Friday, August 04, 2006

Israel's Fate

In a Middle East war, perception counts as much as reality. Which is why Hezbollah is winning this one.

Arab nations used to gang up on Israel four and five at a time and routinely get their butts handed to them. Whenever the Arab powers managed to get an edge, as in 1973, Israel made sure to push back so hard everyone knew it could have marched into Cairo and Damascus, had it chosen to, when it was all over.

But this one is shaping up as an ugly draw. And that means Israel loses. Because the perception that it can't be beaten, lurking in the hearts of its enemies, was Israel's best weapon.

Israelis know this. How else to explain the near-unanimity, in that fractious political culture, behind the conviction that Israel must win this war in a convicing fashion? Whatever else they disagree about -- and it's just about everything, apparently -- Israelis seem to kow instinctively that, as the AP recently wrote, "they are surrounded by enemies who want them dead."

What's amazing is the rest of the world so often forgets that.

According to AP, "popular support for the Lebanon campaign remains extremely high despite a growing chorus of media commentators complaining that the war has been poorly conceived and executed." America has the luxury -- so many of us think -- of changing our mind about a war because we don't like how it's being done. Israel never did.

Three things stand out that make me feel gloomy about Israel's future after this:

1. Hezbollah is getting to the tanks. Merkava tanks are the invincible steel castle symbols of Israel's military power, both within Israel and in the eyes of its enemies. They are what aircraft carriers are for America.

Now, thanks to anti-tank missiles made in Russia and Europe, supplied via Syria from Iran, the Merkavas are vulnerable. They're getting hit, and taking losses. The public relations impact is likely to be enormous.

2. Israel is losing in the media. An advanced set of Arab-language networks hostile to Israel dominates regional coverage. Worse for Israel, the worldwide media is focused on the plight of civilian victims in Lebanon. The civilian casualties are real, even if the media in the war zone too often truckles under to Hezbollah's situational censorship for the sake of access.

Taking the fight directly to a Hezbollah carefully protected by human shields, with cameras rolling, probably was a big tactical error by Israel. I'll have to leave it to smarter people than me to outline what else could have been done that would look like victory in the end without exacting a high and terrible human toll.

In previous wars, the story was the map: All those big Arab nations against plucky little Israel. Now it's: all that big muscular Israeli military hardware against poor ragtag villagers, or Beirut apartment-dwellers and their families.

It turns out the key for the Arabs when it comes to beating Israel -- in the perception sense -- was not to get all the big nation-states in the region to gang up on it, but to unleash on it a fierce, Iran-armed, brigade-sized terrorist paramilitary hunkered down among sheep farmers and orphan hospitals in the weakest state in the region.

3. Israel has lowered its expectations. As AP put it:

Israel's initial condition for a cease-fire — the disarming of Hezbollah — has been replaced by the far more modest goal of pushing Hezbollah away from the border to make room for a new multinational peacekeeping force.

Hezbollah always has had the same goal: Survive this, and in so doing build up its rep as the giant-killer, the Arab great white hope, and recruit, and rearm, and wait for next time. Next time might be on the other bank of the Jordan.