- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It was a far from perfect resolution, but it did the job: It stopped the bloodshed. After 31 days of relentless pounding by Israeli artillery, naval gunboats and warplanes on Lebanon in efforts to kill Hezbollah, the guns finally fell silent at 7 a.m., Monday morning. A great way to start the week.

With the cease-fire in effect, and apparently holding, despite some minor skirmishes, the combatants will begin to reintegrate civilian life, but not before readying the tanks, cannons, rockets, launchers and other war machines they will need for the next phase. Many analysts believe it is only a matter of time before Hezbollah and Israel resume where they left off.

The 31-day war claimed the lives of some 1,200 Lebanese civilians, wounded more than 3,698 and displaced close to 1 million people on the Lebanon side of the border. Israel, for its part, lost more than 100 soldiers. Nearly 50 civilians were killed by the deluge of about 4,000 rockets fired by Hezbollah on Israel. It forced evacuation of almost a million residents from northern Israel to seek refuge in safer parts of the country in the center and the south.

As political and military strategists begin dissecting what went right and what went wrong in this war, many questions will crop up, particularly the one many Israelis will ask: What exactly has been accomplished in exchange of all this blood?

The optimist could see the glass as half full, and claim a victory of sorts. From the Israeli perspective the accomplishments of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government in this war were well below expectations. Israel wanted, or rather needed, to score a clear victory against Hezbollah. Israel’s military machine fully expected to crush the Lebanese Shi’ite movement, considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, within days. Yet in a month of heavy bombardment and ferocious fighting, some of it hand-to-hand, in villages along the Lebanese-Israeli border, Hezbollah was not defeated as expected.

In fact, Hezbollah’s leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah wasted no time and went on television Sunday night to declare the outcome “a victory for all of Lebanon.” Never mind that much of the country’s infrastructure lies in ruin.

Second, the initial trigger of this latest Middle East war — the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militiamen — remains unsolved, despite repeated demands from Israel for the release of the soldiers. That did not happen. In short, Israel’s two objectives for waging war were not met.

Although the destruction of property and loss of life in Lebanon is far greater, the negative aftershock of the war for Israel will be greater. This is the first time since the war of independence that war came to Israel. Besides the loss of productivity, the loss of revenue from tourists and visitors, the loss of human life and the destruction of private property, one should of course not forget the political debate that will take the Knesset by storm in days and weeks to come. A storm in which Mr. Olmert will fight for his very political life.

The only positive aspect Israel can claim as a victory is the occupation by its forces of Lebanese territory from the international frontier to the Litani River. This is the buffer zone in which 15,000 troops of the Lebanese army and 15,000 blue-helmeted troops of the reinforced UNIFIL contingent, that Israel hopes will be able to keep armed Hezbollah guerrillas away from its border, will deploy.

Barring loss of its fighters, sympathizers and party members, Hezbollah comes out looking even stronger. The party’s secretary-general, Sheik Nasrallah is now more popular than ever. Hezbollah resisted some of the harshest aerial bombardment and put up stiff resistance against a superior, better armed, technologically advanced Israeli force. It broke the myth of the Israeli army invincibility.

The danger for Hezbollah is that it will get caught up in its own rhetoric — a typical Middle Eastern trait that could be qualified as the Gamal Abdel Nasser syndrome. Hezbollah has won probably as much as can be hoped on the battlefield. Its battle should now shift to the negotiating table. For the sake of Lebanon’s survival, Hezbollah must now consider morphing itself entirely into a political party. Especially if/when all Israeli troops withdraw from Lebanon, including the Shebaa Farms, thereby removing all reason for continued resistance.

The paradox of Israel’s war to eradicate Hezbollah is that it has strengthened it politically — at least for the moment — while weakening Mr. Olmert and his government. Mr. Olmert admitted as much, citing “deficiencies” in the management of the war.

Mr. Olmert’s standing according to a Ha’aretz poll went from a high of 75 percent at the start of the war to a low of 48 percent. Amir Peretz, his defense minister, fared even worse: He went from an approval rating of 65 percent to 37 percent.

Meanwhile, some analysts believe Israel will prepare for a bigger confrontation.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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