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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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.