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(photo credit: )
A week into the Lebanon crisis, the two sides in this showdown are very clearly defined. The entire accumulated experience and strategy of Israel's political and military leadership - not only the incumbents but also a number of past administrations - is being pitted against the cunning of one man, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
The Lebanese government is a non-player, as it has been for decades in every aspect regarding its southern border, while both the international community and the vast majority of the Arab states seem resigned to sit this one out.
Nasrallah is of course acting with the full moral and material backing of Syria and Iran and is in many ways their proxy against Israel, but he's obviously giving the orders on the ground and he's the one operating with the constant threat of airborne death hovering over his head.
So how well has Sheikh Nasrallah been doing for himself over the last week? Did Hizbullah's operation last week achieve its longer-range objectives in addition to killing eight IDF soldiers and capturing two others.
Nadim Shehadi, a London-based expert on Lebanese affairs who is an associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House and until a year ago was director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University, thinks that this week has been a mixed bag for Nasrallah. He believes "Nasrallah was expecting a more limited retaliation by Israel, definitely not on civilian targets."
He is aware of the growing criticism of Hizbullah in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world. "On television, he [Nasrallah] seemed to be trying to explain that they had only attacked military targets, he seemed on the defensive," he says.
On the other hand, according to Shehadi, Nasrallah is not overly concerned by the lack of support and even condemnations he has been receiving from various Arab regimes. "He was not surprised by the Arab response. He is not on good terms with the Saudis or the other because he wants to show their incapability in helping the Palestinians. Now Israel is attacking Gaza and none of the Arab states did anything about it."
In Shehadi's opinion, despite Hizbullah's past efforts to capture IDF soldiers, this particular attack was timed to coincide with the Gaza violence.
From Nasrallah's point of view, a successful attack was a win-win situation, however Israel decided to retaliate. If the counterattack had been comparatively light, Hizbullah would have once again been seen as the victor, as it was following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the Tennenbaum prisoner-exchange two years ago.
But the current forceful and extensive offensive also plays into Nasrallah's hands, by giving him ammunition against demands that the Lebanese army take control of southern Lebanon from a disarmed Hizbullah. Shehadi sees here a win-win situation for the Islamist leader.
"There were negotiations over disarmament but now Hizbullah's arguments have been strengthened by Israel's actions. He can now argue that there needs to be an armed deterrent against Israel's malicious intentions. Lebanon has no defense strategy aside from relying on its friends in the West, but none of those have come now to help Lebanon," he says.
This is the strategy underlying Hizbullah's latest actions. "They could have anticipated a violent reaction and they acted unilaterally, without caring for the consequences" says Shehadi, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, also has a great deal of harsh criticism for Israel, both for the "disproportionate" retaliation and for its objectives.
"Israel is intent on destroying Hizbullah, but Israel tried to do that in 1982 with the PLO and only succeeded in creating Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad" he says, predicting that in the end, Israel will have no choice but to conduct negotiations with Hizbullah through a third-party to reach another prisoner deal.
But it seems that Shehadi, like other experts, is paying more attention to the nuances of Nasrallah's words than to what's being said on the Israeli side. One of the more encouraging aspects of the conduct of Israel's leaders over the last few days has been the measured tone of their language and the relatively limited objectives that they have set for the current operation.
Hubristic talk of exterminating Hizbullah has been heard from opposition politicians, but from very few other sources. Instead, it has been quite clear, from the moment that everyone realized that the IDF bombardments were about more than rescuing the two captured soldiers, that Israel's primary goal is to deny Hizbullah the very asset it requires, an armed presence on Israel's border.
Israel has nearly always managed to succeed on the military field only to be massacred later in the halls of diplomacy. Now it seems that, for the first time in its history, Israel has managed to package a controversial military offensive in a political and diplomatic form that only the most radical of Arab states can reject.
After a disastrous and humiliating start to the latest round of bloodshed with Hizbullah, and despite the murderous bombardments of the northern communities, the fact that the disarmament of Hizbullah and the demand that the Lebanese army take responsibility for the border have become almost international consensus in such a short time, means that finally, Israel is managing to outfox Nasrallah.