Friday, August 11, 2006

Solution tomorrow in Israel?

From Strategic Forecasting, Inc:

Special Report: Israel at Odds With Itself

The situation in Israel tonight has become extremely confused, verging on the chaotic. Government ministers, like the foreign minister and prime minister, are publicly feuding. The government is saying that the assault into Lebanon will definitely be rolling tonight while it has simultaneously implied that it intends to accept the cease-fire resolution. Leaders of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are demanding to be unleashed while leaks from some government members hint that they have no confidence in the military. The media has now surged into the battle with highly contentious columns and editorials.

There is a saying in Israel: "When the cannon roar, we fall silent." It means that, while there is a war on, politics -- and even public controversy -- are impermissible. That rule has clearly collapsed. Controversy has raged inside the government and military during wars, and some of it has been savage. But this combination of contradictory signals from the government and increasingly open battling is fairly unprecedented. The closest Israel has come to this was in 1967, between the time Egypt imposed a blockade on Israel's port of Eilat and the time Israel launched its attack on Egypt. We would judge this as worse.

There appear to be two basic and competing schools of thought. One argues that Israel cannot defeat Hezbollah without incurring unacceptable losses and re-occupying parts of Lebanon, thereby winding up in a counterinsurgency situation. The other school of thought argues that the price of accepting a cease-fire that leaves Hezbollah intact is much higher than the cost of war. The interesting thing is that Olmert himself seems to embody both views. On the one hand he is saying that the offensive is on while at the same time asserting that he is inclined to accept the cease-fire. In some ways, either position would be more comforting to Israelis than the apparent vacillation. There had been a belief that Olmert was using this as psychological warfare against Hezbollah, but the view is now spreading that it is doing more damage to the Israeli psyche than to Hezbollah's.

The cease-fire that appears to be on the table is rather extraordinary. It lacks a timetable and turns over the problem of disarming Hezbollah to the Lebanese government, which probably has neither the means nor the appetite for the job. In the unlikely event that this is achieved, French forces would then join the existing U.N. force. They would have the authority to actively suppress any breaches of the cease-fire. The argument against the cease-fire is obvious from the Israeli point of view. Olmert's view might be that accepting it means nothing since it has no time limit and the disarming of Hezbollah won't happen. Therefore, it allows Israel to accept the cease-fire without halting operations. Hezbollah has certainly achieved an extraordinary degree of success. It has fought IDF to a draw, with the Israelis clearly being concerned about the price of going up against it. It has also created an unprecedented political crisis in Israel, while its own base remains firm. Hezbollah's strategy has worked thus far, establishing it as the most effective force ever to confront the Israelis.

The pressure on Olmert from IDF is intense. But it is also intense politically. Benyamin Netanyahu, leader of Likud, has remained virtually silent, holding off criticizing the government. He has even restrained some of his colleagues. Clearly, he does not want to destabilize the government now. Yet, at the same time, his relative steadfastness while the government tries to sort things out remains odd.

In looking at Israeli behavior -- which has become the most interesting and perplexing aspect of this conflict -- we are struck by an oddity. The Israeli leadership seems genuinely concerned about something, and it is not clear what it is. Obviously, the government doesn't want to take casualties, but this is not a political problem. The Israeli public can deal with high casualties as long as the mission -- in this case the dismantling of Hezbollah's capabilities -- is accomplished. The normal pattern of Israeli behavior is to be increasingly aggressive rather than restrained, and the government is supported. When a government becomes uncertain, it normally reverts to established patterns. We would have expected a major invasion weeks ago, and we did expect it. Something is holding the Israelis back and it is not simply fear of casualties. The increasing confusion and even paralysis of the Israeli government could be explained simply by division and poor leadership. But we increasingly have the feeling that there is an aspect to Israeli thinking that we do not understand, some concern that is not apparent that is holding them back from doing what they would normally do. Hezbollah has fought well, but it is hard to believe that the Israelis can't defeat them or that Israel can't take casualties. (Interestingly enough, Iran and Hezbollah, who are aiming for an imminent cease-fire to claim victory in this conflict, have remained silent while the discussion of a coming cease-fire intensifies.) As the pressure to act mounts and Israel doesn't act, the question of what is restraining them becomes increasingly important. We can't speculate on what their concern might be, because we don't know it. However, Olmert is acting as if he doesn't want to become too aggressive, and the reasoning is unclear.

When dawn comes over Lebanon, we might well find Israeli troops attacking in their traditional fashion, and the entire debate in Israel tonight will be of little importance. Then the question will be whether Hezbollah can continue to resist. However, while there are those who would argue that Israel's inability to decide clearly on a path is simply cover for action, our view is that the situation has gone well beyond that. Hezbollah is not being rattled at all. The Israelis are.

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