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Israel falls short of its objectives in month of war
BEIRUT, Lebanon — With the warring parties signaling support for a U.N. cease-fire plan, the month-long war in Lebanon appears likely to end with Israel's military campaign falling short of its goals and Hezbollah's cause strengthened.
Israeli leaders are expected to formally accept the U.N. resolution today having achieved only their most modest prewar objectives, despite pounding Hezbollah bases throughout Lebanon with airstrikes and, in recent days, a major ground operation.
Hezbollah may be militarily weakened, but by refusing to bend to the region's mightiest armed force, the Shiite Muslim militant group looks stronger in the eyes of its backers Iran and Syria. And it may be less likely to give up its weapons as Israel, the United States and many in Lebanon have urged.
"Resistance is a natural right for us," Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah said Saturday, accepting the U.N. resolution but vowing to continue fighting Israeli aggression.
For now, even as Israel dramatically ramps up its 11th-hour ground operation, experts say the cease-fire represents a muddled conclusion that fails to resolve either side's major grievances despite the human toll. More than 1,000 Lebanese and 100 Israelis have died in the conflict, which began July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers from a border post.
Israeli leaders called at the outset for the immediate and unconditional return of the two soldiers and spoke of destroying Hezbollah. Instead, as the fighting stretched on, Israel began to scale back its expectations.
It dropped its opposition to the creation of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. Leaders stopped suggesting they could destroy Hezbollah on the battlefield and instead spoke of "crippling" the militants. And Israel eventually acceded to weak assurances from the U.N. that Hezbollah wouldn't be able to secure new weapons from Syria and Iran.
"The expectations were too high," said Uri Dromi, a former Israeli government spokesman who serves as director of international outreach for The Israel Democracy Institute. "All that talk about defeating Hezbollah was far-fetched from day one."
The winner, said Dromi, was Nasrallah. "He stood up against Israel, no question about it," he said. "And this, in a way, was a setback of the Israeli deterrence."
In the end, the agreement should ensure that one of Israel's main objectives — protecting its 40-mile northern border with Lebanon — is met. Under the deal, a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force is supposed to make sure Hezbollah is forced out of the bottom fifth of the country.
Israel's biggest concession was over the fate of the two soldiers, whose release isn't required under the resolution. It's more likely they'll be released in a prisoner exchange with Lebanon.
"From day one, we didn't say this was a hostage crisis alone," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "This was a threat to our nation. We would like the hostages given back straightaway, of course. Unfortunately, that is not possible."
Because Israel always viewed the battle not just as a fight for the soldiers, but as a war against anti-Israeli forces in Syria and Iran, it wanted to send a decisive military message.
But Hezbollah displayed a resiliency that surprised Israelis, firing scores of rockets daily and putting up a stiff fight on the ground using a web of tunnels and bunkers and a stockpile of automatic and anti-tank weapons.
Before the war, the Lebanese government had been in negotiations to get Hezbollah to give up its weapons. Hezbollah, which has representatives in the government, always resisted on the grounds that it was the only military force able to secure southern Lebanon — and its performance over the past four weeks backs that up.
"Military professionalism has been the exclusive property of the Israelis for the last 40 years, and that's why they were succeeding," said Jamil Mroue, editor of The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Lebanon.
"Now they [Hezbollah] are exhibiting some of those traits as an Arab army."
The U.N. resolution calls for Hezbollah to disarm, though it doesn't specify how. The U.N. force of up to 15,000 troops will monitor the cease-fire, but in a compromise with Lebanon it has no clear authority and little likely inclination to use its weapons — making it unlikely that it will face off against Hezbollah.
Another 15,000 Lebanese troops will soon be deployed to southern Lebanon, but the army is poorly equipped and is seen by Hezbollah as an inferior force.
The army is also 35 percent Shiite and includes many Hezbollah loyalists. Sending the army to disarm Hezbollah would be a recipe for civil war, experts say.
"I cannot conceive of them searching for Hezbollah arms or Hezbollah militants," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an author and expert on Hezbollah.
"If the Lebanese government had any qualms about forcibly disarming Hezbollah, it's going to be much harder now."
Making it even more difficult is the fact that one of Hezbollah's key demands, that Israel return to Lebanon a small piece of border territory called Shebaa Farms, is unresolved in the cease-fire plan. That was a concession to Israel and the United States.
Despite its battlefield success, Hezbollah's political position in Lebanon remains complicated. As the conflict dragged on and the damage mounted, cracks began to show in the country's fragile sectarian consensus. Many in the country's Christian, Druze and Sunni Muslim communities have quietly criticized Hezbollah for launching into this conflict unilaterally, and the massive cost of rebuilding the country is likely to put pressure on Nasrallah's group to give up arms.
"Certainly, Hezbollah is a very good army," said Atef Majdalani, a Christian member of the Lebanese parliament. "But you can't say they protected Lebanon. You saw that in the last month — the country is destroyed."
In Israel, the outcome is likely to afflict Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"Chutzpah has its limits," analyst Ari Shavit wrote Friday in the newspaper Haaretz. "You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company