Why Israel is losing

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 August 2006

Whatever the outcome of the Lebanon war that started on 12 July 2006, one key result of the first four weeks is apparent: that in one important sense, Israel is already the loser. This is not meant in the sense of Israel having been defeated militarily by Hizbollah, since that will not happen. Indeed, Hizbollah may well be hugely weakened by the sheer firepower available to the Israel Defence forces (IDF), even if the human, social and economic costs across Lebanon are appalling. The sense in which Israel is the loser is that it has focused its security over many years on deterrence through the threat of overwhelming military force – and that is failing.

Israel has, over the past sixty years, systematically grown into the region's sole military superpower. This has been achieved partly through its own progress in building up and deploying advanced-weapons systems and a very large reserve army, partly through a continual reliance (in the post-1967 period) on the United States. That relationship is remarkably close; it has also been a two-way affair, exemplified by the weapons and tactics which Israel has provided to the United States in its war against insurgents in Iraq.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since October 2001

Paul Rogers tracks the July 2006 war in a series of daily columns:

"Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation"
(17 July 2006)

"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)

"A proxy war"
(19 July 2006)

"Israel: losing control" (20 July 2006)

"Hit Beirut, target Tehran" (21 July 2006)

"Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)

"Lebanon: no quick fix" (26 July 2006)

"A triple front: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon"
(27 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the world’s choice" (28 July 2006)

"After Qana: a false dawn?" (31 July 2006)

"Israel's strategic impasses"
(1 August 2006)

"Lebanon: war takes root" (3 August 2006)

"The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure" (7 August 2006)

More generally, though, Israel's sheer military power has been seen within Israel and across the region as its final guarantee of security. In a world that is perceived as uniformly hostile – irrespective of peace agreements with Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan – the view is that Israel can always rely on sheer military capability to see it through.

This approach has not guaranteed persistent success, and there have been notable occasions when the IDF has suffered reversals. Two examples are illustrative. First, Israel experienced severe losses in the first three days of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war in October 1973, especially when the Egyptians crossed the Suez canal, breached the Bar-Lev line and moved into western Sinai. With US help and Israel's own huge efforts, that crisis was averted. In its wake, many analysts came to recognise that the Israeli political leadership had mistakenly identified the major security threat as Palestinian paramilitaries rather than states, particularly Egypt and Syria.

Second, Israel's invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982 provoked a committed reaction which germinated the new Hizbollah militia. The IDF failed to anticipate that the movement would grow to such an extent that it would force Israel to withdraw to a foothold in the border region within three years; even that foothold was finally lost in May 2000.

Israel: the weakness of force

Despite these problems, the belief remains that the IDF is sufficiently powerful to be the real safeguard of Israel's security. Deterrence is at the heart of this, whether through overwhelmingly powerful conventional forces or, ultimately, through substantial nuclear forces, and if Israel loses its ability to maintain its deterrent posture then its long-term security is severely threatened. In that sense, this is what is happening and Israel is therefore losing.

Most recently this has been shown by the decision to move the deputy chief-of-staff, Major-General Moshe Kaplinsky, "to coordinate the Israeli army's operations in Lebanon", over the head of northern command, Major-General Udi Adam. The IDF strenuously denies any criticism of General Adam, but the decision is almost certainly a reflection of the increasing dissatisfaction with the way the war is going (see Jonathan Finer and Edward Cody, "Israel Shuffles Command of Lebanon Offensive", Washington Post, 9 August 2006 [subscription only]).

The original plan was for a three-phase war to disarm Hizbollah, largely based on the intensive use of air power, with the first week of air strikes being the essential component (see "The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure" (7 August 2006). Instead, and into the fifth week of the war, Hizbollah continues to fire around a hundred missiles a day, the IDF are suffering twenty or more troops killed or injured each day, and progress towards the apparent aim of clearing a border area of Hizbollah activity is slow at best.

Meanwhile, the air strikes across Lebanon continue, with huge damage to the infrastructure including what appears to be the systematic destruction of industries with no direct connection with the war. One informed assessment reports that "At least 45 large factories have been hit by Israeli air strikes according to a list complied by Lebanese businessmen. On the list are factories for furniture, medical products, textiles, paper and a milk plant. Procter and Gamble's warehouse in Beirut was bombed, with damage to $20m of stock" (see William Wallis, "Industrialists count cost of bombing", Financial Times, 5 August 2006 [subscription only]). The paper reports Lebanese industrial sources concluding that a combination of bombing and blockade has resulted in 95% of industry grinding to a halt.

In southern Lebanon, the failure to prevent Hizbollah missile attacks on Israel has meant that the IDF has resorted to the declaration of a curfew, threatening any vehicle with attack, and elsewhere in the country, bridges are destroyed and roads are cut right up to the northern and northeastern borders with Syria.

Even this is not enough, as Hizbollah persists with its guerrilla defences, combining highly motivated paramilitaries with a remarkably dispersed communications system, modern anti-tank missiles and scaled-down missile launchers that are very difficult to spot even with Israel's array of satellite reconnaissance, drone and other forms of remote sensing. There are strong suspicions that Israel's own capabilities are being backed up by the much larger American space-based systems, yet another way in which this is a proxy war (see "A proxy war" 19 July 2006).

The mood within Israel remains largely united though some of its more astute military commentators are raising concerns. But the longer the war goes on the greater the tendency towards mutual demonisation. The former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu represents a considerable body of opinion in Israel and the United States when he talks of a mad Hizbollah leadership at the forefront of an evil Islamist movement bent on the destruction of western civilisation. On the other side, the current war is seen as just one small part of an evil neo-Christian/Zionist plot to beat back Islam, control the entire middle east and loot Arab oil.

Within this wider view, Israel's failures as the war moves towards its second month cause increasing concern in Washington, and stem from a serious underestimation of Hizbollah's capabilities that, from Israel's perspective, verges on incompetence. It was expected that the sudden and huge aerial response to Hizbollah's border incursions on 12 July would catch the organisation by surprise. Instead it was Israel that was surprised, in four successive moments.

First, the attack on the Saar-5 missile corvette INS Ani-Hanit, with Hizbollah using a cruise missile that it was not even known to possess. Second, the immediate waves of missiles on northern Israel, even when Olmert declared that half of them had been destroyed by the Israeli air force (IAF) in the first five days of the war. Third, the ambush of IDF troops as they moved across the border into Bint Jbeil. Fourth, the missile strikes on Haifa and the failure to kill or capture Hizbollah leaders, despite several attempts.

As the Israeli surveillance systems begin to get a clearer picture of Hizbollah's military capabilities, it is evident that the problems go even further. This applies, in particular, to the missiles and especially their launchers. Hizbollah possesses multiple rocket-launchers that are cumbersome and take time to set up, but can then launch salvoes quickly; from them, the militants are firing some of the longer-range missiles one by one. An implication of this is that Hizbollah, or perhaps Syria, has innovated crude but useable single launchers that may be much more difficult to spot and destroy than large multiple launchers.

Some of the missiles that have landed in Israel have been fired from the Beka'a valley, deep within Lebanon. The implication of this is that IDF efforts to occupy the launch zones of shorter-range missiles south of the Litani river will do nothing to stop such longer-range attacks.

A further issue that has come to the fore is the relative significance of Syria rather than Iran as a source of Hizbollah's arsenal. Israel and American hawks have been insistent that the real enemy is Iran, but IDF data now indicates that Syria is more important than previously believed (see Robert Wall, David A Fulghum and Douglass Barrie, "Harsh Trajectories", Aviation Week, 7 August 2006).

What next?

In light of the manner in which Israel is now mired in southern Lebanon, what is likely to be the IDF's next move? It is always possible that a United Nations-mediated ceasefire might yet be achieved, even in the face of several outstanding issues which would need to be resolved. In the absence of that, though, there are two markers as to what comes next.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

First, Israel is now in the process of calling up four full divisions of reservists (see Richard M Bennett & David McKenzie, "Hezbollah – a clever and determined enemy", Asia Times, 8 August 2006). This move carries a huge cost to the Israeli economy and cannot be maintained. This means a major escalation into southern Lebanon is likely in the next seven to ten days.

Second, there is increasing concern over Hizbollah supply-lines, especially of longer-range missiles from Syria. If there is another major loss of life in northern Israel, or if Tel Aviv is hit, then air strikes against Syria become highly likely.

The fact that such escalations are even being considered gives some idea of the predicament that Israel is now in, a predicament that has long-term consequences. As one of the best-informed military journalists, the Israel-based Barbara Opall-Rome, writes:

"Now, as the region's mightiest and most innovative combat forces struggles against a Hizbollah militia estimated at no more than 3,000, the notion of military might as a deterrent may be crumbling, according to officials and analysts here and abroad. Where, they ask, are the fruits of more than a decade spent redesigning and honing forces for low-intensity conflict? What of the networked, rapid-response, precision-strike systems so proudly displayed at international trade shows by Israel's military-industrial complex?" (see "Warfare Weakens Israeli Deterrence" Defense News, 31 July 2006 [subscription only]).

Across the region, Hizbollah's survival after four weeks of combat with such a well-armed opponent as Israel, along with United States failures in Iraq and the escalating problems in Afghanistan are all seen as proof of vulnerability for the "near-enemy" of Israel and the "far-enemy" of the United States. Israel's immediate reaction will be to pile on the pressure and use even greater force. Even as it does so, its own policy of responding to threats with massive force will eventually be called into question, just as Washington will ultimately have to rethink its much wider war on terror.

None of this is likely to happen soon, and many more people will be killed and injured in Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and quite possibly Syria and Iran as well before it does. Eventually, though, current policies and postures will be seen to be self-defeating. Regrettably, that time has not yet come.

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