Israel’s summer wars

“The Israelis tend to launch their wars of choice in the summer, in part because they know that European and American universities will be the primary nodes of popular opposition, and the universities are out in the summer. This war has nothing to do with captured Israeli soldiers. 

—Juan Cole at his blog, Informed Comment, July 23, 2006.

The Winograd Commission, the Israeli body established to investigate the political and military management of the war in Lebanon, released its interim report today. The material includes the minutes of a crucial Israeli General Staff meeting in the lead-up to the war. They shed new and damaging light on its conduct, and they confirm the obvious: Professor Cole is supremely well-informed about Israel’s inner workings. It’s uncanny.

Chief of Staff: Good morning. At the top of the agenda, I want us to take up a crucial issue, related to the timing of our planned operation in Lebanon. We’ve already considered several key factors: the preparedness of our troops, the situation on the ground in Lebanon, coordination with the Americans. But there’s a paramount matter that I want to revisit before we present the plan to the Cabinet. It’s the academic calendar in foreign universities.

Neutralizing anti-Israel professors has always been a key ingredient of our strategy. We all know how vastly influential they are: just think of Juan Cole, Rashid Khalidi, Norman Finkelstein. So part of our strategic doctrine in past years has been to launch operations in summer, when academics are non-operational. Even the French work harder in summer. That’s partly why two of my predecessors chose June to launch the Six-Day War and the 1982 Lebanon war.

But it’s an issue I feel we should revisit. We take a slice of our strategic doctrine from the Americans. Our own intelligence was surprised three years ago, when the Pentagon informed us that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be launched in March, smack in the middle of the academic year. All our early estimates assumed that the Americans would hold off until after the last graduation ceremonies in June.

For our discussion today, I’ve invited Gentleman C, head of Middle East 101, the Mossad unit that tracks American and European academics. I think we’d all benefit greatly from his insights in planning the timing of our operation.

Gentleman C, why don’t you give us a quick summation of your analysis?

Gentleman C: On the table before each of you, you’ll find a comprehensive study compiled by Middle East 101, looking at the academic year factor in Israel’s wars since 1948. What we’ve done is a statistical comparison of the amount of anti-Israel verbiage expended by American and European professors in all of Israel’s wars. I draw your attention to Table 8. You’ll see that in every war, our military operations have taken less incoming criticism during summer months. We call this the “Away From My Desk” effect. Professors on summer break are less likely to write op-eds and show up in the media. There aren’t any students to attend their campus teach-ins, and there’s no student press to cover them.

Bottom line is that summer remains an ideal time to launch a war. The operational readiness of academe is at its lowest.

Director of Military Intelligence: May I? I have a lot of respect for my opposites in the Mossad, and especially Middle East 101. They do fine work. And I take my beret off to their targeted character assassination of Juan Cole. If it weren’t for the Mossad’s clandestine efforts, Cole would be at Yale. As you know, it’s vitally important to keep people like Cole outside the 200-kilometer-radius security zone we try to maintain around New York City.

Chief of Staff: Here, here.

Director of Military Intelligence: That said, we in Military Intelligence don’t share the Mossad’s assessment of the “Away From My Desk” effect. It may be true that the professors manage to fire off more rounds of criticism during the academic year. But these are mostly short-range projectiles—teach-ins and classroom agitprop that don’t have a range beyond the campus. Most academics are too preoccupied during the school year to get off medium- to long-range op-eds in the New York Times or The Nation. They’re too busy preparing lectures, fixing syllabi, keeping office hours, or quashing rivals in faculty committees.

We think that during the summer, the quality and range of attacks against us actually increase. You’ve got professors with lots of time on their hands, and the more senior, tenured ones are looking for distractions from their bigger projects. In particular, we think a summer war could expose us to sustained assault by academic bloggers.

GOC Southern Command: I thought sustained blogging by a professor was pretty much tantamount to a suicide bombing.

Director of Military Intelligence: There’s ample evidence for that. But we’re talking about a group of highly ideological and thoroughly indoctrinated fanatics. They’re quite willing to sacrifice career prospects in order to advance the cause. The tenured ones, of course, think they’ve already died and gone to heaven. They spend most of the year in classrooms full of near-virgins. It’s almost impossible to deter a tenured professor.

We think the ideal time for an operation is the very first month of the fall semester, in September. This is crunch-time for professors, who’ve got to get all their courses up and running, make sure textbooks are in the stores, solve scheduling conflicts, and suck up to new deans and chairpersons. About the only thing professors manage to put on paper in September is their signatures on drop/add forms, and maybe the occasional petition.

GOC Home Front Command (with alarm): September? We’re not going to launch a war of choice right in the middle of the Jewish holidays, are we?

Gentleman C: With all due respect, I think my friend from Military Intelligence underestimates the travel factor in summer. Middle East 101 tracks the movements of professors throughout the world. The highest-caliber ones are the most likely to disappear in summer for weeks on end, on “research” trips to London or Provence. We know from intercepts, and satellite surveillance shared with us by the Americans, that a lot of them aren’t even near a library or archive. Their spouses have real jobs and need real vacations. We’ve seen major blogs shut down entirely for the better part of the summer.

Director of Military Intelligence: Maybe, but a lot of these professors travel in summer to the Middle East—Beirut, Damascus, Amman. If we launch a summer operation, they’ll suddenly become on-site resources for the media. If they have to evacuate Lebanon, that becomes a story in itself. Let’s not forget how Rashid Khalidi got started: Beirut, summer of 1982.

Gentleman C (with irritation): Well, who was it who let Khalidi escape from Beirut?

Director of Military Intelligence (raising voice): Oh? Who authorized Edward Said to make a visit to Israel? You didn’t have to be a prophet to predict the outcome of that.

Chief of Staff: Gentlemen, please, let’s not get sidetracked by past mistakes. Lord knows we’ve made plenty of them—bungling the recruitment of Joel Beinin, letting Ilan Pappe do cushy reserve duty, and the list goes on. Look, I’d like to continue this discussion all morning, but we do have other issues on the agenda, like the extent of air power we’ll need to dislodge Hezbollah. I see the Commander of the Air Force is looking at his watch. Too bad we can’t solve the campus problem with air power.

Commander of the Air Force (dryly): Don’t say can’t. We haven’t tried.

Chief of Staff: Well, I’m going to conclude this discussion. My view is that we should stick with what’s worked for us in the past. We’ll propose to go in summer. If we ever do a complete overhaul of doctrine, we can reconsider. But I think Gentleman C has made a compelling case, and the empirical data speak for themselves. Agreed?

Director of Military Intelligence: Let the minutes show that I think otherwise.

Chief of Staff: Duly noted. Oh, and by the way, Gentleman C, what’s your assessment of what Juan Cole might do when we move?

Gentleman C: There’s some debate in our shop as to whether he’ll stick to Iraq, or blog furiously about Lebanon. If he Lebanonizes his blog, it’ll be a problem for us, but it’ll take some heat off the Americans. They’ll be grateful, and we can trade on that for things we need. Like bunker-busters.

Chief of Staff: Splendid. Juan Cole might turn out to be one of our biggest assets. “The work of the righteous is done by others.” (Laughter around the table.)

The Israeli-Islamist War

The following essay by Martin Kramer appears in the Occasional Paper Series of the Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Fall 2006.

Who won the summer war between Israel and Hizbullah?

Right after the ceasefire, Hizbullah and its Iranian patrons declared the war a “divine victory,” and the Economist concurred, running this headline across its cover: “Nasrallah Wins the War.” Israel sank into a funk of self-recrimination.

But a few weeks later, Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah admitted that if he had it to do again, he would have avoided provoking Israel in the first place. Now it was the turn of Israel’s government to claim victory. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer chimed in, claiming that Hizbullah “was seriously set back by the war,” and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it a “devastating defeat”—for Hizbullah.

The question of who got the upper hand will remain contested. But the debate over who won and who lost obscures the deeper significance of the summer war. It marks the beginning of the third stage in the conflict over Israel.

An evolving conflict
In the first stage, from Israel’s creation in 1948 through 1973, rejection of Israel dressed itself as pan-Arab nationalism. In the classic Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab states formed alliances in the name of Arab unity, with the aim of isolating Israel and building an Arab coalition that could wage war on two or more fronts.

The fatal flaw of this strategy lay in the weakness of pan-Arabism itself. The failure to coordinate led Arab states to humiliating defeats in the multi-front Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated Arab assault on Israel, with partial success. But Egypt then opted out of the Arab collective by reaching a separate peace with Israel in 1979, and the Arab-Israeli conflict came to an end.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict took its place. In this second stage, the Palestine Liberation Organization used a mix of politics and “armed struggle” to open up new fronts against Israel—in Jordan and Lebanon in the heyday of the fedayeen, in the West Bank and Gaza in the first intifada, and in Israel proper in the second.

But the Palestinian struggle also stalled as the PLO grew sclerotic, inefficient, and corrupt. Its transformation into the ramshackle Palestinian Authority only amplified its weaknesses. The death of its leader Yasir Arafat in 2004 effectively marked the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the third and present stage, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been superseded by the Israeli-Islamist conflict.

There had always been an Islamist component to the “resistance” against Israel, but it had traditionally played a supporting role, first to the Arab states, and then to the PLO. It was Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamist revolution in Iran, who pioneered an entirely different vision of the role Islamism should play opposite Israel.

Khomeini rejected the view that Israel had become a fait accompli and thereby entitled a place in the region. He believed that Islam had the power to call forth the sacrifice and discipline needed to deny legitimacy to Israel and ultimately defeat it.

To achieve that goal, Islamists could not rest content with a supporting role; they had to push their way to the front. By establishing Hizbullah as an armed vanguard in Lebanon, Khomeini sought to open a new Islamist front against Israel, independent of weak Arab states and the ineffective PLO.

In the 1990s, Islamist movements gained ground across the Middle East. A Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, filled the vacuum left by the PLO’s incompetence. Hizbullah waged a successful campaign to end the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. But while Islamists rejected peace with Israel and called for “resistance,” they could not challenge the prerogative of the Arab states and the PLO to make grand strategy toward Israel.

That is, until this past year.

The Islamist moment
Two developments have put the Islamists in the driver’s seat. First, Palestinian elections last winter carried Hamas to power in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas has regarded the elections as a mandate not merely to substitute good government for PLO corruption, but to bend Palestinian strategy to the Islamist vision of gradual attrition of Israel.

Second, Iran’s nuclear drive under President Ahmadinejad has revitalized the idea that Israel can be confronted on the external front.

The possible combination of Iranian nukes, Hizbullah rockets, and Hamas “resistance” has electrified the Arab-Muslim world. Might the forces of Islamism, acting in concert, achieve the victory that eluded Arab states and the PLO? Might they make it possible, once more, to wage a multi-front offensive against Israel? Might an Islamist coalition achieve greater success, by tapping the self-sacrificial spirit of Islam?

This summer brought the Islamist coalition into play against Israel in a multi-front war for the first time. It was not the war Iran would have chosen: Iranian strategy would have deployed the coalition at a moment of Iran’s own choosing, perhaps closer to the make-or-break point in Tehran’s nuclear plans. But Israel preferred to meet the challenge early, launching a preemptive war against Hizbullah’s missiles, rockets, and infrastructure.

Paradoxically, Israel was not fully prepared for the war it launched; Hizbullah, surprised by the outbreak of war, was nevertheless ready for it. The media then hyped those analysts who drew extravagant conclusions from Israel’s hesitant performance. Viewers of one American network could hear a gushing consultant declare: “Hizbullah is a powerhouse…. Hizbullah delivers the goods…. Hizbullah has proven its muscles…. Israel is a paper tiger after all…. The rules of the Arab-Israeli conflict will have changed for good.” Of course, it would be easy to make the opposite case, beginning with the new rules in Lebanon that constrain Hizbullah.

Strengths and weaknesses
The verdict is still out—this has been the cautious refrain of the most serious analysts. But the war does offer some glimpse into the possible character of the Israeli-Islamist conflict, by showing the intrinsic strength and weaknesses of the Islamist coalition.

The Islamist coalition is strong in areas of ideological discipline and leadership authority. The ideology purports to be “authentic,” and efficiently mobilizes pent-up resentments against Israel and the West. The leaders personify a spirit of defiance that is overvalued in their societies, and they command nearly total obedience. Training is exacting; everyone follows orders; no one surrenders.

The Islamist coalition also brings together a flexible mix of assets, comprised as it is of a state actor (Iran), a quasi-state actor (Hamas), and a sub-state actor (Hizbullah). They have developed innovative weapons systems, from suicide bombings to rockets, which go around and under Israel’s conventional military strengths.

And if Iran were to acquire missile-launched nuclear weapons, they would transform Israel’s small size from an advantage (short lines of defense and supply) into a liability (total vulnerability to one strike). An Iranian nuclear weapon could transform the Israeli-Islamist conflict into a much more dangerous game, in which periodic nuclear-alert crises could bring about the economic, political, and demographic attrition of Israel.

But the Islamist coalition also has weaknesses. First, its backbone is Shiite. Some Sunnis, including Islamists, see the coalition as a threat to traditional Sunni primacy, as much as it is a threat to Israel. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has mobilized against the Iranian-led coalition, which makes it more difficult for the coalition to keep Sunni Islamists in its orbit. And while the coordination between Iran and Hizbullah is total, Hamas has its own strategy, which reflects its own predicament and the constraints imposed by its Arab patrons.

The other major weakness of the Islamist coalition is its lack of direct access to Israel’s borders. The unmarked turf between Israel and the West Bank has been closed off by Israel’s separation barrier to the detriment of Hamas. In the summer war, Hizbullah lost its exclusive control of Lebanon’s border with Israel, arguably the most significant strategic outcome of the war. Without access to Israel’s borders, the Islamist coalition cannot conduct a sustained war of attrition against Israel. Moreover, if the coalition uses its rocket arsenal (its remaining offensive capability), it effectively licenses Israel to retaliate with devastating force.

Absent nuclear weapons, the Islamist coalition is thus likely to remain blocked, unless and until it includes an Arab state that neighbors Israel. Syria is an obvious candidate for that role, but its present leadership acts as an ally of the coalition, and not a full-fledged member in it. There are Islamist political movements in Egypt and Jordan that would eagerly join the coalition, but they are presently kept at bay by moderate regimes.

Given these limitations, the Israeli-Islamist conflict is still far from defining the “new Middle East.” But it could come to define it, if the United States allows the Islamist coalition to gain more military and political power. If the United States stops Iran’s nuclear drive, and bolsters moderate Arab rulers against their Islamist opponents, the summer of 2006 may be remembered as the first Israeli-Islamist war—and the last. If not, more wars will almost certainly follow.

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.