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A different war

The war in Lebanon is anything but a new revolution in an old conflict.


[Lebanon] Brutal wars with great civilian losses always have rhetorical companions. One of these is the claim that conflicts cannot be resolved by military means. The underlying political and structural problems must be solved first.

It is an argument as harrowing as it is liberating. But it is not. Often, it is precisely military victories that create states, define borders and lay the foundations for politically sustainable systems.

In the Middle East, there is a lot of talk about a political agreement that includes the entire region. So far, no one has expressed anything concrete about what such a solution should look like.

No satisfactory solutions

The war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon is a zero sum game. If one wins, the other will lose. That is why none of the parties will give up. A ceasefire now will only postpone a conflict that will ultimately be decided militarily, not politically.

At the time of writing, the UN Security Council is working on a resolution whose political toothlessness only reflects the inherent intransigence of the conflict. The international community's belly splash comes after weeks of mouthing on the order of the various elements of the ceasefire: first bombing, then ceasefire and an international peacekeeping force, as Europeans wanted. First a robust peace force, and then a ceasefire, as the Americans wanted.

It's easy to make fun at the expense of great powers. It is also tempting to be indignant at the inability of an entire world to stop a war that kills hundreds of women and children.

But this conflict has no solution that satisfies both parties. Hezbollah refuses to be disarmed, as UN Resolution 1559 of 2004 requires. Israel, for its part, not only demands full disarmament, but Hezbollah withdraws from southern Lebanon and releases the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. There is a demand that is causing the Islamists to shrug: There will be no release of hostages until Israel releases the political prisoners.

For Hezbollah's leaders, the triumph is both political and personal. For the first time in Israeli history, an Arab force is capable of inflicting military wounds on the Jewish state. In 1967, the Israeli army spent six days fighting four neighboring countries. After four or five summer weeks, they have not yet managed to defeat a small guerrilla group of a few thousand men.

This is the essence of this war. Where parts of the Western world see Israel's confrontation as yet another turning point in an ancient conflict, the country is fully aware that it is anything but. Lebanon is the beginning of a new era, it is believed. The conflict is proof that the Jewish state is exposed to a whole new type of enemy, an enemy that cannot mobilize states, but jihadists and guerrillas.

Lebanon is just the first test in a protracted war that will set Israel up against Islamists in various shadows. These Islamists are on their way into the government offices, fueled by an ideological shift in the Arab world and bolstered by a demographic trend pushing the Jewish state's borders.

It does not make Israel's wars more legitimate. But that explains the psychology behind when the country submits its bombers.

Thoughtful provocation

The short-term goal for Israel is to force the disarmament of Hezbollah. If it has to happen militarily, with the risk of major civilian casualties, yes, then you do. For the Israelis, it is about the right to defend their own territory. Hezbollah's raid across the border was a blatant violation of international law and a thoughtful provocation that had one sole purpose: to trigger a military response.

When the Israelis reacted just as expected, Hezbollah increased its efforts. It must have surprised Israeli generals who probably thought that the Islamists would pack up as the bombers went on the wings.

Failure to do so might indicate that Hezbollah wanted other things to do with the war than just annoy the powerful neighbor. Was the attack part of a strategy to seize power in Lebanon? Did the Islamists believe that they were so strong militarily that they could defeat Israel? Or is the war, as the United States and Israel see it, part of a Syrian-Iranian offensive against the despised Jewish state?

Speculation is going in all directions. But surely Hezbollah wanted this war, not Israel. Or to be exact: Israel also wanted this war, just not right now. This is also why Israel can accept an international force in southern Lebanon.

For the Israelis, it is an advantage that Hezbollah is eliminated under the auspices of the UN. This avoids a war in which the enemy has both a tactical and a moral takeover. But it assumes that the UN soldiers are willing to engage Hezbollah in battle. If the force is not tough enough, the Israelis will do the job themselves. However, Israel is very aware that they are fighting an enemy who just wants their physical presence.

Hezbollah has a strategy for this war that would make Mao nod in recognition: lure the enemy deep in, and strike the flanks! The Israelis, despite their military superiority, are ill-equipped to fight a guerrilla war. Even in the Palestinian territories, Israel uses classic military power in meeting with militant groups. Increasingly, they face an enemy who chooses instruments from the war's minimalist repertoire: soft targets and suicidal actions.

A paradigm shift

Currently, the war in Lebanon is a military confrontation of classic brand. But it can quickly develop into a guerrilla war in which the Islamists have every advantage.

There is also another reason why Israel does not want a new occupation of Lebanon. And it is such an "over-the-border experience" that runs counter to Israel's political strategy in recent years.

It is a strategy that goes back to Zionism's original idea, to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. It is about preserving Israel as a state with a Jewish majority and democratic institutions, and that means Israelis must withdraw. out of occupied areas. This is the legacy of Ariel Sharon. But it was incumbent Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who first acknowledged the fallacy of Zionism: that Jewish immigration was never big enough to carry a state throughout the biblical area.

Today, Olmert is struggling to preserve a political project he believes is absolutely necessary if the Jewish state is not to go down. But the Israelis cannot withdraw from the occupied territories, or from Lebanon, until the borders against Israel are safe and stable. Unfortunately for the Jerusalem government, the Israelis, through their brutal occupation and deliberate undermining of Palestinian autonomy, have just created the situation that makes them unable to live safely inside the wall.

The war in Lebanon thus represents a paradigm shift, and is a war that both ends the circle and opens it again. It will probably bring the right-wing back into Israeli politics, extend the occupation of the West Bank and renew it in Gaza. It will also lead to new wars in the Middle East. But the new round will not be a struggle between Zionism and Arab nationalism. It will be a struggle between Zionism and Islamism, with lines of conflict crossing the Arab world.

What was once a crystal clear conflict between two parties today involves so many states, parties and intersectional agendas that a peace solution for the entire region is more illusory than ever.

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