Who Is Winning the Peace in Lebanon?

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Israeli infantry troops ride in an armored personnel carrier, part of an operation against Hezbollah fighters, Aug. 3, in southern Lebanon.

Even as Israel extends its military's reach deeper into Lebanon, the war there may now increasingly be more about perception than position. After three weeks of fighting, the tenacity of Hizballah's fighters in the face of fierce Israeli air and ground assaults, and their continued ability to lob rockets into Israel, has created a problem of perception for both Israel's leaders and the Bush Administration. The Israeli public has been questioning whether the war is actually being won, while Hizballah's survival as a fighting force and its ability to exact a price from Israel has boosted its standing not only in Lebanon, but throughout the Arab world. Indeed, if international demands for a truce are heeded on the basis of the present battlefield reality, the outcome would look more like a hard-fought tie than a decisive victory for Israel. And that would be bad news both for the domestic political prospects of the current Israeli government and for the Bush administration's "new Middle East" agenda.

For that reason, the U.S. and Israel need to transform both the reality on the battlefield and the view of the outcome before any kind of truce takes effect. Israeli commando forces staged a raid in Baalbek, deep inside Hizballah's heartland, overnight Wednesday, capturing five of the organization's fighters in an operation that may have been designed to boost Israel's morale by recalling the bold audacity of raids deep inside enemy territory on which Israelis' confidence in their military is founded — from the lightning preemptive air strikes of June 1967, to the 1976 commando raid that rescued more than 100 hostages from a hijacked airliner at Uganda's Entebbe airport. More importantly, though, Israel has now sent thousands of troops across the border to attack Hizballah strongholds throughout southern Lebanon and clear a "security zone" that may eventually stretch to around three miles inside Lebanese territory. With diplomatic pressure mounting for an end to the fighting, the Israeli military seems to be bringing its campaign to a crescendo aimed at inflicting maximum damage on Hizballah in the campaign's remaining days or weeks.

Israeli officers themselves have been impressed by the tenacity of Hizballah's fighters: They have not flinched from engaging despite the Israelis' overwhelming advantages of airpower, armor and artillery. Instead, they're putting up strong resistance throughout the south, operating with a high degree of guerrilla professionalism in small, autonomous units that have prepared for six years to fight the Israelis on home turf. They have laid in supplies of food and ammunition, negating the requirement for short-term resupply. And rather than melting away before the advancing Israeli columns, Hizballah fighters are actually seeking out concentrations of Israeli forces in order to confront them. At the same time, as if to remind the Israeli public of their survival, Hizballah continues to rain down rockets on Israeli cities — Wednesday saw the heaviest fusillade yet — and the movement's Al-Manar television station continues to broadcast its version of events to an Arab audience eager to see the Israelis punished.

Israel's strategy is now premised on the arrival in the not-too-distant future of an international security force in south Lebanon. Until then, Israel is attacking Hizballah strongholds to degrade its military capability, while notably keeping its own forces mobile, rather than trying to hold the towns they have attacked. Digging in would require the establishment of supply lines and logistical support, and offer Hizballah just the sort of sitting-duck Israeli targets on which it thrived during Israel's two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon. Israel lost around 2,000 men in Lebanon over that period — a trauma that can only be understood in proportion to the total population size, i.e., as the equivalent of the U.S. losing 100,000 of its own troops. It has no intention of returning to that particular status quo ante.

But the terms on which an international force will be deployed is now the focus of an intensifying diplomatic fight. While most of the international community is likely to back the French demand for an immediate end to the fighting, followed by a cease-fire agreement to allow for the deployment of an international force to police such a truce, the U.S. is insisting that there be no demand for a halt to Israel's offensive until a mechanism is in place to disarm Hizballah. These differences are not diplomatic hair-splitting — they reflect profound differences over the fate of Hizballah. The only acceptable outcome for the U.S. is a defeat for Hizballah, because if the movement survives the onslaught with its independent military capability intact, it will be seen throughout the Arab world as the victors.

But the French, who are currently the prime candidates to lead an international force, are making clear that the international community is not going to finish the job for Israel, and will only police a cease-fire when one has been agreed to by the Lebanese government, which includes Hizballah. In other words, it won't try to disarm Hizballah unless Hizballah has agreed to be disarmed. And the only formula likely to achieve that objective on the basis of the current battlefield situation would be an agreement among Lebanese parties to somehow incorporate Hizballah's fighting forces into the Lebanese Army — which may not be quite what the U.S., and certainly not Israel, had in mind.

So as long as the diplomatic process remains at an impasse over whether Hizballah emerges intact to sign on to a peace deal, the terms of the peace will continued to be shaped not by the negotiations at the U.N., but by the bloodletting in south Lebanon.