The Conflict’s Strategic Implications Begin to Show

By CALME Luminary Mr. Robert K. Lifton, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer, Medis Technologies Ltd.

Now that the immediate conflict in Lebanon appears to have abated, it may be worthwhile to look at its strategic implications and at developments in the Middle East, generally, through the lens of that conflict.

The usual game of choosing winners and losers in the Israel-Hezbollah engagement has started, with adherents on each side claiming victory and sideline commentators expressing their opinions. This is an overly simplistic way of looking at a very complex and dangerous situation; dangerous to Israel, to the United States and to those who would like to enjoy living peaceful, fulfilling lives. The conflict is not over, and the true parties in interest have not fully played out their respective roles, so any judgment as to the result is premature. All we can do at this point, is appraise what has happened and analyze the strategic implications going forward.


Shortly after the election of the late Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister of Israel in 1992, I had the opportunity to visit with him alone in his office – what the Israelis refer to as “four eyes”- and hear his overview of the strategic issues that Israel faced. He told me, even then, that Israel’s most dangerous enemy was Iran. He foresaw a time when Iran may have nuclear capability and asked me: “if they can threaten our population centers with nuclear weapons and we can threaten their population centers, which one of us will blink? We Jews who care about living or those Mullahs who do not.” With that possible prospect in mind, he explained that his strategy was to negotiate a peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors – Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinians, so that Israel could address the Iranian threat with all its resources, without fear of attack from its bordering states.

By that time, I had already concluded that Israel needed to separate itself from the Palestinians because of the demographic implications. The birth rate of the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians was much greater than Israel’s Jewish population. If Israel incorporated the Occupied Territories as part of Greater Israel as some on the right advocated, it would not be able to continue as a Jewish state unless it refused its Arab population inside Israel and in the Territories equal voting rights. In that event it would have to abandon its democratic principles and face world opprobrium as an apartheid state. For a long time, I hoped that a negotiated peace could be reached between Israel and its neighbors. After my meetings with Hafez al Assad and with Yasir Arafat and after the failure of Camp David, I concluded that Israel had to create the separation unilaterally. For those reasons I supported Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Arik Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza and now Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plans to continue disengagement from most of the West Bank. As so many who advocated disengagement, I am struggling with the implications of the Lebanon conflict and its aftermath, the empowerment of Hamas and the strategic implications relating to the danger from Iran. Here are some of my thoughts.


The participants in this conflict can be viewed in concentric circles radiating from the center of the conflict and the respective importance to them of its issues. The direct parties – Israel and Hezbollah – were on the front line of the conflict. Lebanon, Syria, Iran are closely identified with Hezbollah and the United States has many common interests with Israel. At the next layer of the concentric circle are Iraq and other Arab states – particularly, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and beyond them Great Britain and France with other nations of Europe. All of these parties have strategic interests impacted by the conflict and have experienced losses or gains from it.


In immediate world judgments, the conflict was a major gain for Hezbollah and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Although it was Hezbollah’s actions on July 12th of killing three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two of them, that triggered Israel’s devastating air attacks on Lebanon, they are heralded as champions in most of the Arab world. The simplistic view is that Hezbollah held off the vaunted Israeli military for weeks, more than the entire group of Arab nations were ever able to do in their three wars with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973. This is the way the conflict is seen by the Arab “street” which has bestowed on Hezbollah heroic status and empowered Nasrallah in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. In fact, this view ignores some very important elements that must be taken into account by any rational student of the events. Hezbollah did hold off Israel’s military much longer than anyone would have expected but, in truth, they were not a “Continental Army” rag tag brigade. They had the benefit of years of preparation, building heavily fortified deep underground missile and command centers. They had the benefit of a large scale weapons program with sophisticated weapons and training provided by Iran and logistical support from Syria. While they displayed a willingness to die for their cause, they also caused the destruction of a large part of Lebanon’s infrastructure and caused the death of many civilians by callously using that population to hide behind as they launched rockets at Israeli cities. In truth, were Israel not politically constrained in their air and sea attacks in order not to destroy all of Lebanon, the results would have been substantially different. Nevertheless, in the first blush of Hezbollah’s “victory” in the Arab “street” view, the consequences of their adventure in destroying large parts of Lebanon and causing much death and maiming are forgotten and in all probability, given the Arab “street” way of looking at the world, will not be remembered. Indeed, using Iranian funding, they are now providing services and funding to the damaged Lebanese population, building even greater political prestige and power for themselves and underscoring their claimed role as a social service organization both in Lebanon and other parts of the world.

But there are Christians, Druse and non-Hezbollah supporters who do know what Hezbollah wreaked by their military adventurism and that may offer some opportunities for future challenges to Hezbollah. Clearly, they miscalculated Israel’s reaction to their attack, expecting the usual low level retaliatory response and then negotiations in which they would trade two Israeli soldiers for thousands of their own held in Israeli prisons as well as for Palestinian prisoners which would win them great applause in Arab circles. That miscalculation has already cost them dearly and will result in greater costs in the future. As a result of their attack, they did lose hundreds of fighters, they did see large parts of their military infrastructure destroyed, they did lose a large percentage of their long range missile launchers and use up large numbers of smaller rockets. And, as discussed below, they did provide for Israel an early warning of what future warfare may require. In my view, far too much is made of the Arab “street’s” acclaim for Nasrallah. Yes, it will help him cement his influence in Lebanon and give him more influence with the Arab “street” but if it comes to another conflict with Israel it will make no difference. The Arab “street” loved Nasser, but in the 1967 war with Israel it did him no good. One thing we can probably expect is that Hezbollah’s military adventures will be curtailed for a number of years while Hezbollah helps rebuild Lebanon. Any new missile attack on Israel that requires Israel to respond and destroy more of Lebanon will not be so readily forgiven by the Lebanese population. In fact, despite Israel’s recent raid to disrupt new weapons supplies to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s defense minister Elias Murr has warned that anyone who fired rockets into Israel from Lebanon would be treated as a “traitor.” So, at least for the near future, Hezbollah may be careful not to overstep the bounds, even if, as it now appears, they are not disarmed and even if they gain more power in Lebanon. This will give Israel the opportunity to rethink its military and political strategies.


Syria gained from this conflict. The conflict provided a much desired digression from the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri. There are those who argue that the Hezbollah was encouraged by Syria to challenge Israel specifically in order to create that diversion and strengthen Syria’s negotiating posture. In addition, Lebanon which had just managed to force Syria out of the country and wrest away its control over Lebanon is now in the thralls of Syria’s proxy, Hezbollah. The conflict has also put back on the table the idea that in order to reduce Iran’s influence in the region, Washington should seek a way to open a serious dialogue with Syria and Israel should reopen negotiations with Syria on the Shebaa Farm area and the Golan Heights.


By every calculation, Iran has been the major beneficiary of the conflict. It has served Iran’s every purpose. At a time when the UN was focused on Iranian nuclear developments, it has moved that off center stage. It has strengthened Iran’s position in the Islamist world, as its proxy Hezbollah won acclaim for holding off Israel using Iranian weapons, Iranian training and Iranian strategists. There are two areas where Iran may pay a price. First, Israel has learned a lot from this engagement about Iranian weapons and how the Iranians have bunkered their own nuclear facilities. Israelis are quick studies and this information may be valuable in any future conflict with Iran. Second, Iran and Hezbollah’s apparent success has frightened Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and elsewhere. At the outset of the conflict, to the surprise of many, the leaders of these countries held off condemning Israel, They slowed the process of sending Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab league, to the UN to call for a halt, allowing Israel to continue to damage Hezbollah. Even now, while their own “street” celebrates Hezbollah’s success, they are reticent in their comments. But they fully comprehend the threat to them of aggressive Islamists led by Iran with ambitions for creating a Shiite caliphate which would include Iraqi Shiites and Shiites located in these Sunni led countries. This may represent an opportunity for the United States and Israel to make common cause with Sunni leaders against an ever bolder Iran.

The conflict has also brought even more attention to Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his open call for an end of the state of Israel and his obdurate position regarding Iran’s nuclear development. One of the frightening aspects of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies is his reported close relationship with a radical messianic group known as the Hojjatich. This group is said to seek to hasten the return of the twelfth iman – the Mahdi, who disappeared at the age of five, by creating chaos on earth. Ahmadinejad has said that his government’s main purpose is to prepare for the Mahdi. I wish that Mike Wallace would have spent more time probing this dangerous view in the “60 Minutes” interview with Ahmadiinejad so that we all can better understand what drives him. Certainly, the more one learns about him, the more seriously dangerous he appears. Because so much of the present Middle East is steeped in the past history, it behooves Western leaders to better understand the historic Shia – Sunni conflict in order tofigure out where the various interests lie and how to join the forces necessary to safeguard our futures.

Even before the apparent victory by Hezbollah and the increase in Iran’s reputation and obviously inflated view of itself, it was clear that Iran was going to turn down the UN demand that it stop its program to develop nuclear weapons. Now, Iran’s leadership may further draw the conclusion by the result of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict that the United States and other Western nations will be convinced that even overwhelming power cannot solve political issues. For the moment, Washington has decided to work within the UN and with the world powers to develop an appropriate sanctions response. The problem with a sanctions program is that the US with the rest of the world is dependant on Iranian oil which represents a significant portion of world supply, certainly limiting the available options.


For Israelis, the result of the conflict has been a major disappointment and a shock. Israel and its military have lost face in the eyes of the world, and its political leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have seen their public support drop precipitously in Israeli polls. The negative reaction by the Israeli public may well result in unseating the Kadima led government of Olmert and Labor Party’s Peretz, Hezbollah has ended up wreathed in glory in the Arab “street” and they have not yet returned the captured soldiers. Nevertheless, there were some important gains from the conflict. First is that by deciding to attack Hezbollah by reason of their attack on the Israeli soldiers, Israel was able to stop military preparation by Hezbollah that had been going on for six years, since the withdrawal from Lebanon. Unchallenged it would have only further entrenched Hezbollah, equipped it with even more powerful weapons and a larger number of rockets with greater capabilities. Second, Israel learned a number of tactical lessons ranging from improving its tanks’ armor plating to improving the use of drones and radar to attack missile launching sites. Commentators suggest that the results of the conflict will project an image of a weaker Israel, which could encourage further Arab attacks. Hopefully, a more realistic appraisal of the devastating air attacks on Lebanon’s infrastructure, even after Israeli efforts to limit civilian damage, as well as the true number of Hezbollah fighters killed in the conflict, will serve as a warning to any would be aggressor of the consequences of such an attack.

Far more important to Israel is the issue of Iran and the strategy to address that issue. I discussed that subject in my last Letter #67 (October 2005) , the bottom line of which is that taking out the Iranian nuclear capability is very difficult but increasingly the Israelis are becoming convinced that it represents an existential threat to their nation and their lives. If the world cannot stop it and the US cannot stop it, Israel may have to take drastic steps that could have terrible consequences for all.

That returns me to Mr. Rabin’s formulation so many years ago. How can Israel protect its borders so it can address the existential issue of Iran? In an on-the-record meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations with Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, I asked him how any future leader of Israel could withdraw from the West Bank in view of Hamas’ reaction to the withdrawal from Gaza by sending missiles into Israel and the reaction of Hezbollah after the withdrawal from Lebanon. His response was visionary but not responsive. But the real answer came this week, as Prime Minister Olmert announced that he was not proceeding with the planned disengagement from parts of the West Bank. It may be that, at least with respect to some of the West Bank settlements, Israel will still decide that it is advantageous to disengage, but this time leaving troops behind to stop attacks on Israel. There are those who believe that this is the time for Israel to probe the possibility of starting a negotiation with Hamas which might include economic support for the suffering Palestinian people. They argue that the fact that Hamas is Sunni may provide an opening to separate them from Shiite Iran’s sway. In the short term, at least, this approach seems too far ahead of the Israeli public’s psyche. 

Unfortunately, what may be more realistic, in the near term, is that the almost uniform world wide condemnation, other than by the U.S., of Israel’s response to the attack by Hezbollah may drive the Israeli public to replace the current centrist government with a more right wing aggressive political leadership. This leadership will be prepared to forego seeking world approval, which whatever the circumstances never seems forthcoming, and be ready and willing to use overwhelming force in any future engagement. Such a government would also be much less flexible in any dealings with the Palestinians.

The United States

The Bush Administration has been enormously supportive of Israel during this conflict. President Bush has made abundantly clear that he understands that Hezbollah initiated the conflict and that he views them as one more terrorist organization acting improperly outside the purview of the Lebanese government and forcing the Lebanese population to endure pain and suffering by reason of their illegal actions. While France and other nations were trying to create a quick cease fire, Washington slowed that process, both to give the Israelis time to destroy Hezbollah and to build a more lasting peace structure. Repeatedly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the US did not want to return to the status quo ante, but a cease fire only made sense if it actually changed the situation by eliminating Hezbollah’s weapons and returning full control to the Lebanese government. Yet, it must be recognized that this program was not carried out. The pressure to call a cease fire forced Washington’s hand and the Israelis did not accomplish their military aims. As I write this, Hezbollah has retained its arms; the composition of the UN forces, their mission and their potential to be effective are uncertain; and after all the talk, we could be facing, at least in theory, the status quo ante.

For the Bush Administration, the Israel-Hezbollah conflict only underscores the need for a viable strategy to address the events in the Middle East threatening US interests. The President has stated as his world view that the terrorists represent “an ideology” and that the only way to beat them is to offer a “competing ideology” which he believes is “democracy.”  As I have spelled out in Letter #67, in separate meetings with Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright I have disputed their view that democracy is the solution to the problems of the Middle East. After the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, I feel even more strongly what I said there that “America should not risk pressing friendly Arab leaders to put their governments up for a vote, knowing that extreme Islamists are plotting to take control, as the Iranian mullahs did. I fear the results of an Egyptian government in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood of a Saudi government run by Islamist extremists.” 

There are some who argue that the extremists develop out of poverty or unfair and discriminatory treatment and we need only to change their condition to satisfy them. I agree we should make every effort to eliminate poverty, discrimination and unfairness. But when I look at how many of the terrorists and suicide bombers come from well educated, middle class families, I find it hard to believe that these are the only root causes and that we can eliminate terrorism by addressing these issues. Rather, in many cases these extremists, jihadists and suicide bombers and those who lead them seem to have an agenda that we can’t comprehend and are not subject to our way of reasoning.

But if there is no competing ideology to change their minds and no hope of fixing their condition, what is the answer to stopping these extremists for whom life seems to have no value? Recently, I have been drawing on our corporate experience at Medis Technologies in the never ending war on cancer. We have to make every effort to identify and isolate those “stem” cells that create the disease. And we have to use our wealth and resources to develop ever more effective methods to stop them before they metastasize. But at the same time, we must make every effort to strengthen the body politics’ immune system – i.e. improve the lives and conditions of the citizens in the region so they are not attracted to these dangerous ideologies. In the end, we cannot totally eliminate the disease of terrorism but we should not give up our commitment to limit the pain and suffering it causes.  

Explore posts in the same categories: CALME Luminaries, Iran, Israel, Middle East, U.S. Role

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