Who Really Won the War?

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Israeli soldiers depart Lebanon, 13 August 2006.

When wars end inconclusively, victory is always in the eye of the beholder. So it should come as no surprise that since the Lebanon cease-fire went into effect Monday morning, everyone from Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and President Bush to Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the leaders of Syria and Iran have been broadcasting competing claims of victory. Weighing those claims, however, requires measuring the war's outcome against the initial objectives defined by the different sides, and comparing their positions after a month of fighting to what they were before Hizballah seized two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

Scoring the Truce

The fighting ostensibly triggered by the soldiers' capture has left hundreds of Lebanese killed — mostly civilians, although Hizballah and Israel dispute the number of fighters slain — almost 1 million displaced and Lebanon's economy shattered; it has left 118 Israeli soldiers dead in combat and 39 civilians killed by Hizballah rocket barrages that fell in Israeli cities until the last hours of the month-long war, and forced as many as 1 million Israelis to spend much of that month living in bomb shelters. And yet, as the guns go silent, those two Israeli soldiers remain captives of Hizballah.

Their fate will be settled later, probably in negotiations between Israel and the Lebanese government on behalf of Hizballah, and the resultant deal will inevitably involve some kind of prisoner exchange. The soldiers' fate appears unlikely, however, to hold up the cease-fire. Within days, Lebanese Army troops (eventually numbering 15,000) will begin moving into southern Lebanon, later supported by a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force (which will also number 15,000), as Israel vacates the area. Hizballah has agreed to the truce in which it ends attacks on Israel and refrains from bearing arms south of the Litani River. Issues ranging from the fate of the prisoners to the disputed Sheba Farms area and the question of disarming Hizballah in line with previous U.N. resolutions are left to future discussions.

What Israel Wanted; What Israel Got

While the truce certainly restricts Hizballah's military activities in southern Lebanon, it falls substantially short of the initial Israeli goal of crushing Hizballah as a military entity and prompting the rest of Lebanese society to turn against the organization because of the destruction by Israel that its actions provoked. Hizballah defined success as its forces simply surviving the Israeli onslaught intact, and exacting a substantial price from the Israelis for their offensive. The U.S. endorsed Israel's objectives — viewing Hizballah as nothing more than a proxy for Iran and Syria — and sought diplomatic cover for Israel by rallying Arab support against Hizballah and initially delaying calls for a cease-fire to give Israel more time to finish off Hizballah militarily. A genuine cease-fire would have to address the root cause of the conflict, said President Bush, by which he meant disarming Hizballah. And, he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out, such a cease-fire could not be allowed to create a "vacuum" in southern Lebanon into which Hizballah could simply return.

But not only has Hizballah survived very much intact as a military force; it was able to inflict substantial military and civilian casualties on Israel right until the truce came into effect. Most important, talk of preventing Hizballah's "return" is moot, because it was never actually driven from southern Lebanon, where many of its fighters remain active despite the presence of some 20,000 Israeli troops in their midst. Israel's more realistic goal, of course, was to eliminate the rocket threat on its northern border. The extent to which that has been achieved remains to be seen: Hizballah was firing rockets until the last day of fighting, but whether it will lose that ability, or simply keep it hidden until a later date, is an open question.

Who Will Disarm Hizballah?

Certainly Hizballah is voluntarily abiding by the cease-fire, but it is doing so very much on its own terms. Not only is it refusing to even discuss disarming right now, it appears to be reaching an agreement with the Lebanese government under which it would refrain from displaying its weapons in southern Lebanon and effectively keep them hidden. And right now, neither the Israelis nor the Lebanese Army nor the mooted U.N. force appears to have any intention of forcibly disarming the movement.

Israel has little appetite for keeping its forces in southern Lebanon, where they will become increasingly vulnerable to guerrilla attack. Rather than going after the Hizballah arms caches, rocket arsenals and bunkers in the areas they control, Israel has ordered its troops simply to defend themselves from direct attack. To systematically pursue Hizballah fighters south of the Litani would effectively restart the war, and add to the Israeli casualty toll in pursuit of limited gains.

Instead, Israel is looking to a speedy deployment of Lebanese and international forces. The Lebanese Army will likely be there first — it could take weeks or even months for an international force to be deployed in anything more than symbolic numbers — and it will formally take possession of the areas vacated by withdrawing Israeli forces. But the Lebanese Army, whose forces in the south have traditionally been on good terms with Hizballah, and whose fighting forces are almost half Shi'ite, is unlikely to try and forcibly disarm Hizballah. France — which is slated to lead the U.N. force and be its major troop-contributor with some 5,000 men — has said the same thing.

To Fight Another Day?

Although Hizballah will now have to cede control of the border area, and has suffered the loss of an indeterminate number of fighters and missiles, it nonetheless lives (potentially) to fight another day, and to dictate the terms on which it will observe the truce. The Lebanese government doesn't appear to have much enthusiasm for confronting Hizballah on the disarmament issue, mindful of the fact that the group has emerged politically stronger than ever, particularly among its Shi'ite base, and seeking a showdown over disarmament could provoke another ruinous civil war.

Hizballah, moreover, appears concerned about avoiding civil strife and the collapse of a government in which it retains substantial influence. It may actually welcome a respite from war to cement its relationship with its battered base by focusing on welfare and reconstruction work — and, of course, to prepare its forces for the next battle.

Far from the desired backlash hoped for by the Israelis, the bombing instead generated intractable hostility from within traditionally anti-Hizballah sectors of the Lebanese population. What's more, that sentiment is not only directed toward Israel, but also toward the United States, whose opposition to a cease-fire was taken as enabling the destruction of all of Lebanon. The Lebanese government, in which the U.S. had pinned so much hope, will likely emerge from the war considerably cooler toward Washington and its vision of a "New Middle East."

Troubles for Olmert - and the U.S.

It would be an understatement to say that Olmert's claims of victory have not exactly resonated with Israelis. His poll numbers are low, and a cloud hangs over his government's long-term prospects. It's abundantly clear to Israelis that an exercise designed to demonstrate the brutal efficiency of Israel's military deterrent against violent challenges has accomplished much the opposite, with Hizballah's performance emboldening Israel's enemies — from Gaza to Tehran.

That's bad news also for the Bush Administration, whose fantasies of leading an Arab front against Hizballah and Iran collapsed under pressure from Arab allies — Lebanon foremost among them — for an immediate cease-fire. The U.S. suffered diplomatically for its support of Israel's campaign — and may have made its work in Iraq that much more difficult — and was forced to settle for something less than the emphatic victory over Hizballah it had expected.

Indeed, the outcome has done so little to alter the basic strategic geography of Lebanon and the wider region that it's hard to envisage this truce as the first step towards a comprehensive regional peace. Right now, it looks more like a time-out.