Israel's Vietnam Syndrome

Behind the U.S. refusal to support a cease-fire in the Israeli-Hezbollah war lies a stark reality. Israel needs more time to attain its strategic goal: Cleanse Lebanon, south of the Litani, of Hezbollah fighters and Katyusha rockets. A cease-fire in place means Hezbollah wins the war.

Yet, one day after Israel lost nine soldiers and 22 wounded in an ambush outside a town it claimed to have taken, its cabinet appears to have given up on sending in the army. Israel is going to rely on air power and artillery to root out Hezbollah, which means that Israel will fail.

And if the IDF is not going in, the United States should support a cease-fire now. For U.S. interests are at rising risk.

The Shia of south Lebanon, driven out of villages and towns by 30,000 Israeli artillery shells and hundreds of precision-guided bombs, are pouring into south Beirut. These people could take vengeance on Americans for the green light that Bush gave Israel on the destruction of their homeland and the deaths visited upon their friends, neighbors and family members.

Given the devastation done by Israel’s shock-and-awe campaign, the humanitarian disaster of some 800,000 refugees could produce a political disaster: the collapse of Lebanon into a failed state. The one shining success of Bush’s democracy crusade in the Arab world had been Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution.

Then there is the danger the Shia of Iraq will, in solidarity with their co-religionists in Lebanon, turn on the Americans for the blank check Bush gave the Israeli air force to work its will in Lebanon. Pro-American Arab regimes have all been thrown on the defensive among their people, as Al-Jazeera shows, 24 hours a day, the carnage visited on Lebanon by an Israel that is using U.S. weapons and bombs, not unlike those bunkers-busters we conspicuously turned over to them last week.

Why did Israel launch an air war against Lebanon rather than a ground war to engage and eliminate Hezbollah?

Perhaps because the Israeli chief of staff is an air force man. Perhaps to send a message that this is what happens to Arab nations that trifle with Israel. But certainly to avoid the casualties Israel knows must come from a ground war in Lebanon against a dug-in Hezbollah prepared to fight and die.

The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was Israel’s Vietnam. The shelling of Beirut for weeks on end cost her the moral high ground, just as the televised devastation of Lebanon these last two weeks has done. The massacre of men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla were an Israeli My Lai, with this difference: Approval for these Phalangist atrocities appears to have come from the highest levels of the IDF.

After 18 years of being bled in Lebanon, Israel gave up and went home. The Vietnam syndrome set in.

Still, how can Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah claim to have won the war, when they have inflicted far less damage and taken many more casualties? Answer: By simply standing at war’s end.

The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. There is truth in the cliche. And as of today, Nasrallah has refused to return the two Israeli soldiers Hezbollah captured. Hezbollah has fired 1,500 rockets into Israel, which no Arab army has ever done. It continues to fire 100 a day, after two weeks of massive air and artillery strikes on its positions in south Lebanon. Hezbollah is visibly accomplishing what no Arab nation has ever accomplished. Small wonder its prestige is rocketing in the Arab and Islamic world.

For Israel, the days of hope and glory are history.

In 1967, Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in six days and seized huge slices of all three countries. In 1982, the Israelis were at the gates of Beirut within hours. Today, they are reluctant to go 15 miles in, and Olmert is talking of taking a one-mile stretch of Lebanese land and holding it.

Israel is now calling for a robust international force, preferably NATO, to occupy Lebanese territory on her northern border, and, with the Lebanese army, ensure it remains clear of Hezbollah and Katyushas.

But the Lebanese army, itself heavily Shia, contains Hezbollah, and, after Israel bombed and killed a dozen of its men in their barracks, is not going to pull Israel’s chestnuts out of the fire. No nation is going to do for Israel what she has failed to do for herself. No international force is going to disarm Hezbollah, unless Hezbollah agrees to be disarmed.

Israel apparently believes it can defeat and disarm Hezbollah with air strikes and artillery, though in 18 years of occupation it failed. It is deceiving itself. Either Israel goes in and roots Hezbollah out at a cost of hundreds of Israeli dead, or it will have to negotiate, as it did with Syria’s Assad in 1973 and the PLO’s Arafat in 1994. If you will not or cannot defeat your enemy, you eventually must talk to him.