For Israel, was 2009 Just the Calm before the Storm?

For Israel, was 2009 Just the Calm before the Storm?

Israeli society takes comfort in military dominance, which alleviates its existential fears. But for realists, cynics and security analysts alike, the real question is how stable that unfair and forced equilibrium really is, says Emile Hokayem.

It was a good year for Israel. Beyond the paralysis on the peace-process front in 2009, for which the hardline Israeli prime minister can claim credit, Israel has had the quietest year since the beginning of the second intifada. Its territory was kept secure and fewer Israelis were killed and injured (although more than 1,500 Palestinians lost their lives at Israeli hands in the meantime).

On the three war fronts that remain open, Israel has managed to establish deterrence by steeply and decisively raising the cost of war. Rejecting the notion of targeted, proportional and graduated responses, it has sought to retaliate so overwhelmingly that its enemy would simply prefer to stop the fight.

In 2006, the Israeli army conducted a destructive attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Though its operation will go down in military history as a classic case of how not to conduct a war, and ended with the perception of an Israeli defeat and a Hezbollah victory, the Lebanese-Israeli border has since been quiet. The devastation wrought on southern Lebanon and the Shia suburbs of Beirut, and the human, psychological and economic cost incurred almost solely by the Shia community, have been powerful restraints on Hezbollah.

In 2007, the Israeli air force conducted a daring raid against a suspected nuclear reactor in northern Syria. All the Syrians could do was protest mildly and move on, even calling for a resumption of peace talks. Syria was forced to recognise that its military was no match for Israel’s. But its conflict with Israel will still be fought through proxies and political manoeuvring: the 1974 disengagement agreement remains the oldest ceasefire in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the occupied Golan Heights its quietest front.

Then, in early 2009, the Israeli military devastated the already besieged Gaza strip. Hamas boasted that its rockets could shake Israel, but ultimately the suffering of the Gazan population decisively outweighed whatever claim of victory it could make. Gaza continues to suffer immensely but has become a security afterthought for the Israeli public. And paradoxically, Hamas itself enforces this truce.

So it is not wholly unjustified for the Israeli population and parts of its security establishment to feel at ease. Its military has shown competence and ruthlessness, which have delivered this respite. Israeli society takes comfort in military dominance, which alleviates its existential fears. But for realists, cynics and security analysts alike, the real question is how stable that unfair and forced equilibrium really is.

Judging from the Lebanese case, not very. An ominous reason for the apparent calm is simple: Hezbollah, like the Israeli army, needs time and quiet to learn and apply the lessons of the previous conflict, to rearm and to retrain.

In 2006, the conflict ended with the establishment of a UN-controlled zone in southern Lebanon where Hezbollah activities are nominally forbidden, but recent massive explosions in Hezbollah arms caches are evidence to the contrary. Israel too routinely violates this security buffer with observation flights over Lebanon and extensive spy networks, many of which were uncovered in recent months. Sadly, the presence of the UN force may complicate – but will not prevent – the next round of war. UN troops in southern Lebanon could do nothing when Israel invaded in 1982.

A lesson learnt by the Israeli army is that reliance on air power alone is not enough and that a ground offensive up the Bekaa Valley is essential to defeat Hezbollah by cutting its access to its Syrian suppliers and putting Damascus on notice to remain on the sidelines. This will put Syria in a difficult spot, torn between its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran – and the very survival of the regime – should Israel take the fight to Damascus.

Another Israeli lesson is that restraint does not work. In 2006, at the urging of the Bush administration, which sought to differentiate between Lebanon’s pro-US government and Hezbollah, Israel limited its targeting of the country’s main infrastructure, military and key government buildings. It is difficult to imagine Mr Netanyahu doing the same this time, especially now that Lebanon is more than ever under Hezbollah control. Israeli officials already state in not-so-subtle terms that Lebanon would incur the full wrath of the Israeli war machine.

Preparations north and east of the Litani river are ongoing to block an Israeli ground advance. Hezbollah admits that it has more than replenished its stock of missiles and rockets – a powerful deterrent that numbers around 40,000 and could bring the war into the northern part of Israel and even Tel Aviv, now within the range of its most advanced missiles. And Hezbollah may have more surprises in store. A few months ago the Israeli navy seized a massive shipment of light weaponry, claiming it originated from Iran. Such an arsenal can be used for conventional fighting within Lebanon, but it is possible that Hezbollah will seek to bring the fight to Israel, thus fundamentally shaking the Israeli psyche, while relying on newly acquired air-defence systems to deny Israel its key strategic advantage.

And an eruption in Lebanon could precipitate another in Gaza this time. A Hamas official recently vowed: “If Israel launched a new attack against Lebanon … we will face the aggression side by side with our brethren in Lebanon.”

Will such a worst-case scenario really unfold? Sadly, the two sides, though not itching for a fight, are actively preparing for one, which increases its prospects. An accidental war remains a possibility. After all, Hezbollah by its own admission did not expect such massive retaliation to the kidnapping that started the 2006 war. It is also possible that Israel will obtain (or manufacture) intelligence pointing to the transfer of a specific kind of weaponry that can be a game-changer in the strategic balance. A Hezbollah operation to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, its security chief, could also trigger such an escalation.

The drums of war are not yet deafening, but complacency and denial will not silence them.

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