Why Israel’s Campaign Will Likely Fail

Many Americans see Israel’s response to the capture of three of its soldiers as entirely justified. Why not, they ask, punish those who hold these men? Surely no other country would act differently in similar circumstances. The Bush administration agrees. It strongly supports Israeli military action in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Yet Israel’s military campaign is unlikely to succeed. In fact, it will probably backfire. Once before, Israel — under the pretext of a justifiable military response — harbored ambitious goals and expanded a local conflict into something larger. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. Only U.S. diplomacy then prevented a bad situation from getting even worse. And only U.S. diplomacy can prevent the present crisis from spiraling out of control.

In 1982, Israel invaded southern Lebanon in order to raze Palestinian Liberation Organization bases used to fire rockets into Israel. But just like the bombing of Tyre and Beirut now, the true goal of the Israelis then was something different. That goal was to destroy the PLO and drive the Syrian Army out of Lebanon.

Although concerned that Israel’s larger plan might lead to war, the United States chose not to exert pressure on it to desist. Convinced that the United States would not interfere, Israel continued with its audacious gambit. The mighty Israeli Defense Force rolled into Lebanon. Yet, unaware of the true aim of the campaign, the force failed to prepare itself properly and found itself bogged down against the Syrian Army.

While the Bush administration hesitates to use diplomacy to resolve the current crisis, the United States took action in May 1983. Determined to end the expanding conflict, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Envoy Philip Habib engaged in a round of shuttle diplomacy and brokered a cease fire. Israel eventually withdrew the IDF from Lebanon in 1985, save for a “security zone” along the length of the Lebanese-Israeli border that Israeli forces occupied until 2000.

Israel’s campaign in 1982 provoked Hezbollah — then a fledgling group made up of diverse militant Shia — to coalesce into the powerful force it is today. In addition, 241 American servicemen, sent to Lebanon to oversee the withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon, perished in a terrorist attack in Beirut.

The situation today obviously differs from that in the early 1980s. The Cold War has ended, which enables the United States to focus on other issues besides its rivalry with the Soviet Union. In fact, Russia today is playing a constructive role in the Middle East, unlike the days when the hammer and sickle flew over the Kremlin. In addition, both Lebanon and Iraq have installed governments friendly to the United States.

Yet the similarities between Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 are striking. As before, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon has weakened Arab moderates and empowered extremists. Today, the democratic government of Lebanon is on the verge of collapse, with Syria and Hezbollah poised to fill the vacuum.

Moreover, the invasion is driving the bitter terrorist rivals, the Palestine-based Hamas and Hezbollah, together in a lethal partnership. Israel now faces coordinated attacks on two fronts. Israel is also once again falling prey to “mission creep” — initially setting limited goals, then expanding them markedly.

Israel has the right to defend itself, but this military campaign will not achieve its goals. Despite Israel’s overwhelming military advantage, a battered but unbroken Hezbollah will live on to recruit and thus fight another day. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice now heads to the troubled region. She needs to employ U.S. power and influence to bring the warring parties together.

In 1982, the United States used its diplomatic might to engineer a settlement. American failure to do so today will ensure that Israelis and Lebanese continue to die in vain.

Michael H. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University. The author of "A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe" (2006), he is also a writer for the History News Service.