Defining Victory: The Differing Goals of Israel and Hezbollah

Defining Victory: The Differing Goals of Israel and Hezbollah

As the fighting between Israel and Lebanon escalates into its third week, each side has its own definition of victory and its own plan for emerging from the crisis. Some experts say Hezbollah already has accomplished its goals, while Israel faces an uphill battle to reassert its military primacy in the region.

August 2, 2006 3:55 pm (EST)

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Israel and Hezbollah, combatants in Lebanon, have different tactical goals and different ways of positioning themselves to emerge from the current crisis and claim victory. Hezbollah is trying to increase its regional and international profile, and brand itself as the only group to successfully battle the mighty Israeli army. Israel seeks to stop Hezbollah’s daily launching of rockets at its territory, establish a buffer zone in southern Lebanon patrolled by an international force, and prevent Hezbollah from re-arming after the crisis. "Israel has to deal a knockout blow to Hezbollah’s capabilities, but Hezbollah just has to not lose," says CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook.

How would Israel define victory?

"Israelis don’t speak in terms of victory," says Michael Herzog, a brigadier general in the Israeli army and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They speak in terms of the objectives they want to accomplish: to seriously degrade Hezbollah’s military capabilities as much as possible. This is to weaken the group, and also to reestablish deterrence, so that even if Hezbollah has rockets, they will be much more cautious about using them." Israel will also try to create a buffer zone in southern Lebanon, patrolled by a combination of international forces and Lebanese troops, to prevent Hezbollah from using the area to launch rockets or raids on Israel.

"Israel has to deal a knockout blow to Hezbollah’s capabilities, but Hezbollah just has to not lose," says Steven A. Cook.

These goals have shifted from the start of the conflict, experts say. Then, Israeli officials spoke of eliminating the Hezbollah threat. "I think people realize Hezbollah will not voluntarily disarm, and there’s no force on the ground that will force them to disarm," Herzog says. "But even if we can’t disarm them, we can prevent them from re-arming to the same level."

Some experts speculate that Israel also seeks to push into Lebanese territory and hold it to use in negotiations for a ceasefire. "Israel is desperate to gain control of some territory to use as a bargaining chip," says Nabil Abuznaid, a spokesman for the Palestinian mission to the United Nations.

"Even if we can’t disarm them, we can prevent them from re-arming to the same level," Herzog says.

How would Hezbollah define victory?

"Victory is to survive the onslaught and emerge, once again, as the Arab force that takes the lead in confronting Israel," says Hussein Ibish, executive director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership. "Hezbollah knows they’re a very small fighting force, but the role they seek to play is that of the vanguard of what they call the culture of resistance." Hezbollah is burnishing its image as a heroic band that can inflict damage on the much stronger Israeli army, which the much larger forces of Arab nations could not do.

Many Middle East experts say Hezbollah wins just by holding out this long. "To them, three weeks is a victory," Abuznaid says. "Forty years ago, the Arab armies didn’t last one week against Israel." Herzog says Hezbollah has set a very low threshold for itself. "[Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah initially defined victory as survival," Herzog says. "All he has to do is put his head down and keep firing rockets at Israel. Then, when there’s a ceasefire, he comes out of his bunker to say, ’We won.’"

Is Israel achieving its objectives?

Herzog says the Israelis believe they have eliminated "between 60 percent and 70 percent of Hezbollah’s medium-range and long-range rockets. They had about 13,000 rockets to start, and now they’re probably left with some thousands of short-range rockets," he says. "We [they] have destroyed their headquarters, communication lines, and command and control structure, as well as destroying Hezbollah’s military capability along the border." It will be much harder for them to operate from now on, he says.

But some experts say Israel—by failing to crush Hezbollah, stop rockets from being fired at Israel, or rescue its kidnapped soldiers—looks uncharacteristically vulnerable. "I think Israel has miscalculated very badly," Ibish says. "They’ve allowed themselves to be drawn into a situation that is not at all to their political benefit. They appear vulnerable to armed struggle for the first time. And they’ve allowed Nasrallah to reap the political benefits he was seeking."

Is Hezbollah achieving its objectives?

Hezbollah’s major objective is to show that Israel is not invincible, and they have succeeded, experts say. Their small force of several thousand militants has managed to survive Israel’s punishing air strikes and continues to inflict damage, maintaining their rocket barrage on Israel and killing Israeli soldiers in skirmishes in Lebanon. "The Israelis are saying these are the best Arab forces they’ve ever fought," Ibish says. "Even if Hezbollah were now to be decimated, they would have achieved enough credibility."

In a way, the current crisis has solved an identity crisis for Hezbollah. Although the group was strengthened as a political party by Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, they chafed at the internal, sectarian politicking that characterizes Lebanese politics. "They went from being the victorious army of resistance to just another Lebanese political force, and it didn’t fit their self-image," Ibish say. But now, he says, "They’re not a regional player, because they’re too small, but they’re a regional symbol. They represent a hope that if Arabs only had the will to fight, they could be victorious against Israel."

"Even if Hezbollah were now to be decimated, they would have achieved enough credibility," Ibish says.

What about Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah?

The Hezbollah leader has emerged as the most popular figure across a range of Arab nations, as many Arabs celebrate the previously unthinkable image of Israel taking military losses caused by a Muslim military group. "Historically, the Arab world has always wanted a hero figure the masses could rally behind," Herzog says. "In the past, it was [Egyptian leader] Gamal Abdel Nasser, then [former Iraqi President Saddam] Hussein. Now it’s Nasrallah." Ibish agrees, saying, "Hezbollah and Nasrallah have become wildly popular in the Arab world. They unite Sunnis and Shiites in admiration for their opposition to Israel."

Arguably, Nasrallah reaps the most direct benefits from the crisis. "Assuming Nasrallah survives, he’s strengthened by this, because now he can argue to the Lebanese people that Lebanon does need a resistance movement," Cook says. "Before July 12 [when Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers prompted the Israeli attack], many people in Lebanon hated Hezbollah, but now the momentum has shifted, and they support it."

Ibish says Nasrallah is also reveling in the chance to portray himself as the champion of Muslims in the fight against Israel. "Nasrallah is vainglorious," Ibish says. "He sees himself as a unique, visionary figure, a revolutionary hero like Che Guevara. If he believes even one-tenth of his own rhetoric, there’s no way he could be content with day-to-day politics in Lebanon."

Does Israel have support for its actions?

Many Israeli experts say the country has never been so united behind a war. Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, tells’s Bernard Gwertzman that “the Israeli public was prepared mentally, psychologically, and…strategically. They understood the stakes, and the stakes are huge.”

But outside of Israel, many experts say Israel has taken a huge hit in world opinion. “What have they gained?” Abuznaid asks. “The level of hostility against them is much higher now.” Arab states sympathetic to Israel’s fight against Hezbollah—including Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—are “threatened by the masses because they support Israel. They’ve set their own image back in the region back fifty years,” he says.

How is the current crisis likely to end?

Herzog thinks it will be "a matter of days" before the UN Security Council announces a cease-fire. After that, it remains to be seen how the region will settle out. "If there’s a cease-fire and Israel stays out of Lebanon without the return of the two soldiers, they gained nothing," Abuznaid says.

Some experts see a trend toward radicalization among Arab states, which could be emboldened by Israel’s apparent vulnerability. "This whole thing is hugely to the benefit of the right-wing Islamist leaders in the Arab world," Ibish says. "It’s another notch in the belt of Islamists. And I don’t see how that can be reversed."

And Israel and the United States may have to reevaluate how they deal with weak central governments like those of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas or Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Instead of giving them significant gains they can show their people, experts say, Israel and the United States have consistently undermined their power, yet held them responsible for the acts of militants on their territory. As a result, these leaders look like "weak, collaborationist traitors," Ibish says. In contrast, the groups that provide social services—Hamas in the PA and Hezbollah in Lebanon—are seen as the only competent groups in the country, and public support for them strengthens their militias. "If you let Abbas and Siniora flutter in the breeze, you get Hamas and Hezbollah," Ibish says.

Furthermore, the Israeli army’s less-than-overwhelming performance in this conflict—compared with the definitive victories of its previous campaigns—could lead the country to reevaluate its own security situation, possibly bolstering the case for a negotiated settlement. "They want to be part of the Middle East, but [by refusing to negotiate toward a peace process] they’re bringing the problems on themselves," Abuznaid says.

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