Middle East Crisis: Backgrounder
July 14, 2006
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Israel lives with three realities: geographic, demographic and cultural.
Geographically, it is at a permanent disadvantage, lacking strategic depth.
It does enjoy the advantage of interior lines -- the ability to move forces
rapidly from one front to another. Demographically, it is on the whole
outnumbered, although it can achieve local superiority in numbers by
choosing the time and place of war. Its greatest advantage is cultural. It
has a far greater mastery of the technology and culture of war than its
Two of the realities cannot be changed. Nothing can be done about geography
or demography. Culture can be changed. It is not inherently the case that
Israel will have a technological or operational advantage over its
neighbors. The great inherent fear of Israel is that the Arabs will equal or
surpass Israeli prowess culturally and therefore militarily. If that were to
happen, then all three realities would turn against Israel and Israel might
well be at risk.
That is why the capture of Israeli troops, first one in the south, then two
in the north, has galvanized Israel. The kidnappings represent a level of
Arab tactical prowess that previously was the Israeli domain. They also
represent a level of tactical slackness on the Israeli side that was
previously the Arab domain. These events hardly represent a fundamental
shift in the balance of power. Nevertheless, for a country that depends on
its cultural superiority, any tremor in this variable reverberates
dramatically. Hamas and Hezbollah have struck the core Israeli nerve. Israel
cannot ignore it.
Embedded in Israel's demographic problem is this: Israel has national
security requirements that outstrip its manpower base. It can field a
sufficient army, but its industrial base cannot supply all of the weapons
needed to fight high-intensity conflicts. This means it is always dependent
on an outside source for its industrial base and must align its policies
with that source. At first this was the Soviets, then France and finally the
United States. Israel broke with the Soviets and France when their political
demands became too intense. It was after 1967 that it entered into a
patron-client relationship with the United States. This relationship is its
strength and its weakness. It gives the Israelis the systems they need for
national security, but since U.S. and Israeli interests diverge, the
relationship constrains Israel's range of action.
During the Cold War, the United States relied on Israel for a critical
geopolitical function. The fundamental U.S. interest was Turkey, which
controlled the Bosporus and kept the Soviet fleet under control in the
Mediterranean. The emergence of Soviet influence in Syria and Iraq -- which
was not driven by U.S. support for Israel since the United States did not
provide all that much support compared to France -- threatened Turkey with
attack from two directions, north and south. Turkey could not survive this.
Israel drew Syrian attention away from Turkey by threatening Damascus and
drawing forces and Soviet equipment away from the Turkish frontier. Israel
helped secure Turkey and turned a Soviet investment into a dry hole.
Once Egypt signed a treaty with Israel and Sinai became a buffer zone,
Israel became safe from a full peripheral war -- everyone attacking at the
same time. Jordan was not going to launch an attack and Syria by itself
could not strike. The danger to Israel became Palestinian operations inside
of Israel and the occupied territories and the threat posed from Lebanon by
the Syrian-sponsored group Hezbollah.
In 1982, Israel responded to this threat by invading Lebanon. It moved as
far north as Beirut and the mountains east and northeast of it. Israel did
not invade Beirut proper, since Israeli forces do not like urban warfare as
it imposes too high a rate of attrition. But what the Israelis found was
low-rate attrition. Throughout their occupation of Lebanon, they were
constantly experiencing guerrilla attacks, particularly from Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has two patrons: Syria and Iran. The Syrians have used Hezbollah
to pursue their political and business interests in Lebanon. Iran has used
Hezbollah for business and ideological reasons. Business interests were the
overlapping element. In the interest of business, it became important to
Hezbollah, Syria and Iran that an accommodation be reached with Israel.
Israel wanted to withdraw from Lebanon in order to end the constant
low-level combat and losses.
Israel withdrew in 1988, having reached quiet understandings with Syria that
Damascus would take responsibility for Hezbollah, in return for which Israel
would not object to Syrian domination of Lebanon. Iran, deep in its war with
Iraq, was not in a position to object if it had wanted to. Israel returned
to its borders in the north, maintaining a security presence in the south of
Lebanon that lasted for several years.
As Lebanon blossomed and Syria's hold on it loosened, Iran also began to
increase its regional influence. Its hold on some elements of Hezbollah
strengthened, and in recent months, Hezbollah -- aligning itself with
Iranian Shiite ideology -- has become more aggressive. Iranian weapons were
provided to Hezbollah, and tensions grew along the frontier. This culminated
in the capture of two soldiers in the north and the current crisis.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of the soldier kidnappings on the
Israeli psyche. First, while the Israeli military is extremely highly
trained, Israel is also a country with mass conscription. Having a soldier
kidnapped by Arabs hits every family in the country. The older generation is
shocked and outraged that members of the younger generation have been
captured and worried that they allowed themselves to be captured; therefore,
the younger generation needs to prove it too can defeat the Arabs. This is
not a primary driver, but it is a dimension.
The more fundamental issue is this: Israel withdrew from Lebanon in order to
escape low-intensity conflict. If Hezbollah is now going to impose
low-intensity conflict on Israel's border, the rationale for withdrawal
disappears. It is better for Israel to fight deep in Lebanon than inside
Israel. If the rockets are going to fall in Israel proper, then moving into
a forward posture has no cost to Israel.
From an international standpoint, the Israelis expect to be condemned. These
international condemnations, however, are now having the opposite effect of
what is intended. The Israeli view is that they will be condemned regardless
of what they do. The differential between the condemnation of reprisal
attacks and condemnation of a full invasion is not enough to deter more
extreme action. If Israel is going to be attacked anyway, it might as well
achieve its goals.
Moreover, an invasion of Hezbollah-held territory aligns Israel with the
United States. U.S. intelligence has been extremely concerned about the
growing activity of Hezbollah, and U.S. relations with Iran are not good.
Lebanon is the center of gravity of Hezbollah, and the destruction of
Hezbollah capabilities in Lebanon, particularly the command structure, would
cripple Hezbollah operations globally in the near future. The United States
would very much like to see that happen, but cannot do it itself. Moreover,
an Israeli action would enrage the Islamic world, but it would also drive
home the limits of Iranian power. Once again, Iran would have dropped
Lebanon in the grease, and not been hurt itself. The lesson of Hezbollah
would not be lost on the Iraqi Shia -- or so the Bush administration would
Therefore, this is one Israeli action that benefits the United States, and
thus helps the immediate situation as well as long-term geopolitical
alignments. It realigns the United States and Israel. This also argues that
any invasion must be devastating to Hezbollah. It must go deep. It must
occupy temporarily. It must shatter Hezbollah.
At this point, the Israelis appear to be unrolling a war plan in this
direction. They have blockaded the Lebanese coast. Israeli aircraft are
attacking what air power there is in Lebanon, and have attacked Hezbollah
and other key command-and-control infrastructure. It would follow that the
Israelis will now concentrate on destroying Hezbollah -- and Lebanese --
communications capabilities and attacking munitions dumps, vehicle sites,
rocket-storage areas and so forth.
Most important, Israel is calling up its reserves. This is never a symbolic
gesture in Israel. All Israelis below middle age are in the reserves and
mobilization is costly in every sense of the word. If the Israelis were
planning a routine reprisal, they would not be mobilizing. But they are,
which means they are planning to do substantially more than retributive
airstrikes. The question is what their plan is.
Given the blockade and what appears to be the shape of the airstrikes, it
seems to us at the moment the Israelis are planning to go fairly deep into
Lebanon. The logical first step is a move to the Litani River in southern
Lebanon. But given the missile attacks on Haifa, they will go farther, not
only to attack launcher sites, but to get rid of weapons caches. This means
a move deep into the Bekaa Valley, the seat of Hezbollah power and the
location of plants and facilities. Such a penetration would leave Israeli
forces' left flank open, so a move into Bekaa would likely be accompanied by
attacks to the west. It would bring the Israelis close to Beirut again.
This leaves Israel's right flank exposed, and that exposure is to Syria. The
Israeli doctrine is that leaving Syrian airpower intact while operating in
Lebanon is dangerous. Therefore, Israel must at least be considering using
its air force to attack Syrian facilities, unless it gets ironclad
assurances the Syrians will not intervene in any way. Conversations are
going on between Egypt and Syria, and we suspect this is the subject. But
Israel would not necessarily object to the opportunity of eliminating Syrian
air power as part of its operation, or if Syria chooses, going even further.
At the same time, Israel does not intend to get bogged down in Lebanon
again. It will want to go in, wreak havoc, withdraw. That means it will go
deeper and faster, and be more devastating, than if it were planning a
long-term occupation. It will go in to liquidate Hezbollah and then leave.
True, this is no final solution, but for the Israelis, there are no final
Israeli forces are already in Lebanon. Its special forces are inside
identifying targets for airstrikes. We expect numerous air attacks over the
next 48 hours, as well as reports of firefights in southern Lebanon. We also
expect more rocket attacks on Israel.
It will take several days to mount a full invasion of Lebanon. We would not
expect major operations before the weekend at the earliest. If the rocket
attacks are taking place, however, Israel might send several brigades to the
Litani River almost immediately in order to move the rockets out of range of
Haifa. Therefore, we would expect a rapid operation in the next 24-48 hours
followed by a larger force later.
At this point, the only thing that can prevent this would be a major
intervention by Syria with real guarantees that it would restrain Hezbollah
and indications such operations are under way. Syria is the key to a
peaceful resolution. Syria must calculate the relative risks, and we expect
them to be unwilling to act decisively.
1. Israel cannot tolerate an insurgency on its northern frontier; if there
is one, it wants it farther north.
2. It cannot tolerate attacks on Haifa.
3. It cannot endure a crisis of confidence in its military
4. Hezbollah cannot back off of its engagement with Israel.
5. Syria can stop this, but the cost to it stopping it is higher than the
cost of letting it go on.
It would appear Israel will invade Lebanon. The global response will be
noisy. There will be no substantial international action against Israel.
Beirut's tourism and transportation industry, as well as its financial
sectors, are very much at risk.
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