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The international media has been abuzz with the burning question of the hour – who won the 34-day Israel-Hezbollah showdown? Most analysts seem to agree that the outcome was a draw at best. Opinion polls show that most Israelis subscribe to that conclusion as well.

Israel clearly decimated the dug-in Shiite militia in the southern third of Lebanon, with the destruction of an estimated 20 Hezbollah border outposts and dozens of bunkers and weapons dumps in the vicinity, and the killing of hundreds of jihad fighters. Even if shadow Lebanese “president” Sheik Hassan Nasrallah succeeds in deflecting the Lebanese Army’s U.N.-mandated disarming of his blood-stained warriors, as already seems apparent, Hezbollah forces will probably never again openly operate as a virtual army along Israel’s northern border. The Israeli public and government, if not the international community, will simply not tolerate it.

Apart from that significant military achievement – which took much longer to accomplish due to the Israeli government’s highly criticized delay in unleashing sufficient ground forces to make it happen – Israel clearly fell short of the rest of its declared goals in the conflict. The two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the conflict have not been set free, nor has any news of their condition even been received in Jerusalem. The Hezbollah missile threat has not been eliminated. The rogue militia pounded the northern third of Israel with Syrian and Iranian-made rockets until the very hour that the U.N.-mandated cease-fire went into effect Aug. 14, firing the highest daily total of the war just one day before. As in the opening stage of the conflict, Israel’s third-largest urban center, Haifa, was among the targets struck.

Another Israeli goal, voiced unofficially by several cabinet ministers at the outset of the confrontation, was also not achieved – silencing Sheik Nasrallah for good. Instead, the turbaned Shiite holy man cum politician, virtually unknown to most of the world in early July, has emerged as the new Nasser, if not the new Saladin, for the millions of Muslims around the globe who loathe the “infidel Zionist entity” with extreme passion.

Many analysts maintain that Israel’s image as a regional superpower, and thus her critical deterrence capability against much larger neighboring enemies, has been weakened as a result of the war. It was already badly eroded during the 1991 Gulf War when President Bush Sr. held back then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from responding to unprovoked nightly Scud attacks from Iraq. Israel’s tough image suffered further damage earlier this decade when it took several years to bring Palestinian suicide attacks under relative control.

Israeli leaders had consistently warned that Damascus, as well as Beirut, would be held directly accountable for any major Hezbollah cross-border assaults, since it was Syria that helped arm the radical group and had earlier prevented its Lebanese puppet government from disarming the militia after Israeli forces evacuated south Lebanon in May 2000. However, just hours after Hezbollah forces violated the international border (as they had several times before) to kidnap and kill IDF soldiers July 12, Israeli officials announced that Damascus would not pay a direct price after all. No wonder Syrian strongman Basher Assad crowed after the cease-fire went into effect that the war had been won by his country’s proxy fighters.

Still, it has to be kept in mind that Syria hardly stands alone in the region. The Baathist police state regime is heavily backed by a new emerging regional superpower, Iran, which boasts it now possesses long-range missiles that can strike every part of the Jewish state, possibly with nuclear warheads in the not-too-distant future. Syria too has such missiles, and stockpiles of VX nerve gas to boot. But the fact is most of Assad’s arsenal has not come from Iran, but was supplied by the former Soviet Union – a worldwide megapower in its day.

The ironclad Soviet-Syrian alliance did not keep Menachem Begin’s government from engaging Syrian forces in Lebanon in 1982, so why would the Damascus-Tehran axis do that today? The reason is fairly simple, if chilling. The mighty communist giant was not thought likely to risk an all out nuclear Armageddon with Israel’s main international supporter, the United States. Therefore, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon felt he could fairly safely take on the MiG-based Syrian air force with little risk to Israel’s future existence. But the Shiite fascist-fanatics that rule Iran are assessed to be far more likely to disregard all rational logic by, for instance, attacking Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona, as they have repeatedly threatened to do – even if this would probably provoke an Israeli nuclear strike in return.

I warned in my first book (published under the title “Holy War for the Promised Land” as Saddam’s Scuds were pummeling Israel in early 1991), that militant Islam would prove a far harder enemy for Israel and the West to tackle than communism, which was then crumbling in Moscow as it already had in Warsaw. I noted that while Soviet-style communism had many characteristics of a religion, such as “prophets and saints” like Lenin and Marx and an ideology regarded as Final Truth by many adherents, it never actually claimed to be divinely revealed. Thus, if it was failing to deliver its promised free lunch, as it was, it could be discarded relatively easily by political leaders.

In stark contrast, Islam’s founder is hailed by over 1 billion Muslims around the globe as the “seal of the prophets” who delivered a sacred book to mankind that is regarded as an exact copy of the original in heaven. I pointed out that Arab Muslim Mideast leaders – kinsman of Muhammad who are ruling in the cradle of his religion – could hardly ignore or toss aside the faith held dear by most of their people.

And so tiny Israel is confronted with a huge dilemma, along with Lebanese Christian officials, the United States and indeed the entire Western world, whether they like it or not: How do “infidels” fight highly motivated jihad combatants like Hezbollah and Hamas, and indeed even al-Qaida, without igniting the Muslim masses around the world? This is probably the ultimate issue Israeli leaders were grappling with as they hesitatingly waged war against a relatively small militia group in neighboring Lebanon during the hot summer of 2006.

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