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Onward

By David Warren

Traditionally, at this point in her response to terror attacks, the world diplomatic community persuades Israel to agree a ceasefire, and the terrorists are saved to fight another day. This is what happened in 1982. The Israelis were in a position to annihilate Yasser Arafat's PLO, whom they had surrounded in Beirut. Instead, they agreed to let them escape to Tunisia. The rest is history: recurring again and again.

Kofi Annan is trying to do the same thing over: to save Hezbollah (this time) with a ceasefire, by promising Israel that a large force of international "peacekeepers" will take their place. But a U.N. force is no likelier to disarm Hezbollah than the Lebanese army was (when Lebanon agreed to disarm Hezbollah, most recently in 2004). After a brief lull in the shooting, and a chance to regroup and rebuild, Hezbollah would be back at Israel's throat.

The Israelis know this, now, from hard experience. There is overwhelming popular support for the course Prime Minister Olmert has set out. The Israelis will not be taking advice, from such as Russia and France. The Americans, even the State Department under Condoleezza Rice, show signs of having seriously absorbed their own lessons from recent history. John Bolton is sitting squarely in the Security Council, prepared to veto every effort to force the Israelis to desist. This time -- with or without the world's permission -- the Israelis are going to finish the job.

This is evident from events in Lebanon, through the last week. The Israeli air force has been doing classic battlefield prep, along the lines of the allied Operation Hail Mary against the Iraqis occupying Kuwait in 1991. You will recall Gen. Colin Powell's memorable phrase: "First we're going to cut them off, then we're going to kill them." The Israeli air strikes on Lebanese airports, harbours, roads and bridges is the "cut them off" part. The "kill them" part is coming.

There have been four call-ups of Israeli reserves. This is never done for show in Israel. Reserves are systematically replacing regulars in West Bank positions; regulars from there and elsewhere are assembling for the trudge north.

It will not be a walkover, as the Israelis know. They will take plenty of casualties. Hezbollah have had years to dig in deep, and the Iranians and Syrians have been very generous in arming and training them. The Israeli command is aware of at least 600 underground missile caches, each one of which will be well-defended. Nearly 200 of those contain missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

The air strikes have only been able to hit launching pads at surface level. The array of Hezbollah anti-tank defences just inside Lebanon's southern border is formidable. The Israelis won't be crossing it for small stakes. Some time in the next few days, the serious fighting will begin.

That none of Hezbollah's longest-range missiles have been used yet (despite Hezbollah boasts and threats), is an indication that Iranian permission is not forthcoming. For the use of such powerful Iranian ordnance against Israeli population centres, even if shot from Lebanese territory, would bring Israeli retaliation against Iran itself. And it is fairly clear from the diplomatic gestures they have been making, and the purely defensive postures the Syrian military has been assuming, that both countries want out of the line of fire.

My sense is that the ayatollahs are already resigning themselves to the loss of Hezbollah, and don't wish to lose Syria, too. The Israeli air force alone is capable of triggering a regime change in Damascus, by decapitating Syria's Alawite leadership. Moreover, an Iran that itself attacks Israel is -- I should think in the certain knowledge of its leaders -- an Iran that will be attacked by the United States.

And so, to the long-term (though obviously not the short-term) benefit of Lebanon, the war will be confined to Lebanon (and Gaza). The long-term benefit is that Hezbollah prevents the emergence of a Lebanon free of Syrian interference, and therefore of Israeli threats. Even some of the Shia realize that Lebanon would be better off, without a private militia much larger than the country's armed forces. Lebanon has a prosperous future in alliance with Israel and the United States. It has no other prosperous future. The idea appears to be seeping into the Lebanese ruling classes. Even the once radical Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, seems to get this.

For Israel, there is no turning back. It is a categorical imperative: for if the Israeli military isn't facing Hezbollah and Hamas, then Israel's civilians have to face them.

In a strange way, perhaps a way he anticipated, Ariel Sharon's bold decision to remove the Jewish settlements from Gaza, and turn the territory over to Palestinian self-government, clinched the issue. If the subsequent rocket attacks from Gaza, then Lebanon, could be predicted by me, they would have been predicted by him.

otiosus@sympatico.ca

© Ottawa Citizen


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