Assessing the reassessment

Asher Susser, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, offers a “reassessment” of the war in Lebanon. Susser notes that while most Israelis remain quite downbeat about the outcome of the war, the Arab world is evaluating “the war and its consequences” in a “more diverse and more sophisticated debate.” In that debate, says Susser, there are some who believe that “Hezbollah, Lebanon, the Arabs” have been defeated. Susser appears to side with that faction.

Susser’s choice of words glosses over some important distinctions — the difference between the war itself and the war’s long-term consequences and differences between how Hezbollah, Lebanon, and “the Arabs” made out. Let’s try to analyze the situation with these distinctions in mind.

There’s little doubt that the Lebanon was a loser in the war itself, given the massive destruction that occurred. But the case that Hezbollah lost the war seems much weaker. Israel’s goal was not to inflict mass destruction on Lebanon. Its major goals were to degrade Hezbollah to the point that it could no longer inflict damage on Israel, to bring about a settlement under which Hezbollah would no longer be armed, and to obtain the release of its captured soldiers without engaging in a ridiculous one-sided exchange. Israel did not achieve the first and second objectives, and so far has not achieved the third. It also failed to kill Hezbollah’s leader, Nasrallah, another of its objectives.

Susser’s argument focuses on the post-war consequences in Lebanon, arguing in effect that Israel will win the peace because of an anti-Hezbollah backlash. That’s certainly possible, but Susser is really just speculating. In doing so, moreover, he indulges in selective use of the evidence, including a heavy reliance on the what look like self-serving statements by anti-Hezbollah Arabs. He also relies on Nasrallah’s conciliatory statement that he would not have ordered the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers if he had known how Israel would respond. But he ignores the conciliatory statements by the Lebanese government regarding Hezbollah, including statements praising its ability to stand up to the Israeli “aggressors.”

The government, in fact, has not only made it clear that it will not atempt to disarm Hezbollah, it apparently is not even willing publicly to criticize this terrorist group. If Hezbollah were losing the peace, the second of these events would have occurred, and if it were losing in a way that really mattered, so would the first.

Things may change for the better, of course. But how likely is this? Hezbollah now is at its weakest militarily. With the passage of time, it will recruit new members and, in all likelihood, obtain additional weapons. It’s popularity may also increase as Lebanon is rebuilt, especially if Hezbollah assists substantially with this process.

Finally, Susser seems unaware of the tension between his rosy view of the situation in Lebanon and his demand for the ouster of Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and his top aides in the war effort. Let’s assume, with Susser, that the government and the military made mistakes during the war but that the damage they inflicted on Lebanon through the air campaign and on Hezbollah through the ground attack has dealt Hezbollah a losing hand both internally and with respect to its ability to attack Israel in the future. Under these assumptions (which of course I don’t share) one easily can argue that Olmert and company did well enough to remain in power.

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