Analysis: The turning point?

Hizbullah's strategy of placing its launchers in residential areas proved all-too appallingly effective.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Sunday's Israeli air strike on Kafr Kana is potentially the turning point in this round of conflict, the drastic episode that would remake the framework. If so, then it will be to Israel's profound detriment. Israel's decision to take on Hizbullah following the cross-border raid in which two soldiers were kidnapped and eight killed three weeks ago was predicated on the firm assumption that the army would prevail. The alternative was simply inconceivable. While some political leaders spoke with grand confidence about breaking Hizbullah inside a week, even the more cautious assessments hardly doubted the IDF's capacity to rapidly clear a new buffer zone across the Lebanon border and drastically degrade the guerrilla-terror group's ability to fire rocket salvoes deep into Israel from further north. But Hizbullah has proved far harder to uproot than the political or the IDF's highest echelons anticipated. Air power turned out to have limited effectiveness against an enemy thoroughly bunkered in. And Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was deeply reluctant to send in ground troops, recognizing that to focus on close conflict in unfamiliar territory would rob the IDF of many of its battlefield advantages. Then, on Sunday, with the air strike on Kana and its bloody consequences, Hizbullah's pernicious strategy of placing its rocket launchers in residential areas proved all-too appallingly effective. Now the pressure is mounting on Israel to cease fire, amid the certainty that a halt to hostilities at this stage amounts to almost unequivocal victory for Hizbullah and leaves Israel's vital goals far from fully realized. Hassan Nasrallah would have claimed victory so long as he had breath in his body. But to survive with much of his force intact, and with Israel's military prestige and international standing damaged, would be sweet indeed. And ominous. The bitter irony of the Western-endorsed rising cacophony of calls for a halt now is that an emboldened, invigorated Hizbullah, strengthened "at home" in Lebanon and adding momentum to its Iranian sponsors' fundamentalist drive, constitutes an immense danger to the very same Western world. Hizbullah is a proxy army facing off against the extremists' nearest target, Israel. But Iran, in its nuclear drive and long-range missile development, has targets far more distant than the Jewish state in mind for the future. Those Arab states that correctly identified Hizbullah as the root cause of the escalation three weeks ago, speaking out amid concern over the rise of Islamic extremism threatening their regimes, are now disconcerted by Israel's lack of tangible military success, and weakened by it. The US, having guaranteed Israel time and room for military action, is similarly disconcerted by the IDF's failure to demonstrably disable Hizbullah and, its stock plummeting in the region, increasingly pressured to close that military window. Only the robust initial response by Israel's politicians to Kana, with a chorused determination to press on, offers some prospect of reducing that damage. World Jewry had already been dragged into the conflict. The Friday shooting at the Seattle federation building was a relatively mild attack, given Hizbullah's global terror potential. With the two 1990s Hizbullah bombings in Buenos Aires still fresh in the memory, this weekend's upgrade of security at Jewish institutions is anything but an overreaction, the more so after Sunday. Jewish communities around the world are now also grappling with another chorus of protests that, purportedly anti-Zionist in orientation, are energetically fuelled by anti-Semites. The growing impact of sheer Muslim demographics on the public positions taken by political leaders, meanwhile, was underlined by Sunday's criticism of Israel in the UK, led by the former foreign secretary Jack Straw, assuaging his Muslim constituents by branding Israeli actions disproportionate, even before Kana. In the event that its goals cannot be realized, however, the gravest consequences, of course, are for Israel itself. Hizbullah has forced a million Israelis to flee or hide out in bomb shelters for three weeks, with the relatively simple expedient of a well-prepared, well-hidden missile capability. And the danger lies in it emerging sufficiently unscathed to repeat the strategy, from a stronger position, at a time of its choosing. The ambition, then, would be to ally a strengthened missile capability to warheads that can cause immensely more damage than even 2,000 Katyushas have done, in an offensive in which Hizbullah, unlike this time, would not be fighting alone. Central to the uphill struggle now is the fact that, untenably, Hizbullah - like the well-oiled Palestinian PR machine before it - has outmaneuvered Israel on the "second battlefield," where the public relations war is waged. As of late Sunday afternoon, Israeli official spokespeople were desperately attempting to persuade skeptical TV anchors and reporters the world over that the terrible pictures from Kana were being viewed in the wrong context - that these were the victims of Hizbullah cynicism, not Israeli aggression; that Israel, protecting its civilians, was targeting the source of rocket fire, having warned local civilians to move themselves out of harm's way. Only in the evening did the IDF release footage of rocket fire from Kana, as well as raising questions about what precisely had happened in the hours after it targeted the building. Earlier presentation of the rocket-fire footage, and of other intelligence information presumably used to plan the air strike, would have made Israel's arguments more effectively than any spokesperson could.