August 1, 2006
A Nice Little War Gets Out of Hand
by Uri Avnery
It is the old story about the losing gambler: he cannot stop. He continues to play, in order to win his losses back. He continues to lose and continues to gamble, until he has lost everything: his ranch, his wife, his shirt.
The same thing happens in the biggest gamble of all: war. That is a part of the very essence of war: . Incompetent generals need to cover up their failure. Military commentators and other armchair strategists demand a massive offensive. Cynical politicians are riding the wave. The government is carried away by the flood that they themselves have let loose.
That is what happened this week, following the battle of Bint-Jbail, which the Arabs have already started to call proudly Nasrallahgrad. All over Israel the cry goes up: get into it! Quicker! Further! Deeper!
A day after the bloody battle, the cabinet decided on a massive mobilization of the reserves. What for? The ministers do not know. But it does not depend on them any more, nor on the generals. The political and military leadership is tossed about on the waves of war like a boat without a rudder.
As has been said before: it is much easier to start a war than to finish one.
War has its own rules. Unexpected things happen and dictate the next moves. And the next moves tend to be in one direction: escalation.
Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, the father of this war, thought that he could eliminate Hezbollah by means of the air force, the most sophisticated, most efficient, and the generally most-most air force in the world. A few days of massive pounding, thousands of tons of bombs on neighborhoods, roads, electricity works and ports – and that's it.
Well, that wasn't it, as it turned out. The Hezbollah rockets continued to land in the north of Israel, hundreds a day. The public cried out. There was no way round a ground operation. First, small, elite units were put in. That did not help. Then brigades were deployed. And now whole divisions are demanded.
First, they wanted to annihilate the Hezbollah positions along the border. When it was seen that that was not enough, it was decided to conquer the hills that dominate the border. There, the Hezbollah fighters were waiting and caused heavy casualties. And the rockets continued to fly.
Now the generals are convinced that there is no alternative to occupying the whole area up to the Litani River, about 15 miles from the border, in order to prevent the rockets from being launched from there. Then they will find out that they have to reach the Awali River, 25 miles inside – the famous 25 miles Menachem Begin talked about in 1982.
And then? The Israeli army will be extended over a large area, and everywhere it will be exposed to guerrilla attacks, of the sort Hezbollah excels in. And the missiles will continue to fly.
What next? One cannot stop. Public opinion will demand more decisive moves. Political demagogues will shout. Commentators will grumble. The people in the shelters will cry out. The generals will feel the heat. One cannot keep tens of thousands of reserve soldiers mobilized indefinitely. It is impossible to prolong a situation that paralyzes a third of the country.
Everybody will clamor to storm forwards. Where to? Toward Beirut in the north? Or toward Damascus, in the east?
The cabinet ministers recite in unison: No! Never ever! We shall not attack Syria!
Perhaps some of them really don't intend to. They do not dream of a war with Syria. Definitely not. But the ministers only delude themselves when they believe that they control the war. The war controls them.
How is it possible that a small "terror organization," with a few thousand fighters altogether, goes on fighting? Where do they get the arms from? toward Syria.
Even now, the army commanders assert that new rockets are flowing all the time from Syria to Hezbollah. The Israeli government demands that an international force be stationed not only along the Israeli-Lebanese border, but on the Lebanese-Syrian border, too. The queue of volunteers will not be long.
Ehud Olmert and Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz did not think about that when they decided three weeks ago in haste and lightheartedly, without serious debate, without examining other options, without calculating the risks, to attack Hezbollah. For politicians who do not know what war is, it was an irresistible temptation: there was a clear provocation by Hezbollah, international support was assured, what a wonderful opportunity! They would do what even Sharon did not dare.
How hotly the desire was burning in the hearts of Olmert and Peretz is attested by the fact that they did not even think about the lack of shelters in the northern Israeli towns, not to mention the far-reaching economic and social implications. The main thing was to rush in and gather the laurels.
They had no time to think seriously about the war aim. Now
The more the nice little war continues, the clearer it becomes that . The Lebanese ruling group does not represent anybody but a small, rich, and corrupt elite. The Lebanese army cannot and will not fight Hezbollah. The new "security zone" will be exposed to guerrilla attacks, and the international force will not enter the area without the agreement of Hezbollah. And this guerrilla force, Hezbollah, the Israeli army cannot vanquish.
The term "guerrilla" ("small war") was coined in Spain, during the occupation of the country by Napoleon. Irregular bands of Spanish fighters attacked the occupiers and beat them. The same happened to the Russians in Afghanistan, to the French in Algeria, to the British in Palestine and a dozen other colonies, to the Americans in Vietnam, and is happening to them now in Iraq.
Condoleezza Rice's stubborn struggle against any attempt to stop the war shows that this is indeed the aim of the United States. From the first day of George Bush's presidency, the neoconservatives have been calling for the elimination of Syria.
Must the sliding into a war with Syria happen? Is there no alternative?
Of course there is. To stop now, at once.
When President Lyndon Johnson felt that he was sinking into the morass of Vietnam, he asked his friends for advice. One of them answered with five words: "Declare victory and get out!"
We can do that. To . To be satisfied with what we can get now. For example, an agreement that will move Hezbollah a few kilometers from the border, along which an international force and/or the Lebanese army will be deployed, and to exchange prisoners. Olmert will be able to present that as a great victory, to claim that we have got what we wanted, that we have taught the Arabs a lesson, that anyway we had no intention of achieving more. Nasrallah will also claim a great victory, asserting that he has taught the Zionist enemy a lesson it will not forget, that Hezbollah remains alive, strong and armed, that he has brought back the Lebanese prisoners.
True, it will not be much. But that is what can be done to cut losses, as they say in the business world.
That can happen. If Olmert is clever enough to extricate himself from the trap, before it closes entirely. (As folk wisdom says: a clever person is one that gets out of a trap that a wise one would not have got into in the first place.) And if Condoleezza gets orders from her boss to allow it.
On the 19th day of the war, we must recognize that soon we will be faced with a clear choice: to slide into a war with Syria, intentionally or unintentionally, or to get a general agreement in the north, that will necessarily involve also Hezbollah and Syria. At the center of such an agreement will be the Golan Heights.
Olmert and Peretz did not think about that in those intoxicating moments on July 12, when they jumped at the opportunity to start a nice little war. But then, were they thinking at all?