Exclusive: For decades, Israel and its Arab neighbors fought wars rather than make the difficult compromises that peace would require. However, over the past decade, Israel’s security perimeter has expanded, now reaching nearly 1,000 miles to Iran and entangling the United States in widening conflicts, warns Morgan Strong.
By Morgan Strong
Israel has been winning “victories” over its Arab neighbors for decades, but this military approach to its security dilemma now has left the country facing even more dangerous threats on its borders and contemplating a new war nearly 1,000 miles away – against Iran.
Israel’s predicament can be traced back to the earliest years of the Jewish state after World War II when violence – and even acts of terrorism – were considered necessary to wrest independence from British authorities and to drive an estimated three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their ancestral homeland to make room for Jewish settlers.
Israeli officials justified these attacks as needed to build a state to protect the world’s Jews following the Nazi Holocaust – and then to defend Israel’s borders from hostile Arab states, which considered the new country another Western intrusion into the Middle East.
However, over the past several decades, Israel’s military operations have shown a declining success rate, with short-term “victories” often generating only more hostility and creating ever more dangerous adversaries. That has now led Israel to view its “existential” defense perimeter as extending so far that the U.S. military is increasingly needed to help take out Israel’s enemies and protect its security.
Israel’s current problem of diminishing returns on its investments in war began to take shape when Israeli invaded Lebanon in March 1978 to push the Palestinian Liberation Organization farther from Israel’s northern border. The invasion, called “Operation Litani,” followed an attack by Palestinian guerrillas who landed in a rubber boat in broad daylight on the beach at Tel Aviv. After coming ashore, they hijacked a bus and began shooting civilians, killing 37 Israelis and wounding 76, nearly all civilians.
The resulting Israeli invasion of Lebanon was regarded as a stunning military success, accomplished with speed and minimal Israeli causalities. Twenty Israeli soldiers died, while Israeli forces killed more than 1,200 Lebanese soldiers, P.L.O. fighters and civilians.
But Israel’s new “buffer zone” in southern Lebanon didn’t stop Palestinian attacks against Israeli targets, including an attempted assassination of Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain. So, on June 6, 1982, Israel drove farther north into Lebanon in an operation called “Peace for Galilee.”
Again, the invasion was extraordinarily successful from a military perspective. Israeli forces reached the Lebanese capital of Beirut in a matter of days. Then, after heavy fighting and protracted negotiations, Israel forced the P.L.O. to leave Lebanon. The P.L.O. decamped for Tunisia, though it would continue to launch attacks against Israel.
The 1982 invasion and siege of Beirut also damaged Israel’s image in the world. Israel had bombarded the city relentlessly for nearly four months. The war’s human cost was high. The approximate totals were 18,000 Lebanese and 9,000 Palestinian and Syrian troops killed. Israel lost fewer than 600 soldiers.
Israel also was widely censured for its tactics, in particular the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps where Israeli-supported Christian militia forces slaughtered some 500 Palestinian civilians.
Rise of Hezbollah
Another unwelcome by-product of the invasion was the creation of a new militant group in Lebanon opposed to Israel. The group, drawn from Lebanon’s large Shiite population, was at first called “the Islamic Resistance” though it is now known as “Hezbollah.”
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had promised Israelis that the invasion and conquest of Lebanon would bring Israel 40 years of peace. But in 1985, Israel withdrew to a “security zone” in southern Lebanon, while Syrian influence over Lebanese affairs grew and Hezbollah emerged as a potent liberation army.
Israel found it necessary to invade Lebanon again in 1993 following Hezbollah’s cross-border raids into northern Israel. That week-long invasion was dubbed “Operation Accountability” and Israel declared it another success.
However, Hezbollah was not deterred. Determined to drive Israel completely from Lebanese territory, Hezbollah ambushed Israeli troops and began firing rockets into northern Israel. So, in 1996, Israel invaded Lebanon again, in an operation called “Grapes of Wrath,” which again was declared a success.
Nevertheless, in 2000, confronted by Hezbollah’s continued guerrilla attacks, Israel finally withdrew all its forces from southern Lebanon. Its occupation of Lebanese territory was over, but Israel had a potent new enemy, Hezbollah, which was popular with many Lebanese and controlled southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah also gained the support of Iran and Syria, which provided the hardened guerrilla fighters with modern weaponry to continue their struggle against Israel. Bolstered by Iranian and Syrian aid, Hezbollah made the prospect of Israel winning another ground war in Lebanon less likely.
Hezbollah was equally implacable and intransigent as the P.L.O., but significantly better equipped. Hezbollah forces also were deeply entrenched throughout the hills of southern Lebanon with a series of interlocking modern fortifications.
In 2006, after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others, Israel launched another invasion of Lebanon, which became known as the “Israel-Hezbollah war.” Determined to punish Hezbollah and its civilian supporters – while sparing Israeli troops – Israel relied on sorties by its advanced U.S.-supplied aircraft to devastate Hezbollah strongholds across the country.
However, Hezbollah – armed with rockets from Iran – fired hundreds into northern Israel, 144 a day on average. The rocket attacks forced many Israelis to flee to safer locations in the south. Nearly a quarter of Israel’s population became internal refugees.
Another Lebanon War
Israel finally countered by sending in ground forces, but they met strong resistance and suffered unexpectedly high casualties. The Israeli tank divisions were decimated by Hezbollah using Iranian-supplied anti-tank weapons.
As one Israeli armored commander said: “Iran supplied the missiles, we supplied the targets.” Israeli forces became bogged down trying to wrest control of south Lebanon from the dug-in Hezbollah forces.
Israeli suffered a humiliating military defeat, the first clear loss in the vaunted history of the Israeli Defense Forces. The Israelis reported 121 troops killed along with 44 Israeli civilians, but some estimates of Israeli military deaths were much higher. On the Lebanese side, about 1,200 deaths were reported, the vast majority civilians killed in Israel’s aerial bombardments.
After 34 days, the invasion ended with a United Nations-brokered ceasefire. A part of the peace deal called for Hezbollah being disarmed. However, neither the Lebanese government nor U.N. peacekeepers moved against Hezbollah. The group remains heavily armed with sophisticated weaponry and is firmly in control of south Lebanon.
Israel’s Prime Minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, had promised that the war against Hezbollah would change the face of the Middle East forever. Instead, the war exposed Israel’s increasing vulnerability to rocket attacks and revealed surprising weaknesses in its vaunted military. Israel had shown confusion and incompetence within the military high command.
Israel also has occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, in whole or in part, since the 1967 war. Israel invaded Gaza in force in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010 to eliminate the military threat of Hamas, but Hamas remains a powerful resistance force, now in a coalition with the political arm of the more moderate P.L.O.
The sum of Israel’s invasions of Gaza in the final calculation is the same as the invasions of Lebanon. Following the military “success” and a period of occupation, Hezbollah and Hamas have emerged strengthened. Israel has not stopped Hamas’s ability to launch rocket attacks into southern Israel, nor has it prevented Hezbollah from attacking northern Israel.
Yet, instead of changing its strategic direction – and revitalizing peace talks with its neighbors – Israel has redoubled its efforts to strike at enemies even farther away, particularly Iran, which Israeli leaders condemn as an “existential” threat because of its nuclear program and its close ties to Hezbollah.
Though Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes – and U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in 2007 that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons project in 2003 – Israeli officials still insist that a potential Iranian bomb and Hezbollah missiles could endanger Israel’s existence, despite its own large and undeclared nuclear arsenal.
So, Israel has threatened to launch a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, with the expectation among many American neoconservatives and other Israeli backers that the United States would have little choice but to join in, especially if Republicans win back the White House in 2012. In other words, the Israeli goal is to expand its security umbrella with U.S. help.
Not that U.S. military involvement in protecting Israeli security is new. Over the past three decades, the United States has been repeatedly drawn into conflicts against Israel’s enemies.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan dispatched U.S. military peacekeepers to Beirut, Lebanon. They soon became involved in the complicated Lebanese war – seen as taking sides against some Muslim militias – and 241 Americans were killed when a suicide bomber destroyed their barracks near the Beirut airport.
Taking Out Saddam
In 1991, the U.S. military battled another Israeli nemesis, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after his troops invaded Kuwait. The reason given for the U.S. intervention was that the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was a threat to the safety and stability of the entire region, including Israel, which was about 500 miles away.
Though driven from Kuwait by America’s “Operation Desert Storm,” Hussein remained in power and was viewed by Israel as a continuing enemy who provided financial support to Palestinian militants.
In 2003, Hussein remained high on Israel’s enemies list when American neoconservatives persuaded President George W. Bush that the time had come to remove Hussein from power and use Iraq as a base for pressuring Syria and Iran. The neocons hoped a new Iraqi government would sign a peace treaty with Israel and help undermine regional support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
The U.S. invasion, titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” did oust Hussein from power (and ultimately led to his execution) – but the war proved costly to the United States both in dollars and lives. Nearly 4,500 American troops had died by the time the United States withdrew at the end of 2011.
Even as the United States was being eased out of Iraq, the new Iraqi government – dominated by Shiites – was developing close ties with neighboring Iran, which also is ruled by a Shiite government. In other words, the neocon dreams of an Iraqi government directed by the United States and friendly with Israel were dashed by the war’s ultimate outcome.
So, Israel’s belligerency – even with the support of its American backers – has arguably gained little. The tragic victories, the costs of which grow exponentially, have served to create intransigence and implacable resolve among the enemies of Israel and the United States. The repetitious protocol of war, victory, war, victory, war has become a downward spiral of uninterrupted failure disguised as success.
Meanwhile, the world continues to drift nearer to another conflict, this time with Iran, which is nearly 1,000 miles from Israel. The war’s proponents again promise that military force will achieve some important gain in Israel’s security by setting back Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.
Whatever happens, it is sure to be another military “victory” with another catchy name, but it is equally sure to further embitter Israel’s neighbors who will harbor even more resentments as they develop new plans for striking back.
Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history, and was an adviser to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East.