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(photo credit: AP [File])
The artillery barrage by Hizbullah on Israeli villages along the Lebanese border, and the killings and kidnapping of IDF soldiers there, come as no surprise. Military Intelligence has warned about such a scenario time and again. Nevertheless, Wednesday saw a military fiasco, coming just two weeks after the attack at Kerem Shalom on the Gaza border and compounding the problems of grappling with the chaos there.
Israel seems to be caught in a war - albeit a limited one - on two fronts. This has already required a partial mobilization of the reserve force. The relatively new government headed by Ehud Olmert, which includes the inexperienced Defense Minister Amir Peretz, faces its first serious challenge.
The option of a prisoners' swap has become untenable politically. This government is unlikely to give in to the demands of Hamas and Hizbullah because much more is at stake than the lives of three soldiers.
Beyond the importance Olmert and Peretz attach to their political careers, they understand that Israel must restore a modicum of deterrence and its ability to secure some tranquility for its citizens living along the borders.
Indeed, the kidnapping of the soldiers provides the trigger to deal with larger strategic issues. In Gaza, it is the Kassam rockets, and in Lebanon, it is Hizbullah's missile arsenal that pose serious threats to a large part of the country.
For some time, the defense establishment has considered the Hizbullah armaments an important enough target to justify preemptive action. Therefore, the removal of the missile threat and the perceived strategic parity that has constrained Israel's reaction to past Hizbullah provocations must be the primary goal of an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon.
Eliminating the Hizbullah missile threat will allow greater freedom of action against Syria and Iran. The "search and destroy" mode of operation required for capturing and/or destroying the missiles hidden in numerous locations necessitates the use of ground forces. But, of course, even their cautious employment under an aerial umbrella might be costly. To a large extent the success of Israeli actions in Lebanon will be measured by the counting of casualties.
Israel may well capitalize on its missile hunt in Lebanon to expand the goal of the operations. Israeli threats to seriously punish Hizbullah probably mean targeting its leadership. A "gloves off" policy to decapitate Hizbullah could paralyze this terrorist organization for several years. This would clearly signal Israel's determination to deal with terrorist threats and with Iranian proxies.
A further expansion of goals concerns Syria - the channel for Iranian support to Hizbullah. Damascus still hosts the headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, despite promising the Americans a few years ago to close their offices.
Israel may enjoy much freedom of action versus Syria because Syria frustrated the American and French attempts to limit it's influence in Lebanon in their quest to restore Lebanon's independence. Washington, in particular, may relish military pressure on a Bashar Assad regime that allows infiltration of insurgents into Iraq from its territory.
Syrian targets could be attacked by an Israel Air Force that could easily suppress the Syrian air defenses and acquire aerial supremacy. Israel may also decide the time is ripe for attacking the Syrian long-range missile infrastructure, whose threat hovers over most of Israel.
Escalation has often been the Israeli response to the wars of attrition waged by its enemies. A successful Israeli military operation in Lebanon and in Syria would have many ripple effects in the region. Radicals advocating terror against militarily superior powers could be constrained. The Palestinians might pay attention and calibrate their goals accordingly.
Perhaps most important would be the impact on a nuclear-aspirant Iran that seems to believe that it can defy a modern military force. It has been some time since Israel had a resounding military success. Hizbullah may have provided the opportunity, and hopefully the IDF can meet the challenge.
The writer is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
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