Ehud Olmert’s two-week misadventure in Lebanon is coming to a close. The unexpected ambush in the town of Bint Jbeil and the shelling of the UN observation post may have become catalysts for a draw down of the conflict. These two tragic events, in retrospect, will be seen to have saved many Israeli and Lebanese lives.
This war was always a losing proposition for Israel and a strategic blunder. From the start, the most obvious outcome was an exchange of Lebanese prisoners for the captured Israeli soldiers. However, Olmert wanted to prove his bona fides to the Israeli public and took what should have been a relatively minor incident and escalated it into a conflict with no good exit strategy for Israel. Having now reached a decision point where Israel could either escalate or climb down, Olmert has now chosen to back pedal:
With no sign of a cease-fire soon, Israeli warplanes and artillery pummeled targets across Lebanon without letup Thursday, concentrating fire on the rocky border hills where Hezbollah fighters are entrenched. The Israeli government called up thousands of reservists but decided against expanding its onslaught into a full-fledged invasion as some military officers suggested.
Undeterred after 16 days of attacks, Hezbollah militiamen again fired volleys of rockets into northern Israel, igniting a detergent factory and lightly wounding seven people. More than 110 Hezbollah rockets landed across the north on Thursday, following the launch of more than 150 rockets on Wednesday. More than 1,400 rockets have landed in Israel since the conflict began. [Emphasis added by me.]
The shift in Israeli direction is subtle, but nonetheless it is there and it is significant.
Israel’s climb down and the eventual end to this conflict will be seen by Hezbollah and the Arab world as a defeat. The only thing left to do for Israel and the United States is to try to soften the strategic blow to Israel by searching for a best-case withdrawal plan. To that end, the wheels have already been set in motion.
Enter Tony Blair, George W Bush’s hapless poodle. Mr. Blair will make a show of urging for a ceasefire during his meeting with Mr. Bush:
Tony Blair will press George Bush today to support "as a matter of urgency" a ceasefire in Lebanon as part of a UN security council resolution next week, according to Downing Street sources.
At a White House meeting, the prime minister will express his concern that pro-western Arab governments are "getting squeezed" by the crisis and the longer it continues, the more squeezed they will be, giving militants a boost. The private view from No 10 is that the US is "prevaricating" over the resolution and allowing the conflict to run on too long.
But diplomatic sources in Washington suggest the US and Israel believe serious damage has been inflicted on Hizbullah, so the White House is ready to back a ceasefire resolution at the UN next week. Today Mr Bush and Mr Blair will discuss a version of the resolution that has been circulating in Washington and London. [Emphasis added by me.]
The US and Israeli position will be that they can now propose a ceasefire because they have sufficiently degraded Hezbollah’s capabilities. They will proclaim victory and exit stage left. After weeks of defending the ridiculous notion that negotiations must occur before a ceasefire, the Bush Administration is reportedly ready to reverse course on the main sticking point:
The draft peace deal involves two phases. In the first, Israel and Lebanon would agree a ceasefire and a small multinational force would be deployed on the border, allowing Israeli troops to withdraw. Then a much larger force of between 10,000 and 20,000 troops would be assigned to implement UN security council resolution 1559, agreed two years ago, under which militias such as Hizbullah would be disarmed and the authority of the Lebanese government forces extended to the country’s southern border.
As with all foreign policy stands this Administration has bungled, they initially talk tough and then wither when reality encroaches on their fantasy world. So too here, when the reality of a protracted guerrilla war or an escalating regional conflict faced them squarely in the face, they crumbled. But as with all such neo-con fantasies, the cost of bravado is paid in innocent lives lost.
Adding to the chorus of voices demanding an immediate ceasefire, former President Clinton and his first term Secretary of State today firmly endorsed the position held by nearly the entire world. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in particular, made the prevailing opinion on a ceasefire quite clear:
In the course of her trip, the secretary repeatedly insisted that any cease-fire be tied to a "permanent" and "sustainable" solution to the root causes of the conflict. Such a solution is achievable, if at all, only after protracted negotiations involving multiple parties. In the meantime, civilians will continue to die, precious infrastructure will continue to be destroyed and the fragile Lebanese democracy will continue to erode.
My own experience in the region underlies my belief that in the short term we should focus our efforts on stopping the killing. Twice during my four years as secretary of state we faced situations similar to the one that confronts us today. Twice, at the request of the Israelis, we helped bring the bloodshed to an end.
If only the current Democratic leadership had the courage to demand action instead of pandering for votes to save their political behinds. When this conflict is over and America’s prestige and influence in the world is further damaged the Democrats will have to share in the blame. In this instance the Democrats allied themselves with the Bush Administration, their neo-con friends and the End Timers for political expediency at the expense of America’s national security interests.
So, look for this war to draw down next week when the United Nations Security Council meets to debate a ceasefire. Look for a call for a ceasefire from the Security Council along with a carefully worded condemnation of Hezbollah and a plan to set up an international force to supplement UNIFIL in Southern Lebanon. Look for Israel to declare victory and begin withdrawing soon thereafter. Also look for the release of the Israeli soldiers followed by a discrete hand over of Lebanese prisoners a few weeks later. One might even find renewed talks on the hand over of the Golan Height and the Chebaa farms to get Syrian buy in.
Expect American pundits to flood the airwaves and declare the ceasefire to be a good outcome for Israel and a severe blow to Hezbollah’s capabilities. Expect the Lebanese to finally be able to bury their dead and begin the long path to recovery from this needless spasm of destruction.
What will be lost is a large chunk of Israel’s deterrence capabilities and some measure of America’s influence in the Middle East. What Hezbollah will have gained is adulation from the Arab masses and a greater stranglehold on Lebanese politics. What Syria will have gained is influence again in Lebanese affairs and momentum toward a resolution of the Golan Heights issues. What Iran will have gained is more regional power and clout.
All in all not a pretty picture for Israel. All of this was completely unnecessary. Ehud Olmert got his war and proved himself utterly incompetent.