The Magazine

The Lebanon Debacle

Does Israel's retreat mark the beginning or the end of its demoralization?

Jun 5, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 36 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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ALL THAT WAS MISSING FROM the scene were the helicopters lifting people off the embassy roof. Otherwise, Israel's panicked evacuation from Lebanon last week looked eerily like America's last hours in Vietnam.


Lebanon was, in fact, Israel's Vietnam. The analogy is almost perfect: a guerrilla war that the conventional army was winning in military terms, but whose losses the home front could not sustain. The difference, of course, is that having withdrawn from Vietnam, the United States still had a buffer zone between it and the enemy: the Pacific Ocean. Israel has a fence.


Has there ever been a more defensive occupation? Israel occupied a small patch of Lebanon only because it had been used by various enemies to launch attacks against Israel's civilian settlements in the Galilee. This was territory that Israel never claimed, never developed, never exploited. (Given Israel's chronic water shortage, it could have greatly benefited from the waters of the Litani river. It never diverted a drop.) Israel sought only a buffer for its northern border.


Nonetheless, the U.N. Security Council passed one uncompromising resolution after another demanding Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon. Syria, with no such defensive requirements, has 35,000 troops in Lebanon. The "world community" has made no effort whatsoever to get their removal.


The response of the world to Israel's withdrawal is not encouraging. Israel earned no credit, just gloating about its humiliation. The Lebanese government has openly, contemptuously refused to police the border and guarantee security. The Hezbollah guerrillas who defeated Israel refuse to take yes for an answer, promising to keep fighting until Israel meets an escalating list of demands, ranging from the release of prisoners to the evacuation of a piece of the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria (!) in 1967 and that the Hezbollah now claims is really Lebanese territory.


The net effect of the withdrawal is that Israel now has a border with Iran. The Shiite guerrillas are not just ideologically committed to and militarily supplied by Iran, but they share the same radical Islamist anti-Zionism. Their pretext was liberation of sacred Lebanese territory. That pretext is now gone. We'll see whether they intend to carry out the fight, as they like to say, "until Jerusalem is liberated."


We will see also how the world reacts if they do. Land for peace: That has been the universal demand on Israel. Well, Israel has given up every inch of Lebanese territory. Under the land for peace formula, and under the U.N. resolutions ordering Israel out of Lebanon, both Lebanon and the United Nations should now deploy troops on the Israeli-Lebanese border to ensure tranquility.


In fact, neither of these feckless and somewhat fictional entities will do anything serious to stabilize the border. That is a job once again left to Israel itself. The problem is that Israel's deterrent capacity has now been seriously damaged.


For Israel, the retreat from Lebanon is a grave geostrategic setback. For the first time in 22 years, it faces an active, hostile, well-armed enemy right on its border. This is important. The Sinai desert is Israel's buffer with Egypt; the largely uninhabited Golan Heights are the buffer with Syria; the Jordan Valley and Negev -- with the Dead Sea in between -- are the buffer with Jordan. On its northern frontier, however, Israel today finds Hezbollah guerrillas just meters away, waving rifles, positioning tanks, and aiming Katyusha rockets at Israel's border villages and collective farms.


Hezbollah has the capacity to make northern Israel uninhabitable. The decision whether to do so, however, lies with Syria's President Assad. Assad wants to pressure Israel into a withdrawal from the Golan as complete and, possibly, as humiliating as the one that just occurred in Lebanon -- one in which he could actually revise the internationally recognized border and take a piece of the Sea of Galilee.


Barak was quite willing to give him every inch of the Golan, until Assad upped the ante a few months ago by demanding control of the northeast part of the Sea of Galilee, which is entirely on Israel's side of the internationally recognized border. Talks broke down over this breathtakingly bold demand for Israeli territory. Now, however, Assad has a useful tool to pursue this objective.


The conventional wisdom is that, because Syria could turn Hezbollah on and off like a tap and thus control the flow of Israeli blood in the guerrilla war, Syria lost a bargaining chip when Israel withdrew from Lebanon. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Syria retains the bargaining chip because the guerrilla war option is not dead. It is indeed far more explosive. A sustained guerrilla war along the Israeli-Lebanese border would cause not just a few military casualties. It would kill many civilians. It could easily demoralize and quickly depopulate northern Israel. That is an extremely potent tool.


Assad would have to use it with great delicacy and precision. But use it he could. Hezbollah could start with small arms fire or a few Katyushas fired over the border to provoke an incident. Israel then would be in a terrible dilemma. If it retaliates in kind, it is simply inviting guerrilla war on its border and allowing the enemy to dictate the level of violence. Tit for tat might not even work. Hezbollah has rockets that can threaten large swaths of Israel. When Israel still had its security zone, Hezbollah's Katyushas could send only 300,000 Israelis into bomb shelters. Now that they are nine miles closer, they can put 800,000 Israelis -- almost one in seven -- into bomb shelters. A cross-border war of this sort would be intolerable for Israel.


The alternative -- the only rational response -- is for Israel to retaliate massively. The dilemma, of course, is that this risks a major war. Hitting Beirut is mandatory, but Lebanon does not make its own decisions. The point would be to bring Lebanese pressure on Assad to call off his dogs in the south. Assad, however, cares little for Lebanon. He is unlikely to bend. Barak would then be forced to carry out the threat he has already made to attack Syrian troops in the Bekka Valley. That could very easily trigger a new Arab-Israeli war.


The assumption that it would be an easy victory for Israel is false. Such a war could trigger a generalized Palestinian uprising, which would create a new front and make Israel's mobilization at home difficult. And Egypt, which has spent billions of American aid on very modern American weapons, has already begun speaking of joining the Arabs in a war provoked by Israel.


Israel's Lebanon problems do not start and end with geostrategy, however. The psychological effect of the Lebanon debacle might prove even more important in the long run. The picture of Israelis and their allies fleeing before triumphant guerrillas is one not often seen in the Arab world. It is already having its effect among West Bank Palestinians. Why should they agree to give the Jews anything in return for the West Bank and Jerusalem? Did not Hezbollah get Israel out of Lebanon for free?


And how did they do it? Constant guerrilla war, until the Israelis tired and gave up. The Palestinians had their own version of guerrilla war before the Oslo accords, the intifada. They recently staged a reprise, the "days of rage" rioting on the anniversary of Israel's independence on May 15. The temptation to produce a full-scale reenactment has only been strengthened by Hezbollah's success in Lebanon.


What's more, the fate of the South Lebanon Army, the local militia that sided with Israel against Hezbollah, is a lesson to all those Arabs in the Middle East who might be thinking of throwing their fate in with the Jews. The SLA was supposed to carry on like the South Vietnamese after the American withdrawal. Well, the South Vietnamese held out for two and a half years. SLA did not hold out for two and a half days. The sight of Israel's only Lebanese allies fleeing for their lives will give pause to any Palestinian or Jordanian or even Egyptian who thinks that acting friendly toward, making deals with, or relying on the Israelis is a good idea.


There is only one possible salutary aspect to this disastrous situation. Israel's decline has mostly been psychological. It is because of war weariness and exhaustion that it has been conceding territory unilaterally -- both in Lebanon and on the West Bank -- in the hope of depriving its enemies of a reason to want to fight on. But the appeasement hasn't worked. Israel is as vilified as ever in the region and even more threatened physically, both in the north and in the heartland, than it has been for decades.


The reality of their enemies coming ever closer to their gates, unmollified and indeed energized, might shock Israelis back into some renewed perception of reality. For the first time in two decades they have an active front on one of their borders. Under the old dispensation, with buffer zones all around, Israelis could go about their day-to-day lives under the illusion that they were living in some kind of European-like protectorate with vague enemies far away.


The enemies are not vague, and they are no longer far away. They will be there every night on Israeli television, as they were just a few nights ago, dancing at the Israeli border fence, chanting "I will kill you" to the Israelis on the other side.


That change in perception might be accompanied by a renewal of will. It has happened before. America was deeply demoralized and in general retreat after the Vietnam War. It took a series of setbacks in that annus mirabilis 1979 -- the invasion of Afghanistan, the communization of Nicaragua, and most important, the fall of the shah and the seizure of American hostages in Teheran -- to shock America out of its geopolitical lethargy. There's nothing like an acute humiliation to wake up a sleeping giant.


Israelis are exhausted. But they are also tough. At some point, their neighbors may push a little too far. It won't take a Pearl Harbor. Israelis wanted to get out of Lebanon, but they did not like the way they were expelled. Israel's adversaries certainly have the upper hand today. But they would be wise not to push their luck too far tomorrow.




Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.