The limits of victory

Daily News Egypt
12 Min Read

Who won the 33-day war in Lebanon, Israel or Hezbollah? Both sides have claimed victory, though Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has done so in the kind of understated, eloquent and rationalist discourse that has characterized his satellite TV appearances during and since the fighting. It has been Olmert and his defense minister and coalition partner, Peretz, who actually struck the kind of frenzied notes that the Arab public has long associated with their own political leaders. Two or three weeks into the fighting, a friend put it rather bluntly: “Olmert sounds like an Arab, while Hassan Nasrallah sounds like an Israeli.

The war in Lebanon has been styled the sixth Arab-Israeli war. In all but two of these Israel was a clear unadulterated victor – devastatingly so in the June War of 1967, which Israel and the rest of the world, humiliatingly – if aptly – called the Six-Day War. The outcome of this year’s Israeli attack on Lebanon, on the other hand, has been similar to those of the Suez War of 1956 and the October War of 1973 in that it lay in a kind of grey zone in which both sides could claim victory.

Yet in none of these Arab-Israeli wars has the issue of victor and vanquished been as hotly contested among the Arabs themselves as it has this time around. The debate, it might be noted, however, is elite bound. As far as the bulk of Arab public opinion is concerned there is no doubt of a Hezbollah victory; for the time being, Nasrallah is hailed as the new Nasser. How deep or lasting this sentiment proves to be remains to be seen.

Arab public opinion has been swung, to and fro, between optimism and pessimism so many times, so erratically and abruptly over the course of the past half century that “The Pessoptimist – to use the title of the inspired novel by the late Palestinian-Israeli writer Emile Habibi – seems to provide the most apt description of the Arab “human condition.

Meanwhile, the twin poles that have dominated Arab political and intellectual debate for over two decades have locked swords once again; this time in a ferocious battle over who won this latest round of the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli contest. It is, yet again, the kind of debased debate to which we have become accustomed from these twin emperors of our intellectual lives. “God bless our victory, shouts one banner headline; “The lie of the invincible Israeli army has fallen, the Lebanese resistance has dragged the dignity of the enemy’s soldiers in the mud, echoes the lead of a polemical piece, as it lashes out at Arab adversaries it name-calls, bizarrely, “the widows of the IDF.

For their own part, these “realistic adversaries had set out from the start to try and lay the blame for Israel’s destruction and mayhem in Lebanon at Hezbollah’s door – an exercise as absurd as it is pernicious, which, to my mind, is exactly akin to blaming the rape victim and not the rapist – on the patently preposterous grounds that she had been “enticingly dressed.

For both sides there is no room for nuance or qualification – it is either total victory or total defeat. In place of reasoned argument we thus have mantras that would be realized by virtue of their endless repetition – in Palestine, in Iraq, in Lebanon, now no less than five, 10 or 20 years ago. Never mind the fact that notwithstanding the many occasions we’ve exploded the myth of its invincibility, the Israeli army remains the most powerful military force in the region, able to wreak death and destruction almost at will; that Palestine continues to be occupied, and that the process of Palestinian dispossession, which began more than half a century ago, goes on and on.

Never mind also that despite all the defeats, the pain, death and destruction, the lesson in “realism is not being learned; that, on the contrary, the more forcefully and viciously the lesson is being taught, the more decisive is its unlearning, is the will to resist – even if the direction and means of resistance continue to be shrouded in ambiguity and confusion.

Who then won the sixth Arab-Israeli war? An Israeli military official has been quoted as conceding that Israel had not defeated Hezbollah by a “knockout blow, but, he went on to assert, it had won on points. I would argue that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Hezbollah did not, and could not, defeat Israel militarily. Not only is it absurd to make such a claim, it is wholly unfair to Hezbollah itself, and to the remarkable guerilla warfare it did in fact mount against the Israeli forces. More than any previous Arab-Israeli war, this was a joint U.S.-Israeli campaign – indeed, many have argued, it was more an American than an Israeli war. And to suggest that guerilla warfare, however resolute and ingeniously conducted could, in a tiny country such as Lebanon, defeat the most powerful military machines, not only in the region but in the whole world is to engage in voodoo rather than strategic assessment.

What Hezbollah’s guerilla war did do, and with great success, was to up the cost of a ground offensive which Israel was clearly hesitant about fully committing to. Indeed, according to a recent article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – conspicuously and unusually silent during the 33-day war – was in a sulk because Israel was not as committed to a ground war as he would have liked them to be. For Israel, a full-blown ground offensive would have been, in the best case scenario, a repeat of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And, if anything, the cost this time around, would have been considerably higher, let alone having to deal once again with the virtually inevitable quandary of maintaining an occupation of the land conquered by invasion. Israel’s own experience in Lebanon, now coupled to America’s ongoing nightmare in Iraq, were not conductive to a repeat performance.

Hezbollah’s real triumph, however, was much more political than military, and as such, it was a triumph of the Lebanese people as a whole. The Israeli war strategy was blatantly obvious from the start. This was to take all of Lebanon hostage, and to wreak enough death and destruction as have the Lebanese people, themselves, deliver Hezbollah into Israeli and American hands. According to Hersh’s article, referred to above, Israel’s war in Lebanon was to set the ground, as well as to provide a template, for a subsequent American air war against Iran’s nuclear installations. On both levels, it was an unmitigated fiasco.

Written a few days before the cease-fire, Hersh quotes Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in Bush’s first term, as drawing the following, and from a U.S. point of view, sobering conclusion:

“If the most dominant military force in the region – the Israel Defense Force – can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of 70 million. Armitage goes on to say, “The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.

Yet the kind of frantic victory dance in which much of the Arab media has been engaged since the declaration of cease-fire in Lebanon is not only in poor taste (the cost, after all, has been enormous), it is also premature. If experience has taught us anything at all, and if the developments on the ground since the cessation of fighting are anything to go by, it is to impress upon us the sheer precariousness and vulnerability of these very successes, both military and political.

For Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, ostensibly the most authoritative political analyst in the Arab world today, Arabs should not count on military force as a means of pursuing their struggle with Israel and the U.S. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, held even as the drums of Hezbollah’s military triumph were beating resoundingly throughout the region, Heikal urged: “Let us talk seriously. the objective of Arab policy towards Israel and America is to inhibit their recourse to [military] force. Rather than pursue the illusion of def
eating “the most powerful military arsenal in the world, and the most powerful military arsenal in the region, argued Heikal, we should make the cost of wielding such arsenals as prohibitively costly as we can; to create a force of political and moral deterrence.

“We must not think that we have only two alternatives: to submit and show obsequiousness or to attempt things which are beyond our power, said Heikal. But, as authoritative as his voice may be, is anybody actually listening?

Hani Shukrallah is a consultant for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and is the former Editor of Al Ahram Weekly. He writes a weekly commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.

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