Israel Is Winning the Battle, But Not the War
Conservatives, especially neoconservatives, (and even some pro-Israeli moderates and liberals), admire Israel’s use of muscular tactics to safeguard its security. Many conservatives also admire Robert E. Lee’s aggressive, offense-oriented tactical victories in the U.S. Civil War. But like Lee, who ultimately lost the war, the Israelis are exhibiting enormous strategic ineptitude.
Lee, using the Napoleonic tactics of the offense, won many brilliant victories by attacking the superior forces of the Union Army. But Lee lost sight of the most basic strategic factor. Although he inflicted many Union losses, such aggressive tactics also caused his own casualty rates to be very high. Lee simply ran out of men before the larger Union Army did. When the Union eventually installed a general opposite Lee who was competent in both strategy and tactics—Ulysses S. Grant—the North took advantage of superior troop numbers to grind down Lee’s rebel forces. Grant often lost tactically on the battlefield, but relentlessly advanced toward Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, using attrition to destroy Lee’s army.
Like Lee, the Israelis are winning the battle tactically—destroying fighters and projectiles of Hezbollah and Hamas. In Lebanon, they may even succeed in backing Hezbollah away from the Israeli-Lebanese border and establishing a buffer zone patrolled by the weak Lebanese army and some sort of multinational force. But the Israeli offensives in Lebanon and Gaza will destroy neither Hezbollah nor Hamas, nor the motivation for violence that underlies these groups. Because the Israeli public still remembers the 18-year quagmire that resulted from Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel probably will not again launch the full ground invasion of Lebanon needed to finally crush Hezbollah. Israeli air strikes alone cannot kill all Hezbollah fighters and destroy all of their weapons and infrastructure. Similarly, since the Israelis just withdrew their forces from Gaza, it is unlikely that they would permanently reoccupy it in order to fully eradicate Hamas. In fact, Israel’s grossly disproportionate collective punishment of Lebanon and Gaza for the killing and capturing of a few Israeli soldiers will only fuel the anti-Israel fire in both places and the larger Arab world. When hatred has been stoked, lost fighters and weapons can be replaced—and rather easily.
The aggressive Israeli policy of an offensive “defense” created the threat from these groups in the first place. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to get rid of the Palestinian group Fatah, its invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon ultimately led to the radicalization of parts of Lebanon’s Shi’ite community and the creation of Hezbollah. In Palestine, Israel originally supported Hamas as a counterweight to Fatah. As Israel’s continued occupation began to radicalize the Palestinians and Fatah’s corruption became exposed, Hamas gained support. Today, it runs the Palestinian Authority.
Strategically, Israel’s disproportionate use of military force will not wipe out these groups or the support that they receive from their respective populations. Only a comprehensive negotiated, not unilateral, Middle East settlement—in which Israel gives back all of the occupied territories in exchange for peace and normal relations with its Arab neighbors—will choke off popular support for these radical groups. Instead of futilely trying to drain the swamp of terrorists militarily, Israel should concentrate on draining their motivation for violence using political means.
Although the Americans have run into a quagmire in Iraq, they finally realize, at least theoretically, that they can’t defeat the Iraqi insurgency through military means. They are attempting to negotiate their way out, but it may be too late. (The Sunni insurgents deliberately attacked the Shi’a in order to start a sectarian civil war, which is now raging.) Unfortunately, the Israelis are even further behind the slow Americans in coming to terms with reality. They still fail to realize that military solutions, as well as unilateral political actions, are not the answer to guerrilla war and terrorism. A comprehensive negotiated “land for peace” settlement is the only way to make support for Hezbollah and Hamas evaporate. The more Israel pounds Lebanon and Gaza with its own acts of terrorism, the less likely a negotiated settlement—and an end to terrorism by Hezbollah and Hamas—becomes.
Ivan Eland is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is also a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.