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No victor emerged from Lebanon war

by Edward N. Luttwak

WASHINGTON — In the immediate aftermath of the October War of 1973, the Arab world rejoiced because the myth of Israeli invincibility had been shattered by Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal and the Syrian offensive that swept across the Golan Heights. In Israel, there was harsh criticism of political and military chiefs alike, who were blamed for the loss of 3,000 soldiers in a war that ended without a clear victory. Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David Elazar, and the chief of military intelligence were all discredited and soon replaced.

Only afterward did a sense of proportion take hold, ironically by the Egyptian and Syrian leaders before anyone else. While commentators in Israel and around the world were still mourning or gloating over Israel’s lost military supremacy, both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad soberly recognized that their countries had come closer to catastrophic defeat than in 1967, and that it was imperative to avoid another war. That lead to Sadat’s peace and Assad’s 1974 ceasefire on the Golan Heights, which has never been violated since.

It is easy to read the 1973 war only in retrospect. Israel had been caught by surprise, because good intelligence was misinterpreted in a climate of arrogant overconfidence. The frontal sectors, left almost unguarded, were largely overrun. The Egyptians had an excellent war plan and fought well, and Syrian tanks advanced boldly, attacking in wave after wave for three days and nights. Within 48 hours, Israel seemed on the verge of defeat on both fronts.

But as soon as the IDF was fully mobilized and the reservist brigades that make up nine-tenths of its strength were ready to deploy for battle, the Israelis stopped both the Egyptian and Syrian armies in their tracks and began their own advance almost immediately. The war ended with Israeli forces 113 km from Cairo, and less than 32 km from Damascus, their success obscured by the shock of the surprise attack, emotional over-reactions, and the difficulty of seeing clearly through the fog of war.

It is the same now with the Lebanon war and the gross misperceptions that have followed. No one should be surprised that the latest antitank missiles can penetrate even the heaviest and best protected of battle tanks. But Israel’s tanks did well enough in limiting Israeli casualties. Likewise, the lack of defenses against short-range rockets with small warheads is simply common sense. They are just not powerful enough to justify spending billions of dollars for laser weapon systems the size of football fields.

More serious misperceptions are equally obvious. For example, instead of dismissing Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s boasts of victory, many commentators around the world repeat and endorse his claim that Hezbollah fought much more bravely than the regular soldiers of Arab states in previous wars. But in 1973, after crossing the Suez Canal, Egyptian infantrymen by the thousands stood their ground unflinchingly against advancing Israeli battle tanks. They were in the open, flat desert, with none of the cover and protection that Hezbollah had in their stone-built villages in Lebanon.

What is true is that the Israelis lacked a coherent war plan, so that even their most purposeful bombing came off as brutally destructive (though with a deterrence payoff, as Syria’s immobility showed). Similarly, Israel’s ground actions were hesitant and inconclusive from start to finish. A fully developed contingency plan — a sophisticated blend of amphibious, airborne, and ground penetrations to reach swiftly and deeply behind the front, before rolling back and destroying Hezbollah positions one by one from the rear, all the way to the Israeli border — was never implemented.

The contingency plan remained on the shelf because of the lack of casualties among Israeli civilians. It had been assumed that thousands of Hezbollah rockets fired in concentrated barrages — which cancel out the inaccuracy of unguided rockets and powerfully compound blast effects — would kill many civilians, perhaps hundreds each day. That would make a large-scale offensive by more than 45,000 soldiers a compelling necessity, justifying politically the hundreds of casualties it would have cost.

Hezbollah, however, distributed its rockets to village militias that were good at hiding them from air attacks, sheltering them from artillery, and from probing Israeli unmanned air vehicles, but that were incapable of launching them effectively in simultaneous launches against the same targets.

Instead of hundreds of dead civilians, the Israelis were losing one or two a day. Even after three weeks, the total was less than in some one-man suicide bombings. That made it politically unacceptable to launch an offensive that would kill young soldiers and family men. Indeed, nor would such an offensive have eradicated Hezbollah, because it is a political movement in arms, and not just an army or a band of gunmen.

For that very reason, the outcome of the war is likely to be more satisfactory than many now seem to believe. Unlike Yasser Arafat, who fought for eternal Palestine and not for actual Palestinians, whose prosperity and safety he was always willing to sacrifice for the cause, Nasrallah has a political constituency centered in southern Lebanon.

Having implicitly accepted responsibility for starting the war, Nasrallah has directed Hezbollah to focus on rapid reconstruction in villages and towns, right up to the Israeli border. Nasrallah’s power base is now a hostage of Hezbollah’s good behavior. He can hardly afford to start another round of fighting that would destroy everything again.