Why they fight


AS ISRAELI FORCES POUND LEBANON with a vengeance, it becomes more obvious that Israel’s military strategy is not merely a rescue operation or a punitive lesson. It is moving toward a more far-reaching exercise in preemption, aimed squarely at Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran. There is increasing evidence that Israel is also trying to improve its position in the event that it decides -- weeks, months or years from now -- to try to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities.

If you think that’s a stretch, imagine for a moment that you are an Israeli military strategist. Just when it appeared that the Hamas government in Gaza was foundering (good) and that Gazans might actually be asked to vote on whether to accept a two-state solution (even better), Hamas changes the subject by attacking Israeli territory and capturing an Israeli soldier. A mini-war ensues, and the referendum is off the agenda (major setback). Next, Hezbollah crosses your border, stages attacks and kidnaps two Israeli soldiers, and when you retaliate, it rains missiles down on Haifa and other Israeli cities. Clearly, you did not expect this. But is it disastrous?

Not necessarily. Israel has long been unhappy with Hezbollah’s continuing domination of southern Lebanon, its refusal to disarm (in defiance of the United Nations) and its legitimization as a major force in the Lebanese parliament. Now Hezbollah has handed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government the justification to do what it has long wanted to do: Destroy Hezbollah’s offensive capabilities and exert pressure on Beirut and the international community to put an end to the group’s de facto control of southern Lebanon.


This would all be desirable for Israel under any set of circumstances. But in light of a possible strike against Iran, taking care of Hezbollah is an urgent, strategic imperative. This helps explain the disproportionate scale of the Israeli response. Yes, Israeli troops entered southern Lebanon in search of tunnels and weapons. But Israeli forces also have struck the Beirut airport and apartment buildings in that city and have attacked army barracks in Tripoli and east of Beirut, fuel tanks in Beirut’s port, and a truck carrying medical supplies from Damascus to Beirut’s suburbs. Israel knows such attacks will inflict major civilian casualties and trigger an international outcry.

Why would Israel widen the war so far? Why risk international outrage just when several Arab states had summoned the courage to denounce Hezbollah for starting the war?

The answer lies in Tehran. For years, Israel has warned the West that Iran is a revolutionary power that seeks to promote the interests of Shiites and destabilize Sunni governments across the Middle East, and that it seeks a hegemonic role in the region commensurate with its expanding influence. Israel has also warned that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons far faster than anyone realizes, and it has despaired at the inefficacy of the Bush administration’s diplomatic efforts against Iran.

Fearing that a United States stuck in its Iraqi quagmire will not do what is necessary to take on the Iranian nuclear challenge, military planners in Israel may have concluded that they will have to do so. And one of the more worrisome consequences of such an operation is the possibility of a full-scale Hezbollah attack with Iranian-supplied missiles and terrorist infiltration from southern Lebanon.

Hence the vehemence of Israel’s reaction. The international uproar is a price Israel is willing to pay for limiting the damage Hezbollah could later inflict in response to a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program. On Tuesday, the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, revealingly said that his troops need more time to complete “very clear goals” and that the fighting in Lebanon would end within a few weeks -- not days. There is a sense that an immediate cease-fire would thwart Israel’s need to disable Hezbollah.

The Bush administration, somewhat understandably, is not keen on forcing Israel to stop pummeling Hezbollah too soon. But what’s remarkable is how many other factions on the Middle East chessboard have their own vested interest in seeing this fighting prolonged.


There is Hamas, for starters, and the radical Islamist movement in general, which feared Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ desire to have the Palestinian people vote on a two-state solution. This warfare has provided a great change of topic.

The Sunni monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for their part, are not shedding tears over Hezbollah because they have every reason to fear the power of its patron, Iran, to stir up their own Shiite populations, sponsor radical Islamists in their territories and continue challenging their legitimacy.

Syria, Hezbollah’s other backer, also stands to gain from the fighting. In the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, it was forced to withdraw its military from Lebanon after a 29-year occupation. The current Lebanese government now seems irrelevant. And efforts to isolate Syrian President Bashar Assad, exacerbated by inquiries into his regime’s involvement in the Hariri killing, are now being second-guessed by those who’d like to engage Damascus to find a resolution to the crisis. Suddenly, Syria is a player again.

To what extent Syria is acting in concert with Iran is not clear -- nor is the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran. But the regime in Tehran also has much to gain from continued fighting. The ability of Hamas and Hezbollah to goad Israel into a fight helps galvanize the cause of radical Islamism in the entire region, and it enhances Iran’s prestige even in countries ruled by more moderate, pro-Western leaders. And in terms of changing the topic, the fighting deflects some attention from the Iranian nuclear program.

So many players, so many reasons to fight -- while the people of Lebanon bear the brunt with their suffering. Poland -- frequently annexed and partitioned -- was once the proxy battlefield for Europe’s great powers. It falls to Lebanon to play that role in the Middle East today. No amount of cynical realpolitik can afford to lose sight of that tragedy.