Kramer on Israel vs. Hezbollah

I am still far from my desk, but I gave an interview on the Israel-Hezbollah war to Haaretz intelligence affairs correspondent Yossi Melman. Here it is:

Why do you think this crisis is happening?

Hezbollah’s hubris has created an opportunity for Israel.

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah has basked in the illusion that it defeated Israel—that it somehow discovered a path to victory that had eluded Arab governments and the Palestinian movement. It began to puff itself up, as the only force willing and able to stand up to Israel. Hezbollah lost its respect for Israeli power, and began to portray Israel as unable to sustain a protracted conflict.

Nasrallah allowed a personality cult to develop around himself, and Hezbollah marketed him as the only strategic genius in the Arab world. Increasingly, it would seem that the higher echelons in Hezbollah began to believe their own propaganda.

I doubt Hezbollah expected the Israeli reaction to be as swift, extensive and destructive as it has been. Hezbollah probably believed it would score a few points in Arab public opinion by a cross-border operation, and that it would make one more incremental change in the rules of the game.

It was a strategic miscalculation. Hezbollah didn’t internalize changes in the broader strategic climate. The top regional issue today is Iran’s nuclear drive, not the fate of Hamas or the Palestinian issue. If Hezbollah had understood this fully, it would have laid very low until needed by Iran in a mega-crisis with the United States. At that point, its threats against Israel would have been added to the overall deterrent capabilities of Iran, and might have caused the United States to think twice.

Hezbollah apparently didn’t understand this. If Iran was directly involved in the decision, it also shows an erosion of discipline in Iran’s own decision-making process. Iran had nothing to gain from this little adventure, and a lot to lose. It may well be that President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is beginning to cloud judgment in Tehran.

In any case, it is in the interests of Israel and the United States to deal with the Hezbollah threat now, and not later in the midst of a far more dangerous crisis over Iran’s nuclear plans. So a war now to degrade Hezbollah is a shared Israel-U.S. interest, which means that Israel can wage it without many constraints.

Hezbollah now finds itself spending all sorts of military assets that were supposed to serve a much more important purpose than freeing a few Lebanese prisoners or winning a few propaganda points. These are assets it probably won’t be able to replenish, and their very use exposes them and makes them vulnerable.

In sum, Hezbollah overplayed its hand, and Israel is taking full advantage of its mistake.

What is the way to end the crisis? And can Israel defeat Hezbollah?

Ending the crisis is obviously not an end in itself. The objective has to be to reduce Hezbollah to a negligible factor in larger calculations, to degrade and deplete its capabilities, to the point where it’s about as significant a constraint as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Jordan. It will take some time to reverse the years of neglect, and Hezbollah will not allow the halo around it to be smashed without fighting back. But Israel has a U.S. license to take its time now and get it right, and it would be foolish not to use it.

In any event, Israel has no choice. Islamism has come to fill the space that used to be occupied by Arab nationalism in Nasser’s time: an ideology of rejection, resistance and false promise of a Middle East without Israel. Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, whatever their merits, have only fed this Islamism with lore of sacrifice and victory. The Islamists have a narrative, and they think the world conforms to it. The narrative is based on a very partial reading of reality. It has to be defeated, just as Nasser’s narrative had to be defeated. It took the 1967 war to demolish the Arab nationalist/Nasserist narrative. Israel has no choice but to deliver a blow sufficient to destroy the Islamist narrative, in which Hezbollah looms large.

Incredibly, Nasrallah is making the same mistakes as Nasser. By puffing himself up, he isn’t deterring Israel; at this point, he’s only making himself and his movement a bigger and more legitimate target. Hezbollah has become a prisoner of its own myth, which is that at any moment it can go one-on-one against Israel—and win. It can’t, and now is the best opportunity to prove it—to Lebanese Shiites, to all Lebanese and to the rest of the Arab-Muslim world.

At any moment in time, it is Israel that can turn Nasrallah either into a cinder or a shadow figure like Osama bin Laden, reduced to sending defiant missives from some basement or cave. And Israel can scatter the big chiefs of Hezbollah like the United States scattered the Taliban. This has to be the objective—bin Ladenization of Nasrallah, Talibanization of Hezbollah—and it is not beyond reach. Of course, bin Laden and the Taliban still exist, but they aren’t a regional or global factor. That is the objective here as well.

Any number of developments could threaten this scenario. It’s not so much what Hezbollah might do, as what mistakes Israel might make. The most obvious pitfalls are too much ‘collateral damage’ or a reoccupation of part of Lebanon. Either could drain Israeli legitimacy, sap American support and leave Israel isolated. Since this is a new government headed by a new prime minister, it’s impossible to predict whether they will know how to handle the unexpected twists that are inevitable in war.

How popular, influential and strong is Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Lebanon is a divided society. Hezbollah’s power base is limited to the Shiite community, and even there, allegiance is not total.

Hezbollah basked in the admiration of many Lebanese after Israel’s withdrawal, but that aura has been eroded steadily over the past few years. This is because, following Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah’s continued ‘resistance’ along the border fell outside the national consensus.

As a result, we have seen more and more political figures in Lebanon criticize Hezbollah. The Nasrallah personality cult has been a way to keep the faithful in line. Not so long ago, Hezbollah thugs took to the streets after a Lebanese television station broadcast a satire of Nasrallah. The mob burned tires and cars. The episode showed that Nasrallah’s moral standing had slipped, and that the movement had been reduced to intimidation to keep up the facade.

The point here is that Hezbollah is no longer the darling of Lebanese nationalism, and its recent conduct has made it increasingly look like something foreign. This is certainly the message that is being sent by leaders of most other factions in the country: that Hezbollah has usurped the power of decision-making on war and peace from the legitimately constituted government, and that it is acting outside the Lebanese national interest. The more Israel intensifies its attacks, the more that criticism is likely to spread—even among Shiites. I do not see the country rallying around Hezbollah.

Do you expect this crisis will tear apart the fragile fabric of Lebanese society?

I don’t know about the society, but I do expect it to tear apart the fragile fiction of Lebanese politics. An independent Lebanon is incompatible with an extra-legal, extra-territorial status for any militia. This fact could be papered over before; now it is exposed for all to see.

Of course, no one faction in Lebanon is in a position to disarm Hezbollah, and neither is the government. Only Shiite opinion can achieve this. So it is up to Israel to demolish Hezbollah’s argument that its arms deter Israel. Israel must demonstrate the opposite: that Hezbollah’s arms invite Israeli attack, especially against Shiites. Only if the Shiites themselves realize this, and only if they become the main source of criticism of Hezbollah’s strategy, will Hezbollah feel compelled to modify it. This will not happen overnight; it could take months or years.

What is certain is that Lebanon is better prepared to confront its devils now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. There is a new generation that does not want to go back to the old days. It is they who will have to come out in the streets to make yet another Cedar Revolution—this time, one in which the Shiites have a predominant role.

In addition to interviewing me, Melman also interviewed a number of other authorities on the military-intelligence side. They include Eliezer (Motti) Tzafrir, Reuven Erlich (who prepared his doctoral dissertation under my guidance), and an unnamed Mossad retiree. The piece is worth reading in its entirety.