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Both Sides Claiming Victory, but Real Outcome May Not Yet Be Clear

August 16, 2006
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The aftermath of Israel’s war with Hezbollah is looking a lot like Oscar night without the envelope: No one knows anything yet, so everyone claims victory. In the scramble to Monday-morning quarterback the war, the claims were predictable: Israel and the United States said Hezbollah lost the war it launched July 12; Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran, said it had won a historic victory and dealt a deathblow to perceptions of Israeli invincibility.

“Both sides are trying to convince their own public the leadership has not made a big mistake,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum. “And it’s true that on both sides there’s good reason to criticize the leadership, not taking into account how many civilian casualties there would be.”

Lebanon lost more than 700 civilians in the conflict, according to its counts, and Israel lost more than 30.

President Bush ridiculed Hezbollah’s victory claims.

“Hezbollah, of course, has got a fantastic propaganda machine and they’re claiming victories,” Bush said after a meeting with top staff to assess the war’s outcome Monday, just hours after the guns fell silent. “But how can you claim victory when at one time you were a state within a state, safe within southern Lebanon, and now you’re going to be replaced by a Lebanese army and an international force?”

The answer came Tuesday from Syria: Hezbollah, simply by resisting Israel’s war machine, had won the war of perceptions, Syrian President Bashar Assad said.

“In this current crisis, Israeli aggression toward Lebanon resulted in more failures for Israel and has allowed the national resistance of Lebanon to capture the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs and Muslims,” he said.

Bush’s version seemed validated by the facts on the ground. Israel controls a chunk of Lebanon stretching 15 miles north of its border, to the Litani River. If Israeli estimates that Hezbollah lost up to 500 fighters are correct, it’s a body blow to an organization with a standing force of less than 10,000, and by some accounts as few as 2,000. Hezbollah acknowledges less than 100 combatants dead.

More substantially, Hezbollah’s yellow flags no longer flutter triumphantly from villages bordering Israel, as they have since 2000, when Israel withdrew unilaterally after 18 years of occupation, a pullout that Hezbollah also claimed as a victory

If war is assessed according to territory — the fundamental measure of traditional war-making — then Hezbollah clearly did not win, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset.

“There is no longer a state within a state,” he said. “There is no longer sponsorship for a terror organization by a state. And no longer is a terror organization allowed to operate within Lebanon, as the long arm of the axis of evil which reaches out from Tehran to Damascus, uses Lebanon’s weakness and transforms it, its citizens and its infrastructure into a tool for its war.”

In addition, though Hezbollah is buoyed by Arab support right now, many observers believe its standing in Lebanon will take a blow as anger at Israel recedes and Lebanese begin asking the Shi’ite militia why it brought such destruction upon their country, which was just rebuilding after a devastating 15-year civil war.

On the other hand, perception is key to assessing 21st-century wars saturated by media coverage, and the perception of Israel’s deterrence has taken a battering.

Israel lost 116 soldiers, the biggest blow in a short-term campaign since the Lebanon War in 1982. Its vaunted intelligence failed to assess the degree to which Hezbollah and its weapons were ensconced in southern Lebanon. Israel’s North emptied out, creating an internal refugee crisis unknown since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Most significantly, Israel stopped firing before achieving the ambitious goals Olmert set out at the war’s launch: routing Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and securing the unconditional return of two soldiers captured by Hezbollah on July 12, the attack that precipitated the conflict.

Olmert acknowledged those failures.

“I see and hear those voices which express discontent, even disappointment, as if their expectations have yet to be realized,” he said. “And I say to them and to all of us: Friends, patience. Patience.”

Assessments of failure may be premature, and Israel’s actions in the coming weeks could determine whether it won or not, said Shlomo Aronson, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“What you need is to get ready for the next round,” he said.

That meant studying Hezbollah’s military strengths in case the sides return to war, especially the Russian-made anti-tank missiles that wreaked devastation on the Israeli ground forces, as well as the short-range missiles that terrorized civilians in the North.

“Hezbollah’s heavier missiles proved to be a failure. They promised to bombard Tel Aviv; nothing like that happened,” Aronson said.

More significantly, Israel needs to seize the diplomatic upper hand it derived from a U.N. Security Council resolution that emphatically blamed Hezbollah for the war, Aronson said.

“The main thing is to get into negotiations with Syria to drive a wedge between Syria and Tehran,” Aronson said, arguing that cutting off Hezbollah from its main supplier in Iran could starve the terrorist group.

Israeli leaders were already seizing that opportunity.

“Every war creates opportunities for an extensive diplomatic process,” Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Tuesday in a Tel Aviv speech. “I’m certain that our enemies understand they cannot prevail over us. I plan to do whatever I can to restore diplomatic support for Israel. We need to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. We need to hold negotiations with Lebanon and lay the groundwork for negotiations with Syria.”

Across the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory Israel captured in the 1967 war, Assad echoed the sentiment, suggesting that the appearance of a victory by Hezbollah could lay the ground for peacemaking.

Israel’s failure “has given rise to a Middle East brimming with Arabism and Arab dignity. Through these changes, Syrian aspirations for peace continue,” he said in translated excerpts of his speech that the Syrian Embassy in Washington e-mailed to Jewish media. “Syria has chosen the strategic option for peace and will work toward a just and comprehensive solution to the Middle East conflict.”

At the same time, Assad hinted darkly that Syria still had other possible options than peace.

Still, it was a deliberate intimation of the “victory to peace” formula Egyptian President Anwar Sadat followed, from the 1973 Yom Kippur War — which he touted as an Arab triumph despite the outcome of fighting on the ground — to peace with Israel in 1978.

The problem with that formula is that, as much as Israel might favor it, Washington’s distaste for Assad’s corrupt dictatorship could still thwart it. Israeli officials have complained for months that the Bush administration, frustrated with Syria for its failure to control insurgents infiltrating Iraq, has inhibited outreach to the Assad regime.

And Israel does not take bold steps without holding Washington’s hand, according to Tzali Reshef, a founder of Peace Now.

“The green light from the United States is considered a prerequisite,” he said — a green light that hasn’t been forthcoming.

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