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Update…Middle East Situation July 12, 2006

I’ve been calling around today to get a feel for what’s going on. As you presumably know, beyond the events transpiring in Gaza, Hizbullah made a raid into Israel from Lebanese territory, took 2 soldiers captive, and the Israeli army has gone into Lebanon and is calling up reserves. Israeli prime minister Olmert has declared the raid an act of war.

The domestic justification for quitting Gaza and Lebanon were that, once out, those areas would have no excuse to strike inside Israel and, if they did, Israel could treat it as an attack upon it from the outside by a sovereign state and react with full force rather than as an occupier and that this deterrence would keep the peace. This only works if in fact it does. Now that Israel has been under consistent attack both from its northern border and from Gaza, the thesis is tested. Olmert has no choice but to respond or else the thesis fails and any future withdrawal from territory by Israel cannot be justified except by mutually negotiated agreement, and this is considered impossible under this thesis given the fact that the Palestinians and Lebanese are not masters of their fate but instead driven by outside troublemakers intent on causing instability in the region. No less than Mubarak said today that his deal to end the prisoner problem in Gaza was thwarted by Syria and Iran who told Hamas not to agree to a deal.

There are two camps in Israel. The first is that no matter how many times you send in the army to Gaza and Lebanon, the fuel to the fire keeps getting replenished in Damascus and Teheran so that until the heat is felt over there, nothing will change. The second is that this is just an excuse and that if you turn up the heat enough in Gaza and Lebanon to make it unbearable for the people over there, they will in turn force the militarists operating among them to quit. Till now, they haven’t really felt enough pressure to do so and the Israelis have never really attacked the infrastructure being used to stage the attacks. The second camp is also constrained by the feeling that the Israelis have justification to go into Lebanon but not into Syria, which they feel is America’s problem. The Israelis in general feel that the Arabs think that they have the Israelis on the run and that if they keep tickling them they will go away little by little. In fact, they feel that they are the big guys in town, that the Arabs around them are midgets and that they can and will put this out in a flash now that they are really pissed off. They want to put Hizbullah and Hamas out of business and are ready to go in for the kill. They’ve been waiting for the right moment which they think is now.

So far, Olmert says all the right words to show that he understands the problem. He points a finger at Syria and threatens significant responses. The actual response so far has been relatively light — Israelis were not impressed by having airplanes buzz Assad’s palace. They thought it was a joke and said they wanted to see more action and less theatrics and threats. The more hawkish are also not sure so far that he is really prepared to move in Gaza to do what they think is necessary. However, based on the steadily escalating situation, they believe he will be drawn to do such things in the next couple days.

No matter which camp wins the argument, the following 20-30 days look like this: Sustained attacks against major infrastructure targets both in Lebanon and Gaza meant to “turn the clock back 20 years” and let the target populations know that the attacks against Israel proper from these territories will no longer be tolerated, to the point that they hope people will think 10x before allowing it to happen again. I wouldn’t be surprised if the airport in Beirut is bombed and it is a certainty that if any Israeli planes fly over Syria they will drop things. They expect no resistance from the US or Japan who have their own interest in retaliating against troublemakers such as North Korea, and they expect light resistance from Europe. The image of Palestinians in strongholds such as France has dropped alarmingly over the past 2 years. I suspect Gaza in particular will see the severe underside of a very hard shoe for the next few days. Overall it will be a sustained military operation over a period of time.

The defense minister Peretz is a useless idiot because he doesn’t know enough to second-guess the army; Abbas and even Haniyah (the Hamas-affiliated prime minister) have no say over what happens on the Palestinian side while Meshaal steals the show from his base in Damascus and makes it clear that he controls Hamas. Lebanon’s government similiarly has no say over Hizbullah and presumably has no interest in Hizbullah staging attacks against Israel and putting Lebanon at risk, but is stuck with the fact that its territory has been hijacked and must suffer the consequences. And, let’s face it, they’ve not exactly been telling Hizbullah to get lost. Olmert is cool and rational and people seem to be OK with him but he doesn’t make it a secret that he is relying on people around him in a way that Sharon did not. This is not necessarily bad but Sharon knew enough to secondguess everyone. This mattered, because it is useful to know that in Israel the army really does call the shots and at certain points it doesn’t really matter what the civilian leadership thinks because the military can manipulate the situation to escalate a situation and force a response (ie: allow an attack to take place or decide what to report). The military has been itching for some time to retaliate against Lebanon and Gaza, and it has been severely embarrassed by the two raids on its soldiers. The question for the short term is not what the various leaders will do but what the military forces of the various parties have in store for their civilian handlers.
 
One thing for sure: The Israelis had better do a good job of delivering a clear defeat to Hamas and Hizbullah with no wiggle room for them to declare victory, thus forcing them to the sidelines and allowing the mainstream factions to take back the playing field and reassert control over the game. No prisoner swaps and no symbolic bombings of empty ministries in the middle of the night to settle the score. Nobody will buy it anymore. Otherwise, you can kiss any hope for any kind of deal between the Israelis and Palestinians goodbye for the next 5 years because there will be absolutely no constituency within Israel to believe that peace-making would be anything but futile, given the fact that what all the doomsayers said would happen if the Israelis withdrew is happening and there is no authority or willingness on the Palestinian or Arab side to control it. There will similarly be no constituency on the Arab side because they will be convinced that war and terror works and that there is no reason to negotiate if violence yields a more favorable result. In essence, the situation has gone out of balance and the future of play in the region depends on the Israeli ability to reassert deterrence in order to keep the game honest and make people think the game is worth playing.

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