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GLOBAL VIEW

Israel Is Losing This War
Its leaders need to act fast.

BY BRET STEPHENS
Tuesday, August 1, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Israel is losing this war.

This is not to say that itwill lose the war, or that the war was unwinnable to start with. But if it keeps going as it is, Israel is headed for the greatest military humiliation in its history. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israelis were stunned by their early reversals against Egypt and Syria, yet they eked out a victory over these two powerfully armed, Soviet-backed adversaries in 20 days. The conflict with Hezbollah--a 15,000-man militia chiefly armed with World War II-era Katyusha rockets--is now in its 21st day. So far, Israel has nothing to show for its efforts: no enemy territory gained, no enemy leaders killed, no abatement in the missile barrage that has sent a million Israelis from their homes and workplaces.

Generally speaking, wars are lost either militarily or politically. Israel is losing both ways. Two weeks ago, Israeli officials boasted they had destroyed 50% of Hezbollah's military capabilities and needed just 10 to 14 days to finish the job. Two days ago, after a record 140 Katyushas landed on Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice he needed another 10 to 14 days. When the war began, Israeli officials spoke of "breaking" Hezbollah; next of evicting Hezbollah from the border area; then of "degrading" Hezbollah's capabilities; now of establishing an effective multinational force that can police the border. Israel's goals are becoming less ambitious while the time it needs to accomplish them is growing longer.

It is amazing how much can be squandered in the space of three weeks. On July 12, Israel sat behind an internationally recognized frontier, where it enjoyed a preponderance of military force. It had deterrence and legitimacy. Hezbollah's cross-border raid that day was widely condemned within Lebanon and among Arab leaders as heedless and provocative. Mr. Olmert's decision to respond with massive force enjoyed left-to-right political support. He also had a green light from the Bush administration, which has reasons of its own to want Hezbollah defanged and which assumed the Israelis were up to the job.

But it seems they are not up to the job. The war began with a string of intelligence failures: Israel had lowered its alert level on the northern border prior to the raid; it did not know that Hezbollah possessed Chinese-made antiship missiles, one of which nearly sank an Israeli missile boat off the coast of Beirut; it was caught off guard by the fierce resistance it encountered in the two Lebanese villages it has so far attempted to capture. Such failures are surprising and discouraging, given that Israel has been tracking and fighting Hezbollah for nearly a quarter-century.

Harder to understand is a military and political strategy that mistakenly assumes that Israel can take its time against Hezbollah. It cannot. Israel does not supply itself with precision-guided bombs; it does not provide its own cover at the U.N. Security Council; it does not have 130,000 troops at risk in Iraq of an uprising by Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. It should be immensely worrying to Israel's leaders that Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is calling for an immediate cease-fire. Ayatollah Sistani--unlike, say, Kofi Annan--is the sort of man who can get George W. Bush's ear.

Israelis have compounded that mistake with an airpower-based strategy that, whatever its virtues in keeping Israeli troops out of harm's way, was never going to evict Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, just as airpower alone did not evict Saddam from Kuwait in 1991. The law of averages, however, guaranteed that over the course of 5,000 bombing sorties one bomb (or two or three or four) would go astray.

That may have been what happened over the weekend in Qana, where an Israeli air attack reportedly caused the deaths of at least 27 people, including 17 children. Yes, Hezbollah bears ultimate responsibility here for deliberately placing its military assets among civilians. Yet the death of those children should be counted as a crime if Israel's purposes in Lebanon are basically feckless. A line being bandied about in Israeli security circles is that the purpose of the bombing is to show Hezbollah that "the boss-man has gone berserk." What kind of goal is that? Nobody in this conflict ever doubted Israel's ability to set Lebanon back 20, 50 or 500 years (about where Hezbollah itself wants the country to be).

The goal, rather, is to ensure that Hezbollah will never again be in a position to spark a similar crisis, and to do so with maximum effect in the shortest possible time. Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz warned two weeks ago that Hezbollah wants a long war: "They realize that prolonged attrition causes internal pressure from Israeli citizens and international pressure, and think those are our weak points." That's right, which makes his three-week bombing campaign puzzling.

More puzzling was the Israeli cabinet's decision last week against launching a full-scale ground invasion. Instead, they will content themselves with a narrow security strip in southern Lebanon, one that is too narrow to prevent rocket fire from reaching Israel but will give Hezbollah a fresh excuse to fight the new "occupation." The cabinet also went out of its way to reassure Syria--a country Mr. Olmert listed in his own Axis of Evil only the week before--that it had no intention of dragging it into the conflict. But Israel need not have bombed Damascus to derive the benefit of keeping Bashar Assad awake at night, to guess what his patronage of Hezbollah will get him.

Last night in Tel Aviv, Mr. Olmert delivered another blood, tears, toil and sweat speech; the Israeli cabinet later approved a stepped-up ground war, the scope of which remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Ms. Rice left Jerusalem for Washington with a different idea: "I take with me an emerging consensus on what is necessary for both an urgent cease-fire and a lasting settlement. I am convinced we can achieve both this week."

Timelines are colliding here; agendas may follow. Israel has a prime minister who talks tough. What remains to be seen is whether he can act fast.

Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.

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November 13, 2006
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