Israeli prime minister Ehud) Olmert was ready to take such a risk, (in) account of the fact that Israel was going to suffer from missile attacks against its population; and I was even surprised by his decision to go after Hizbollah in such a drastic way", said Shaul Mishal, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University.

Thomas O'Dwyer is a country risk consultant, journalist and broadcaster who has lived in the middle east for twenty years. He has been a Reuters bureau chief, foreign editor of the Jerusalem Post, and a columnist with the International Herald Tribune's Ha'aretz newspaper

Also by Thomas O'Dwyer in openDemocracy:

"Slouching towards Kadima"
(27 March 2006)

But Mishal said he had been equally surprised that Sheikh Nasrallah – "a very clever leader" – had miscalculated the consequences of the long-threatened operation to capture soldiers at a time when Israel was trying to locate another missing soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza on 25 June. "I would have expected Nasrallah to take into consideration that the Israeli government was quite new and its leading figures lacked national experience, especially military experience", said Mishal. "It is the power of the weak to surprise themselves by doing something far beyond what their immediate environment might expect from them."

Dov Khenin is a member of Israel's Knesset (parliament) for the Hadash party – a leftist, joint Jewish-Arab group – and a frequent critic of what he calls Israel's "occupation war crimes". He thinks no one, not even those running the operations on either side, knows where the crisis will lead.

"Personally I am very worried by the direction of the Israeli government. It speaks about the kidnapping of two soldiers as 'an opportunity' for settling accounts with Hizbollah, and probably with Syria too. This is very worrying. We've been through this unsuccessful scenario before, tramping into the mud of Lebanon with a lot of blood spilled and many Israelis and Lebanese killed. It doesn't change anything from the way the situation was."

Lebanon's new shape

Several other analysts agree that the recent upsurge in violence was neither expected nor wanted by the Israeli government, but they also say that defence minister (and Labour Party leader) Amir Peretz's pledge to alter the balance of power between Israel and its two most active enemies, Hamas and Hizbollah, is probably a true statement of intent at this point.

"There is a big difference this time", says Avi Segal, a lecturer at Ben Gurion University - specialising in military policy, security and government in Israel. "In past operations in Lebanon, Israel was acting against puppet governments – the real government in Lebanon was the Syrians. I always thought it was a bit foolish to try to influence the Syrians by creating a crisis in Beirut. Now the situation is different. There is a Lebanese government, the Syrians are outside Lebanon, and so Israel can demand that the legitimate Lebanese government bring Hizbollah under control. The Lebanese have an army 70,000 to 80,000 strong, Hizbollah in the south has something like 3,000. So now security must begin in Beirut, they must control the south, because no sovereign country can continue to suffer this intolerable situation."

Both Shaul Mishal and Avi Segal think Nasrallah seriously misinterpreted Israeli intentions and could pay the price. "I think he miscalculated", said Segal. "Note the reaction from (Lebanese Druze leader, Walid) Jumblatt and (other) Lebanese spokespeople, carefully and cautiously criticising Hizbollah. Creating crisis in Lebanon may indeed force the Lebanese public to demand a counterbalance to Hizbollah."

Walid Jumblatt, a former warlord and one of the great survivors of Lebanese politics, on 13 July described Hizbollah's raid on the Israeli patrol as an "outrageous" way to drag Lebanon into a war with its southern neighbour, and called for the movement's power to be curbed.

In response to the question of whether Nasrallah had calculated the attack and its consequences, Mishal was emphatic: "I think he made a big miscalculation because his judgment was based on the past. Israel in the last few years under (Ehud) Barak and then (Ariel) Sharon built this illusion that it would hesitate before doing anything really drastic and would try to minimise the disadvantages of the existing military order with Lebanon – namely Hizbollah. I think this far-reaching reaction now has taken him by surprise."

Mishal said new conditions apply that did not exist in the past: "Hizbollah is feeling its position deteriorating in Lebanon and no one knows how Lebanese public opinion in general will react towards Hizbollah when this is over."

This means Hizbollah might now lose a significant part of its legitimacy as the defender of Lebanon against Israel. "Nasrallah can find himself in a very bad position that can lead to chaos for Hizbollah. All its infrastructure will be destroyed and without the support of the central government it will be hard for the organisation to gain and maintain its position in Lebanon in general, and within the Shi'a community in particular."

Although there is a strong likelihood of an eventual shift in Lebanese attitudes to Hizbollah's freewheeling military activities in the south, few experts credit the Israeli government with the foresight to pre-plan regional alignments through military action. "Making it up as they go along is an accurate description of Israeli contingency planning", said Mishal. "Chasing after the event – this is the Israeli way of making decisions, it's the Israeli political culture. I don't believe there is a plan that this, and this, will happen in a systematic way, step by step, following the military campaign. No, I don't think Israel or indeed any current government has this kind of contingency planning in place."

The Knesset member Khenin said he did think the government had a plan of some sort for such unexpected crises; "but the thing is not that they don't have a plan – they have a lot of plans and none of them have much connection with reality. We've been through all this before. The 1982 Lebanon war was to change the balance of power between Israel and the PLO. The result was not the abolition of the PLO, but the creation of Hizbollah."

Also in openDemocracy on the Lebanon-Hizbollah-Israel complex:

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (9 March 2005)

Paul Rogers, "Hizbollah's warming flight"
(5 May 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (27 May 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family"
(14 December 2005)

Abigail Fielding-Smith, "Between politics and war: Hezbollah in the spotlight"
(22 May 2006)

Israel's warning

Khenin said he believed Nasrallah had not made a mistake in Hizbollah terms, and that he would be happy with the consequences of the operation that launched the crisis. "I'm sure this is really what he wanted. He's a really clever politician and I think he wanted this escalation. It makes a case in his eyes for the continued existence of Hizbollah as a great political and military force in the region."

Mishal considered that international intervention was both necessary and realistic ("and sooner rather than later"). "As I understand it there may be several political initiatives, maybe involving the Americans and the European Union, aimed at limiting the intensity of the Israeli operations. Within a few days we should see direct or indirect contacts trying to find a working formula in order to reestablish some new political equilibrium between Israel and Lebanon – not Israel-Hizbollah this time. But for this to work there will have to be also contacts with Syria, and maybe even Iran."

Mishal said the formula he envisaged would be to revisit the United Nations resolution 1559 of September 2004 which called for the departure of Syria from Lebanon and the extension of Lebanese sovereignty over the whole country. "This would require the incorporation of Hizbollah fully into the government system and its combatants incorporated in some way into the military structure of the Lebanese army. Hizbollah would be compensated by having more influence in the mainstream Lebanese political system."

Avi Segal points to the comments on 13 July of Israeli justice minister Haim Ramon. "I think we should listen to what Haim Ramon is saying" – that Nasrallah was a target for assassination and that Hizbollah would be targeted in every possible location – "in Tripoli, in Beirut, in every place."

"Ramon is hinting Israel is going to concentrate on hitting Hizbollah or Hamas hard wherever they are. If someone wants to stop this cycle of violence, they must take their efforts and must concentrate them in Lebanon and in Gaza", said Segal. However it ends, a "cycle" thus begun is not going to be halted overnight.

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