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 The difference, of course, is that having withdrawn from Vietnam, the United States still had a buffer zone between it and the enemy: the Pacific Ocean.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.