Israelis Still Divided on Lebanon Move

Five years after Israel completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, the jury is still out on whether then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the right strategic choice in pulling back troops without an agreement with Lebanon and Syria.

Despite the pullback, border tensions still flare up from time to time. On Monday, the day of the anniversary, Israeli troops were on red alert in anticipation of a dramatic cross-border attack by the terrorist group Hezbollah.

On the other hand, the Israel-Lebanon border has been largely quiet for most of the past five years, and pro-withdrawal analysts argue that a new strategic balance that serves Israel’s long-term interests has been created.

The impact of the withdrawal, however, goes well beyond the Lebanese arena, and its full historic significance probably will be gauged only in light of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Will Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas adopt Hezbollah’s tactics of cross-border shelling, or will the deterrent model created by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the north be applicable on other fronts, too?

Analysts who emphasize the positive side of the balance sheet argue that the pullback enabled Israel to create a new strategic balance based on deterrence rather than occupation. By withdrawing to the international border, they say, Israel regained the moral high ground and created a situation in which Hezbollah finds it difficult to justify further attacks.

Conversely, whenever such attacks occur, Israel can make a strong case for hitting back at targets in Lebanon and Syria, holding their governments responsible for not restraining the militiamen they control. This new strategic balance, they say, has ensured that the border has been mostly quiet since the withdrawal.

The pro-withdrawal analysts also argue that the Israeli precedent led to pressure on Syria to pull its forces out of Lebanon. Syria’s recent withdrawal has increased international pressure on Hezbollah to disarm and stop providing Damascus with a proxy military presence, they argue.

In sum, these analysts say, the withdrawal sparked a dynamic that has created more favorable conditions for eventual peacemaking with Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, the situation suggests that a security doctrine based on deterrence might be similarly applicable in Gaza and the West Bank, after Israel regains the moral high ground by withdrawing from those territories as well.

In a fifth-anniversary interview published in the Ma’ariv newspaper, Barak claimed vindication, arguing that the withdrawal had enabled the IDF to shorten its lines without having to make security sacrifices.

“I said at the height of the controversy that not only would our withdrawal create an invisible protective wall by delegitimizing shooting at us, it would also turn Hezbollah into a more political organization, and that over time the Syrians would have to give in and leave Lebanon,” Barak said. “All these things happened, beyond our most optimistic expectations.”

One of the strongest arguments pro-withdrawal analysts make is the dramatic reduction in the death toll along the northern border. In the five years since withdrawal, 20 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed in hostilities in the north; in the preceding 18 years, the IDF lost an average of 25 soldiers in Lebanon each year.

Most Israelis seem to accept the pro-withdrawal arguments. An opinion poll in Ma’ariv showed that 55 percent believe the withdrawal improved Israel’s situation, 12 percent thought it made things worse and 29 percent said it had made no difference.

But critics of the withdrawal have their points as well. Scenes of Israeli soldiers retreating from Lebanon in disarray were greeted as a major victory by the Arab world and may even have sparked the Palestinian intifada that erupted four months later.

Alex Fishman, military analyst for Yediot Achronot, argues that even if it didn’t cause the intifada, the Lebanon withdrawal certainly served as an inspiration for Palestinians and led them to believe that they, too, might be able to drive Israel out by force — an impression seemingly strengthened as the Palestinians conclude that violence is forcing Israel to flee the Gaza Strip as well.

The antiwithdrawal analysts turn the strategic-balance argument on its head. Fishman says it is Hezbollah that has been able to create a balance of fear. Having moved more than 1,000 rockets into southern Lebanon and trained them on Israeli targets, Hezbollah could threaten or bombard Israeli civilians whenever Israel makes a move of which it disapproves, or whenever it thinks an attack might be politically advantageous.

Recent border tensions offer a good example. Senior Israeli officers, including Northern Command Chief Maj.-Gen. Benny Ganz, are convinced that attacks in the past two weeks are related to upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, they say, hopes cross-border exchanges with Israel will win big points with the Lebanese electorate. Months of quiet were broken when Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars in a number of incidents just weeks before polling day.

By attacking Israel, the officers say, Hezbollah hopes to present itself as the only force in Lebanon capable of standing up to Israel and resisting supposed “Israeli aggression.”

The officers argue that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has not weakened Syria’s links to Hezbollah. On the contrary, the withdrawal has left the Syrians more dependent than ever on their proxy for a foothold in Lebanese affairs, and for a lever to keep Israel and the international community aware of Syria’s interests.

Therefore, the officers say, Syria is continuing to arm Hezbollah, and supports its candidates in the parliamentary elections.

Fishman argues that one of the worst developments for Israel would be if Hezbollah both retains its militia and becomes an even stronger political force after these elections. That could serve as a model for Hamas, which has struck a balance of fear by firing rockets or mortars at Israeli communities in or near the Gaza Strip whenever Israel does something of which Hamas disapproves – or even, as lately, to score points in internal rivalries with the Palestinians’ dominant Fatah movement.

“We must not allow Hamas to create a similar balance of fear on the Gaza border and in the West Bank,” Fishman writes. “They are already trying to dictate this formula, and we, foolishly, are allowing it, as if there were no lesson from Lebanon.”

The next few months could help decide the Lebanon argument. What happens with Hamas in the wake of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer almost certainly will influence the way Israelis understand the withdrawal from Lebanon in retrospect.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.