The US and Israel: a marriage under pressure

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 August 2006

Each of the near-daily columns in this series over the past three weeks have focused on the Lebanon war, albeit with some mention of its connections with Gaza, Iraq and even Afghanistan. A consistent, regrettable assessment has emerged: that the war was unlikely to end soon, and that the various international attempts to force a settlement, including the Rome summit of 26 July 2006, would have little effect.

The approach of the four-week point in the war since its outbreak on 12 July marks yet another of those phases in which diplomacy that might be aimed at a ceasefire is coinciding with an escalation of the war. At a point where the Bush administration is at last willing to see a United Nations Security Council resolution being agreed, it needs to be remembered that the United States still shares Israel's view that this war is essentially about curbing Iran's power in the region.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the UN resolution, as it takes shape, leans markedly towards Israel. This may be just about acceptable to some European powers and even Russia and China, but it will not be accepted by the Lebanese government or Hizbollah, or by public opinion across most of the middle east.

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)

A plan waylaid

Although Israel launched this war in response to a specific and relatively small border violation by Hizbollah, it is an operation that has been planned and rehearsed for months if not years. The security expert Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University told a leading United States newspaper a week after the war started: "Of all Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared" (see Matthew Kalman, "Israel set war plan more than a year ago", San Francisco Chronicle, 21 July 2006).

Israel's extensive preparation for the six-day war of 1967 and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, makes that a bold claim, but Steinberg elaborates:

"In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal [from southern Lebanon], when it became clear the international community was not going to prevent Hizbollah from stockpiling missiles and attacking Israel. By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board".

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that diplomats, military officers and some think-tanks were briefed a year ago or more on the outline of the plans that would comprise an intensive three-week operation: a first-week air assault on Hizbollah's longer-range missiles, command system and logistic support; a second-week assault on individual missile-launcher sites and stores; and a third-week limited ground offensive against what remained. The overall result would be a massively crippled Hizbollah without the need to occupy parts of southern Lebanon. The whole operation bore the hallmark of Israel's chief-of-staff (and former air-force pilot), General Dan Halutz.

The plan has failed in spite of the intensity of the attack. Since the start of the war, the Israeli air force (IAF) has flown 8,700 sorties and attacked 4,600 targets; according to Israeli sources, these have included 260 Hizbollah headquarters and other buildings, sixty bunkers, seventy weapons stores, ninety rocket-launchers, 1,200 launch-sites and roads leading to launch-sites, and "100 suspicious vehicles believed to be carrying rockets or guerrillas" (see Yaakov Katz, "The War in Numbers", Jerusalem Post, 6 August 2006).

Despite this battering, Hizbollah retains around 10,000 missiles, including perhaps a hundred of a longer-range version that can reach deep into Israel and has not been used yet. Far from taking over southern Lebanon up to the Litani river, a pattern has emerged of well-armed Israel Defence forces (IDF) units crossing the border into Lebanon to engage Hizbollah militia and destroy bunkers and weapons, but then retreating back across the border each night.

This approach has been made necessary because of Hizbollah units have become adept at using anti-tank missiles, both against Israeli armour and in targeting IDF who establish posts within the area. On a number of occasions, small Hizbollah units operating in locales they know well have aimed the missiles at houses temporarily occupied by IDF troops. Israeli tactics of intensive aerial bombardment or burning scrubland to deny the Hizbollah units cover have simply not succeeded.

IDF reservists returning for weekend leave report Hizbollah's ability to target Israeli troops when they remain in locations across the border; the few western reporters who have travelled in the border districts on the Lebanese side talk of a near-absence of Israeli troops in much of the area, coupled with burnt-out or crippled tanks (see Jonathan Steele, "There are burnt-out tanks but few Israeli troops", Guardian, 7 August 2006).

It is becoming clear that Israel has now abandoned its plans to occupy the area up to the Litani river (see Yaakov Katz, "IDF ditches plans to reach Litani River", Jerusalem Post, 5 August 2006); these, however, may now have to be revived because of the domestic response in Israel to missile attacks on Haifa and Kfar Giladi, part of a barrage of 140 missiles launched on 6 August that killed fifteen people and wounded over a hundred.

Israel unnerved

Meanwhile, the IDF has escalated its attacks across Lebanon, including Beirut and the Beka'a valley, with 150 targets hit on the night of 6-7 August alone. These raids, including the bombing of highways north of Beirut, are reinforcing the overall blockade of transport routes and accentuating a major humanitarian crisis. International sources such as the United Nations high commission for refugees (UNHCR) estimate that 800,000 people in Lebanon are displaced, 130,000 of whom are living in schools and other public places.

As the war heads towards its fifth week it is becoming clear that the human costs of the Israeli attempts to destroy Hizbollah as a paramilitary force are having an impact throughout Lebanon and beyond; the civilian death toll may now be as high as 1,000. In any case, the attempts themselves are simply not working. Hizbollah even retains an ability to launch missiles from close to the Israeli border – this after 8,700 IAF sorties.

Within Israel, the public unease increases, not least because of the unpredictable nature of the rocket attacks, and a fear that Hizbollah may yet be able to strike as far south as Tel Aviv. There is consternation and a real feeling of vulnerability that leads simultaneously to calls for more robust military action and a contradictory questioning of the very strategy.

What has become abundantly clear is that the IDF has seriously underestimated Hizbollah's paramilitary capabilities and does not have a clear answer to its current predicament beyond increasing the intensity of air attacks. For the Israeli government and the Israeli people this is an unnerving situation, but it also has wider implications, particularly in the United States. A potent development here is the start of the "blame game" in Washington: the need to find scapegoats for Israel's failure to win the war in Lebanon quickly and easily.

Washington dismayed

Condoleezza Rice is an immediate casualty, with critics making unfavourable comparisons between her and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, meanwhile, remain uncharacteristically quiet, while the Pentagon rushes to re-supply Israel with weapons. Even this is becoming problematic as anti-war groups act against the refuelling stops in Britain; the original stop-over at Prestwick in Scotland has become increasingly insecure in the face of mounting protests, so United States transport planes are having to use military bases at Mildenhall (Suffolk) and Brize Norton in (Oxfordshire), both in southern England.

US neo-conservatives are still somewhat reluctant to criticise the Bush administration, but much of the ire that is circulating is being directed at Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert. In this mindset, there is abundant recognition of the explicit relationship of the Lebanon war to the global war on terror, and a particular concern that anything less than a victory will embolden that very centre of the axis of evil: Iran. The Tehran government's pointed response to the UN Security Council's 31 August deadline – that it would, instead, expand enrichment activities – is seen as one indicator of this.

One of the most influential neocon commentators, Charles Krauthammer, has made the point that "Israel's leaders do not seem to understand how ruinous a military failure in Lebanon would be to its relationship with America, Israel's most vital lifeline". In his view: "America's green light for Israel to defend itself is seen as a favour to Israel. But that is a tendentious, misleading partial analysis. The green light – indeed the encouragement – is also an act of clear self-interest. America wants, America needs, a decisive Hezbollah defeat" (see "Israel's Lost Moment", Washington Post, 4 August 2006).

Krauthammer points out that an Israeli defeat of Hizbollah "would be a huge loss for Iran, both psychologically and strategically. Iran would lose its foothold in Lebanon. It would lose its major means to destabilize and inject itself into the heart of the Middle East. It would be shown to have vastly overreached in trying to establish itself as the regional superpower."

In using such language Krauthammer is echoing a much more general view within the Bush administration, discussed earlier in this series: namely, that "Iran is the real problem, and that it is appropriate for Israel to cripple or even destroy its surrogate, Hezbollah, across the border in Lebanon" (see "A proxy war" 19 July 2006).

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)

From such a perspective there are now ominous signs of Hizbollah resilience, coupled with recognition that anything short of a comprehensive defeat by Israel would be seen as a victory that would further embolden Tehran. In these circumstances, Olmert and possibly Rice will take the blame.

Charles Krauthammer's criticism of Olmert may be a journalistic foretaste of political judgments to come; Olmert's "…search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America's confidence in Israel as well. That confidence – and the relationship it reinforces – is as important to Israel's survival as its own army. The tremulous Olmert seems not to have a clue."

The remarkably close relationship between Israel and the United States has evolved over forty years and has probably never been closer than under George W Bush; an especially important factor here is the religious connection involving the evangelical Christian churches and especially Christian Zionism (see "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage" 3 February 2005). That this relationship is now under strain gives some indication of the unexpected impact of the Lebanon war of 2006, an impact that may now have considerable and long-term implications for Bush's overall war on terror.

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