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Six Questions for Augustus Richard Norton on Lebanon

By Ken Silverstein

1. Why did Hezbollah snatch the Israeli prisoners last week?

This was a well-planned operation that took months of preparation. A similar operation failed earlier this year. Hezbollah was tactically very smart, but strategically they were taking a real gamble. The goal was to win the release of [three] Lebanese prisoners being held in Israeli prisons, and probably to bolster Hezbollah's image and take advantage of Israel's preoccupation with Gaza. I believe Hezbollah acted autonomously. This was not an Iranian decision to distract attention from its nuclear program. Iran and Hezbollah are organically connected and share a worldview but [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah convinced himself that he had a deterrent structure in place that would prevent this type of Israeli response. It was a monumental mistake.

2. Why did Israel react to the incident in this fashion?

I don't buy the notion that [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert is trying to improve his resumé, that he was feeling insecure in the shadow of Ariel Sharon. This is part of a deep strategy by the Israeli defense establishment to hit at Iran indirectly and to make it easier for Israel to strike against Iran's nuclear program later if it chooses to do so. Hezbollah and its arsenal of rockets was an impediment to that.

3. Was Israel's reaction excessive?

It seems to me that Israel could have taken the high ground by working through the UN and taking limited military action. What's going on now is grossly excessive. We're one week into this and the death toll in Lebanon is approaching 250, mostly civilians, and the Lebanese government estimates close to $2 billion in damage to infrastructure. They are attacking what is needed for normal life in Lebanon. I've been talking to people in Lebanon and it appears that Israel has established a killing box in south Lebanon, what the U.S. called a “free fire zone” in Vietnam. You establish a zone, which you dominate from the air, and force out civilians—there are already hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who have been displaced. Then you presume anything still moving in that zone is the enemy. This is a recipe for lots of hapless civilians dying, as happened a few days ago when 16 southern Lebanese villagers were killed in automobiles while adhering to Israel's order to flee their homes.

4. What is the likely outcome of all this?

The key question is time. Israel has signaled that it wants a week or maybe two to operate. Will the U.S. and the international community give them the time they want? If so, Hezbollah will be significantly degraded, though it won't disappear. Totally disarming Hezbollah is a fool's errand. It's too easy to hide weapons and there's too great an incentive to keep them. Hezbollah is facing an interesting dilemma. The more it uses the rockets the more it creates a rationale to keep the time period open. Inside Lebanon there is going to be a readjustment of politics. Hezbollah will be diminished in stature, it won't be able to maintain its privileged position after what has happened.

5. What's the likely fallout for Israel?

Israel has made a profound mistake. It may have bought time in terms of the threat on its northern border but history has shown that its vainglorious attempts to consolidate hegemony over its neighbors usually provoke the emergence of even fiercer adversaries. In the Middle East, it will face an even greater amount of hatred and rejection than it already does.

6. What accounts for the passivity of the Bush Administration in regard to Israel's actions?

I've been studying American foreign policy in the Middle East for 34 years and I can't recall any U.S. president who has subordinated American interests to Israeli interests like this one. The administration is being naïve about how this is going to reverberate elsewhere, in places like Iraq. Israel is primarily targeting Shiite Muslims and that's going to fuel the sectarianism that is feeding the civil war in Iraq. We have other concerns we should be looking out for — but George Bush apparently feels that American interests and Israeli interests coincide, so we have a no-show foreign policy.

© The Harper's Magazine Foundation. All rights reserved.

July 19, 2006





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