Thursday, August 17, 2006

How Israel put Hezbollah in the Cat's Seat

In recent days Israeli media reported that the attack on Lebanon was planned well in advance. The strategy was to smash civilian targets throughout Lebanon causing massive misery to the civilian population intentionally. The net result was supposed to be that the populace would then clamour with their own government for the expulsion of Hezbollah. In the meantime the attack had a back up strategy which said that while this was happening Israel would also severely damage or annihilate Hezbollah themselves.

The flaws in the plan seem obvious. First, even if the people did rush to the ramparts demanding the expulsion of Hezbollah, much as they demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian army, could the Lebanese government heed their wishes? If Israel couldn’t dismantle Hezbollah during the years it occupied Lebanon why do they assume the weaker Lebanese government could do it?

Unlike the Syrian army which is conspicuous in their uniforms it is far more difficult to expel an organisation made of up of citizen combatants. So it is unlikely that the Lebanese state could carry out such wishes even if they did materialise. But the chance of the attack doing this seemed rather miniscule from the start.

Destroying people’s homes, killing their children, devastating their infrastructure is not exactly what Dale Carniege was talking about in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Instead of making people angry with Hezbollah it would only cement their fury with Israel. And that could only help Hezbollah who was seen as standing up to Israel. Such an attack improves the standing of Hezbollah and weakens the more moderate Lebanese government.

Now Israel has stopped their attacks. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under fire at home because most Israelis see this as a major defeat for Israel. Hezbollah and their allies, Iran and the US installed Iraqi government, see this as a victory for their side bolstering their confidence.

Israel devastated some $2.5 billion worth of infrastructure alone. Israel is very good at creating ill will and very bad at encouraging good will. And what fuels groups like Hezbollah is exactly this. The devastation wrought by Israel benefited Hezbollah and so will the reconstruction. The New York Times reports that it has become increasingly clear “that the beneficiary of the destruction was most likely to be Hezbollah.” And the reason is that Iran is willing to pour millions in relief and rebuilding efforts.

Now let us step back to a time before oil was running over $70 a barrel. The invasion of Iraq destabilised world oil markets by severely restricting supply and creating fear of a regional conflagration. All that pushed up oil prices significantly. And that mean windfall profits for the Islamists who run Iran. In fact it also gives the Marxist dictator in Venezuela his power as well but that’s another story.

The New York Times reports: “Nehme Y. Tohme, a member of Parliament from the anti-Syrian reform bloc and the country’s minister for the displaced, said he had been told by Hezbollah officials that when the shooting stopped, Iran would provide Hezbollah with an ‘unlimited budget’ for reconstruction.” Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Nasrallah was confident enough to say: “Completing the victory can come with reconstruction.”

The paper reports that the moment Israel withdrew from an area that Hezbollah members “began cleaning, organising and surveying damage. Men on bulldozers were busy cutting lanes through giant piles of rubble.” Road that were shut by collapsed buildings are “fully passable”.

One thing that has created support for Hezbollah is that they actually help the citizens who are hurting. The Lebanese government has not been able to do this.

The paper notes the weakness of the Lebanese government to much while Nasrallah is able to carry out the promise he gave: “All our brothers will be in your service starting tomorrow.” The government may get some roads and bridges rebuilt but it will be Hezbollah that rebuilds the homes that were destroyed. What this means is that Hezbollah, regardless of what short term damage was inflicted by the assault, will come out of this far stronger than before.

Professor Saad-Ghorayeb told the Times that “Hezbollah has two pillars of support, the resistance and the social services. What this war has illustrated is that it is best at both.” Surely that is the last thing that Israel would have wanted. But then the best laid plans often lead to the worst unintended consequences.

Israel effectively isolated the PLO once it had power in Palestine. The result was not a weaker PLO but their replacement by a more radical Hamas. The Lebanese government was one of the more moderate forces in the Arab world. Israel’s attack has made it far, far weaker than before and strengthened the hand of Hezbollah.

With the US having removed the Iraqi counterbalance to the radical Islamists in Iran the region is now dominated by Islamists in way that was not possible before the US invasion. Israel’s attack has done something similar.

And the excuse used to start the whole mess was the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Israel said they would not negotiate a prisoner exchange, though they had done so in the past. But that was really an excuse to put this brilliant plan into action. Well, now Israel says they will negotiate the release of the prisoners.

Actually that is good. Israel is going to have to get used to negotiating with Hezbollah since they have now made the group a far more formidable power than it was a month ago. I suspect that the next Lebanese election will push Hezbollah into the seat of government and their ability to rebuild Lebanon, combined with anger toward Israel for the destruction, will be the reason.