As a Cease-Fire Draws Near, Israel Seeks an Edge

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Israeli troops cross into southern Lebanon Saturday

In boxing terms, Israel's war with Hizballah is heading for a draw. The U.N. Security Council cease-fire proposal has sounded the bell for the last round, with the combatants having hurt each other, but never landing a decisive blow — or appearing likely to. The remainder of the bout will see a flurry of punches thrown by both fighters in the hope of persuading the judges to award a victory on points.

The U.N. truce would force both sides to accept an outcome far short of what they had sought going into the clash. It envisages an immediate cessation of hostilities, followed by a phased Israeli withdrawal with Lebanese Army troops, backed by a dramatically upgraded U.N. force, taking control of areas vacated by the Israelis. Southern Lebanon below the Litani River would become demilitarized, although the resolution does not specifically stipulate Hizballah disarmament, it does call for an arms embargo that would help facilitate that long-standing U.N. demand. Hizballah loses control of southern Lebanon and, eventually, its profile as a resistance army. But Hizballah's military arm remains alive and kicking after an onslaught aimed at reaffirming Israel's deterrent power by eliminating the Shi'ite militia.

So, each side now faces the challenge of painting the truce as a victory.

Claiming victory may be harder for the Israeli leadership, which initially defined success by the image of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah either dead or crying for mercy, his army and its rockets scattered to the four winds. Instead, Israeli leaders now have to convince their increasingly skeptical citizens that the war has been won. It's hardly surprising, then, that Israel is using the interlude before the truce takes effect — Israeli officials are reported as saying that moment will come at 7am on Monday — to drive deep into Lebanon to draw whatever blood and teeth as they can from Hizballah. Even that may not be enough to sway an Israeli public openly doubtful that the war has been won. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has seen his poll numbers take a dive similar to those of President Bush, from upward of 70 percent approval to figures in the low 40s — except that while Bush's slide occurred over the four years that followed 9/11, Olmert's came in just four weeks of war. The Prime Minister has looked skittish and indecisive, caught between the impulses of escalation and restraint, and apparently more reliant on signals from Washington than Israeli leaders prefer to show themselves to be.

Ari Shavit, writing in the left-of-center daily Haaretz on Friday, offered a savage critique of Olmert accepting a truce while failing to finish off Hizballah: "If Olmert runs away now from the war he initiated, he will not be able to remain prime minister for even one more day," wrote Shavit. "You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power. You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month, wear down deterrent power, bring the next war very close, and then say — oops, I made a mistake. That was not the intention."

Even if it's not as brutal as Shavit's, the judgment of Olmert's leadership by Israelis across the political spectrum may not be much more forgiving. A prime minister dependent on a diverse coalition to keep him in power may have been turned into a lame duck by the indecisive outcome of the clash with Hizballah.

Hizballah, for its part, has achieved the "victory" of surviving the Israeli onslaught, and has burnished its standing in the Arab world by its ability to land painful blows on Israel. That will spur it to seek the last word and deny Israel's efforts to shape perceptions of the outcome. Nasrallah on Saturday accepted the cease-fire plan despite reservations, but made clear that his men will keep fighting Israeli forces that remain on Lebanese soil even if they ceases rocket fire into Israel. The Israelis want the closing image of the war to show their forces taking control of Hizballah-land in southern Lebanon; Hizballah wants the final frame to be the Israelis retreating under fire.

Still, whatever the final image, Hizballah will have lost substantial ground militarily. It will be forced to cede control of southern Lebanon to the Lebanese Army, which it had previously resisted, and will have seen much of its capability to strike Israel with missiles neutered. The political path ahead remains perilous for a movement now forced to choose between its identity as an anti-Israel resistance and as a Lebanese political party and social movement. Although Hizballah won't put down its weapons immediately, the pressure to do so — or, at least, to put them under the control of the Lebanese Army — will soon be overwhelming. And to the extent that Iran had relied on Hizballah's rocket capability in southern Lebanon to help deter U.S. or Israeli attacks against its nuclear facilities, full implementation of the cease-fire will have weakened Tehran's deterrent.

But with the fight raging on for a final round despite the fighters having touched gloves under the referee's supervision in anticipation of the final bell, a final verdict may be premature. Both sides will want to inflict maximum pain in the coming hours, and fighting on the ground will escalate — Israel lost a further seven soldiers Saturday, and fierce fighting in the coming hours portends more casualties on both sides. Come Monday morning, the situation on the ground will find the fighters in a clinch, and very likely trading punches even after the bell — punches whose consequences are always unpredictable.

—With reporting by Aaron Klein/Jerusalem