Richard Melson

July 2006

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Middle East Crisis: Backgrounder

Israel lives with three realities: geographic, demographic and cultural. Geographically, it is at a permanent disadvantage, lacking strategic depth. It does enjoy the advantage of interior lines -- the ability to move forces rapidly from one front to another. Demographically, it is on the whole outnumbered, although it can achieve local superiority in numbers by choosing the time and place of war. Its greatest advantage is cultural. It has a far greater mastery of the technology and culture of war than its neighbors.

Two of the realities cannot be changed. Nothing can be done about geography or demography. Culture can be changed. It is not inherently the case that Israel will have a technological or operational advantage over its neighbors. The great inherent fear of Israel is that the Arabs will equal or surpass Israeli prowess culturally and therefore militarily. If that were to happen, then all three realities would turn against Israel and Israel might well be at risk.

That is why the capture of Israeli troops, first one in the south, then two in the north, has galvanized Israel. The kidnappings represent a level of Arab tactical prowess that previously was the Israeli domain. They also represent a level of tactical slackness on the Israeli side that was previously the Arab domain. These events hardly represent a fundamental shift in the balance of power. Nevertheless, for a country that depends on its cultural superiority, any tremor in this variable reverberates dramatically. Hamas and Hezbollah have struck the core Israeli nerve. Israel cannot ignore it.

Embedded in Israel's demographic problem is this: Israel has national security requirements that outstrip its manpower base. It can field a sufficient army, but its industrial base cannot supply all of the weapons needed to fight high-intensity conflicts. This means it is always dependent on an outside source for its industrial base and must align its policies with that source. At first this was the Soviets, then France and finally the United States. Israel broke with the Soviets and France when their political demands became too intense. It was after 1967 that it entered into a patron-client relationship with the United States. This relationship is its strength and its weakness. It gives the Israelis the systems they need for national security, but since U.S. and Israeli interests diverge, the relationship constrains Israel's range of action.

During the Cold War, the United States relied on Israel for a critical geopolitical function. The fundamental U.S. interest was Turkey, which controlled the Bosporus and kept the Soviet fleet under control in the Mediterranean. The emergence of Soviet influence in Syria and Iraq -- which was not driven by U.S. support for Israel since the United States did not provide all that much support compared to France -- threatened Turkey with attack from two directions, north and south. Turkey could not survive this. Israel drew Syrian attention away from Turkey by threatening Damascus and drawing forces and Soviet equipment away from the Turkish frontier. Israel helped secure Turkey and turned a Soviet investment into a dry hole.

Once Egypt signed a treaty with Israel and Sinai became a buffer zone, Israel became safe from a full peripheral war -- everyone attacking at the same time. Jordan was not going to launch an attack and Syria by itself could not strike. The danger to Israel became Palestinian operations inside of Israel and the occupied territories and the threat posed from Lebanon by the Syrian-sponsored group Hezbollah.

In 1982, Israel responded to this threat by invading Lebanon. It moved as far north as Beirut and the mountains east and northeast of it. Israel did not invade Beirut proper, since Israeli forces do not like urban warfare as it imposes too high a rate of attrition. But what the Israelis found was low-rate attrition. Throughout their occupation of Lebanon, they were constantly experiencing guerrilla attacks, particularly from Hezbollah.

Hezbollah has two patrons: Syria and Iran. The Syrians have used Hezbollah to pursue their political and business interests in Lebanon. Iran has used Hezbollah for business and ideological reasons. Business interests were the overlapping element. In the interest of business, it became important to Hezbollah, Syria and Iran that an accommodation be reached with Israel. Israel wanted to withdraw from Lebanon in order to end the constant low-level combat and losses.

Israel withdrew in 1988, having reached quiet understandings with Syria that Damascus would take responsibility for Hezbollah, in return for which Israel would not object to Syrian domination of Lebanon. Iran, deep in its war with Iraq, was not in a position to object if it had wanted to. Israel returned to its borders in the north, maintaining a security presence in the south of Lebanon that lasted for several years.

As Lebanon blossomed and Syria's hold on it loosened, Iran also began to increase its regional influence. Its hold on some elements of Hezbollah strengthened, and in recent months, Hezbollah -- aligning itself with Iranian Shiite ideology -- has become more aggressive. Iranian weapons were provided to Hezbollah, and tensions grew along the frontier. This culminated in the capture of two soldiers in the north and the current crisis.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the soldier kidnappings on the Israeli psyche. First, while the Israeli military is extremely highly trained, Israel is also a country with mass conscription. Having a soldier kidnapped by Arabs hits every family in the country. The older generation is shocked and outraged that members of the younger generation have been captured and worried that they allowed themselves to be captured;
therefore, the younger generation needs to prove it too can defeat the Arabs. This is not a primary driver, but it is a dimension.

The more fundamental issue is this: Israel withdrew from Lebanon in order to escape low-intensity conflict. If Hezbollah is now going to impose low-intensity conflict on Israel's border, the rationale for withdrawal disappears. It is better for Israel to fight deep in Lebanon than inside Israel. If the rockets are going to fall in Israel proper, then moving into a forward posture has no cost to Israel.

From an international standpoint, the Israelis expect to be condemned. These international condemnations, however, are now having the opposite effect of what is intended. The Israeli view is that they will be condemned regardless of what they do. The differential between the condemnation of reprisal attacks and condemnation of a full invasion is not enough to deter more extreme action. If Israel is going to be attacked anyway, it might as well achieve its goals.

Moreover, an invasion of Hezbollah-held territory aligns Israel with the United States. U.S. intelligence has been extremely concerned about the growing activity of Hezbollah, and U.S. relations with Iran are not good. Lebanon is the center of gravity of Hezbollah, and the destruction of Hezbollah capabilities in Lebanon, particularly the command structure, would cripple Hezbollah operations globally in the near future. The United States would very much like to see that happen, but cannot do it itself. Moreover, an Israeli action would enrage the Islamic world, but it would also drive home the limits of Iranian power. Once again, Iran would have dropped Lebanon in the grease, and not been hurt itself. The lesson of Hezbollah would not be lost on the Iraqi Shia -- or so the Bush administration would hope.

Therefore, this is one Israeli action that benefits the United States, and thus helps the immediate situation as well as long-term geopolitical alignments. It realigns the United States and Israel. This also argues that any invasion must be devastating to Hezbollah. It must go deep. It must occupy temporarily. It must shatter Hezbollah.

At this point, the Israelis appear to be unrolling a war plan in this direction. They have blockaded the Lebanese coast. Israeli aircraft are attacking what air power there is in Lebanon, and have attacked Hezbollah and other key command-and-control infrastructure. It would follow that the Israelis will now concentrate on destroying Hezbollah -- and Lebanese -- communications capabilities and attacking munitions dumps, vehicle sites, rocket-storage areas and so forth.

Most important, Israel is calling up its reserves. This is never a symbolic gesture in Israel. All Israelis below middle age are in the reserves and mobilization is costly in every sense of the word. If the Israelis were planning a routine reprisal, they would not be mobilizing. But they are, which means they are planning to do substantially more than retributive airstrikes. The question is what their plan is.

Given the blockade and what appears to be the shape of the airstrikes, it seems to us at the moment the Israelis are planning to go fairly deep into Lebanon. The logical first step is a move to the Litani River in southern Lebanon. But given the missile attacks on Haifa, they will go farther, not only to attack launcher sites, but to get rid of weapons caches. This means a move deep into the Bekaa Valley, the seat of Hezbollah power and the location of plants and facilities. Such a penetration would leave Israeli forces' left flank open, so a move into Bekaa would likely be accompanied by attacks to the west. It would bring the Israelis close to Beirut again.

This leaves Israel's right flank exposed, and that exposure is to Syria. The Israeli doctrine is that leaving Syrian airpower intact while operating in Lebanon is dangerous. Therefore, Israel must at least be considering using its air force to attack Syrian facilities, unless it gets ironclad assurances the Syrians will not intervene in any way. Conversations are going on between Egypt and Syria, and we suspect this is the subject. But Israel would not necessarily object to the opportunity of eliminating Syrian air power as part of its operation, or if Syria chooses, going even further.

At the same time, Israel does not intend to get bogged down in Lebanon again. It will want to go in, wreak havoc, withdraw. That means it will go deeper and faster, and be more devastating, than if it were planning a long-term occupation. It will go in to liquidate Hezbollah and then leave. True, this is no final solution, but for the Israelis, there are no final solutions.

Israeli forces are already in Lebanon. Its special forces are inside identifying targets for airstrikes. We expect numerous air attacks over the next 48 hours, as well as reports of firefights in southern Lebanon. We also expect more rocket attacks on Israel.

It will take several days to mount a full invasion of Lebanon. We would not expect major operations before the weekend at the earliest. If the rocket attacks are taking place, however, Israel might send several brigades to the Litani River almost immediately in order to move the rockets out of range of Haifa. Therefore, we would expect a rapid operation in the next 24-48 hours followed by a larger force later.

At this point, the only thing that can prevent this would be a major intervention by Syria with real guarantees that it would restrain Hezbollah and indications such operations are under way. Syria is the key to a peaceful resolution. Syria must calculate the relative risks, and we expect them to be unwilling to act decisively.

Therefore:

1. Israel cannot tolerate an insurgency on its northern frontier; if there is one, it wants it farther north.

2. It cannot tolerate attacks on Haifa.

3. It cannot endure a crisis of confidence in its military

4. Hezbollah cannot back off of its engagement with Israel.

5. Syria can stop this, but the cost to it stopping it is higher than the cost of letting it go on.

It would appear Israel will invade Lebanon. The global response will be noisy. There will be no substantial international action against Israel. Beirut's tourism and transportation industry, as well as its financial sectors, are very much at risk.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006