Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Of Rants and Raves

April post deleted by accident
They’re at it again. Israel and its regional nemeses, along with the usual augurs on both sides of the mountain, are writing for the Middle East a new epochal storyline: The balance of power has shifted and the next confrontation between Israel and its antagonists will “change the face of the area.”
Meanwhile, every few weeks our newspapers’ front pages are host to assassinations, foiled plots, deportations, mysterious explosions, car bombs, arrests, pointing to a Jean le Carrè underworld of espionage and sabotage in the shadows of the world most of us like to pretend is the only real one.
The sequence of threats and counter threats has been rather entertaining to watch. First, the ominous conclusions in Israeli dailies and by Israeli think tanks that Hezbollah has crossed all the old redlines and rearmed with weapons that pose an unprecedented threat to the Jewish state. Then, a thunderous growl by the Israeli government that it will wreak havoc on the body and soul of Lebanon should—repeat—should Hezbollah attack, followed by a dire warning that the coming faceoff could very well be fought simultaneously on the Lebanese, Syrian, and Iranian fronts. And last, the reassurance by this same government that war is not on the agenda.
As if by design, the mind-numbing tune that sources admiring of the rejectionist camp (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas) have been replaying goes something like this: Hezbollah has shattered all the old redlines and Israel has lost the deterrence card. Nassrallah does not lie: The next battle, should—repeat--should Israel attack, will unleash hell on the “Zionist entity,” and the result will be a radically altered geopolitical map. So talk of war is just subterfuge by a furious Israeli state for which war against Lebanon is no longer a cakewalk. To add zest to their euphoric predictions, these same sources also state, with the smug confidence of the tipped off and clued in, that the next war most likely will encompass Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.
Once a cycle is complete, a new one almost identical to it starts.
Such extraordinary synchronicity across the divide! It’s like being stuck in an echo chamber.
For examples of this symphonic harmony, check out the war scenarios recently shared by Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea, after which you’re liable to believe that Israel, and the region with it, is inching closer to the Day of Judgment. Then, switch to Al Akhbar’s Ibrahim Amin’s almost daily forecasts, after which you’re liable to believe that all it will take is one final Karate kick for the edifice of Zionism to crumble.
Of course, we—as in we the spectators who are meant to be privy only to the blather that serves as a veneer for what is really going on behind closed doors--must look like chumps hypnotically turning our heads this way and that to catch this tit for that tat, waiting to see if these are indeed the drums of a new kind of war we are hearing, or just the usual fart load of rhetoric.
Trouble is, fear for our clashing titans has always been good for business. These people have muscles they need to flex, followers they need to keep pumped up, armor they have to stack up. Alas, you won’t be getting anywhere close to the truth from their influence peddlers. All I can tell you is that out here in Lebanon many are experiencing an acute case of the jitters. In the south, the mood is downright somber. They feel another one coming.
Personally, I am quite happy to bet that it isn’t, not anytime soon, that is. All the action between Hezbollah and Israel—and clearly there is plenty of it--is already taking place way off the stage and out of the camera’s sight. For the Americans, the Iran file is still open, not to mention the Iraqi and Afghani ones, and hence for the Israelis there is no green light. For Hezbollah, the best offense, now that it is a principal sectarian player in a very sectarian arena, is defense. As for Syria, mano-a-mano type fights has not been its thing for a good while now, and short of a very compelling invitation from the Israelis to join the tussle, it will be content to watch (and help) from the sidelines.
Besides, if—repeat--if the US and Europe move into combat mode against Iran, I seriously doubt they will be asking Israel to do the honors. No insult intended, of course.
Still, as infantile and manifestly self-serving as the rhetoric is, don’t dismiss it out of hand because underneath all this dizzying noise about Armageddon there is a quiet hum of meaningful messages flying back and forth between the two camps. The short of the messages from Hezbollah is that it wants to be an armed resistance as well as a political force of a somewhat more mainstream flavor. Knowing very well the natural friction between this odd couple, Hezbollah has conceived a new and rather original definition to resistance, in the hope that it will set a new and positive tone in the relationship: Armed struggle is no longer about liberating occupied land, but about protecting the one that has already been liberated.
For this Shiite movement, to which goes the credit for harassing the Israeli army out of southern Lebanon in 2000, the idea is simple: In the absence of a real Lebanese state and in the presence of the Zionist enemy (see the last post), Hezbollah shall stick to its guns. However, aware that the national consensus around the resistance during the Israeli occupation of the south has given way to a sectarian consensus against it after liberation, the Party of God understands that it must protect its back. Therefore, it is signaling to one and all that the new and improved purpose of its arms and army is not to liberate the remaining patches of occupied (presumably) Lebanese land, the Shebaa Farms and the town of Ghajar, precious as they are, but to defend the entirety of Lebanon against Israeli aggression.
In other words—ones that Hezbollah is always implying but is loath to utter outright--gone are the days of hit and run surprise attacks and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, for which Hassan Nassrallah himself apologized in the aftermath of the 2006 war in spite of his divine victory over Israel. Even in his latest fiery speech on the occasion of the third anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughnieyh, a death that has yet to be avenged, the message was, “If you are going to…we will,” as if to say that now that we can reach your heart and rip it the way you have been ripping ours, we won’t unless you do it first.
Put another way, Hezbollah would like to go legit. It wants to join the status quo, not overthrow it. The deterrence card, if indeed it is finally in the Islamist movement’s hands, does alter the longstanding terms of engagement, and that is precisely the point. Without deterrence, Israel would have made sure that Hezbollah’s dual identities would be ruinous for it and Lebanon, as previewed in the 2006 round; with it, Hezbollah figures it got itself (but not necessarily Lebanon) some pretty thick cover.
You won’t hear it from any source close to the resistance, but the first lesson it learned from 2006 is that it cannot, under any circumstance, appear to be the one to start a showdown. What do you think Nassrallah’s mea culpa was for, basking though he was in the glow of a triumph. Which explains why the gentleman keeps reiterating every chance he gets that his finger is actually on the trigger but he won’t be pulling it first.
Of course, there are two obvious questions that are desperate to be asked here. If in fact Hezbollah has turned the tables on Israel, why is it trumpeting such a strategic achievement and surrendering with such zeal the surprise element? And why is Israel happy to play its part in this advertising campaign? Pardon me for asking, but why are these two letting all of us in on it?
I don’t dare keep reframing these incessant questions, lest I be accused of undermining national morale, but what the hell: If, as Hezbollah says, the foundations of the “Zionist entity” have become fundamentally vulnerable—a claim that is making quite a few of the Islamist movement’s protagonists downright giddy and almost itching for a fight--why not silence and slyness in preparation for deliverance? Why the ear-piercing shrieks, the daily chatter, the furious chest pounding? I mean, if Hassan Nassrallah is nothing like Gamal Abdel Nasser, why the blatant mimicry, then?
My guess is because Hezbollah knows that 2010 is nothing like 1967, and so does Israel. It’s not that the Shiite group has reached strategic parity with Israel, it’s that it does not have to in order to inflict pain on the Jewish state like no Arab regime has before. If just a few of Hezbollah’s new long range, guided missiles hit their targets—and in the absence of a missile shield, they will--the battle will have been won, even if Hezbollah is forced to declare it from a Lebanon razed to the ground. And so, it shall be another divine victory for God’s party. Victory because it dared, victory because it could, and—this is crucial—victory because it will not have pulled the trigger first.
It has thus become imperative for Israel to puff up and broadcast the threat from Hezbollah and its regional patrons and allies. It needs to justify the severity of the next attack, prepare the Israeli public for the reality that a chunk of the country is today well within the reach of the enemy, and reconfigure what, in this new age of missile technology, have become near-obsolete benchmarks of victory.
Therefore, until the next violent collision—and it will not be any day soon--Israel’s war of choice will be of the deep cover kind. In fact, this has been the modus operandi between it and Hezbollah ever since 2006. The murder of Hamas’s Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai was a rare, intimate glimpse into an intense war by other means that has been raging in all sorts of places only pieces of which reach the front pages of our newspapers. If only for this reason, the exposure of the Mossad team and its method was at once embarrassing and extremely inconvenient for Israel.

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