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Israel has support, despite history

The memory of an 18-year occupation is still fresh, but Israelis support the actions in Lebanon. The question becomes, how long will they support it, and what will the result be?

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published July 23, 2006


JERUSALEM - When Israeli troops invaded Lebanon in 1982, Shalom Tsaroom was among the thousands who served in what was expected to be a quick campaign to rout Palestinian militants.

Instead, it took 18 years and the deaths of nearly 1,000 Jewish soldiers before Israel finally withdrew in 2000. Tsaroom, now a top police commander, has no desire to see his country again bogged down in the "deep mud of Lebanon," as he puts it.

Yet as Israel calls up thousands of reservists for its ground assault on the radical Lebanese group Hezbollah, Tsaroom understands why his 24-year-old son is eager to go.

"You want to take part, to give," Tsaroom says. "There is a sense of solidarity. You can feel it."

Twelve days after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, sparking the biggest Mideast crisis in decades, Israelis overwhelmingly endorse their government's tough response, polls show.

More unusual is the support - albeit tacit in some cases - that Israel is getting from other countries. Its drive to crush Hezbollah has gotten the go-ahead from major Arab nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are usually critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

The key, experts say, has been Israel's success in casting its fight with Hezbollah as a major front in the battle to stop the spread of Shiite Islamic extremism.

Hezbollah receives much of its money and weapons from Iran, a non-Arab, Shiite Muslim nation that already has major influence in Iraq and is trying to increase its sway throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries "are terrified of what's happening in Iraq and the Shiite Crescent that extends from Iran to Lebanon," says Alon Ben-Meir, a Baghdad-born expert on the Mideast at New York University.

"The Saudis and others who are fairly mute about what's going on in Lebanon aren't doing so because they like Israel, but because it's part and parcel of their fight against Shiites."

In the most optimistic of scenarios, an Israeli victory over Hezbollah could have far-reaching and positive effects, experts say:

It could rid the world of a radical Islamic group that has killed hundreds of Americans and Israelis since 1982.

It could weaken the power and regional influence of Iran.

It would allow Lebanon, where Hezbollah now operates as a state-within-a-state, to continue along the path of peaceful democracy started by last year's "Cedar Revolution."

And by showing that terrorism doesn't pay, it could strengthen moderate elements in Palestinian society and lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the other hand, it could all go horribly wrong.

"It's not so much what Hezbollah might do as what mistakes Israel might make," Martin Kramer, an expert on Lebanon, told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

The obvious pitfalls, he said, are reoccupying Lebanon or causing so much death and destruction that Israel even loses U.S. support.

"Since this is a new Israeli government, it's impossible to predict whether they will know how to handle the unexpected twists that are inevitable in war," Kramer said.

Already there are signs of differences between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who favors continued pounding of Hezbollah, and his foreign minister, who is said to advocate more diplomacy.

Criticism is slowly brewing in nonofficial circles, too. Some commentators warn that Israel is using so much force to remove the "cancer" in Lebanon that it could kill the patient - a shaky pro-Western government.

Wrote Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post:

"What is the point at which pounding of the Lebanese infrastructure that serves Hezbollah - the airports, port, roads, bridges - becomes counterproductive and will impact on Lebanon's ability to do what everyone says they want to see it do: Regain control of the country and take it back from Iran's proxy?"

Founded in 1982, three years after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Hezbollah pledged itself to creating a similar Shiite state in Lebanon, where most of the power was held by Christians and Sunni Muslims. The Shiites were then a distinct minority, but now make up almost half of Lebanon's 4-million people.

Most Shiites live in the poor, southern part of the country, and the Lebanese government has virtually ceded control of the area to Hezbollah with its network of schools, clinics and charities. Pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are far more common than those of Lebanon's prime minister.

The government has also failed to enforce a U.N. resolution demanding it disarm the group. Since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon six years ago, Hezbollah - with the help of Iran and its ally, Syria - reportedly has increased its arsenal from 2,000 missiles and rockets to more than 10,000.

"Learning now what capabilities Hezbollah has, I think maybe we were lucky that we didn't have to wait a few more years" for it to attack, says Abraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.

"If something like that erupted two, three years from now, the price for both sides - Israel and Lebanese Arabs in general - would have been much worse."

A cult of personality has developed around the charismatic Nasrallah, a hero to many Arabs who credit Hezbollah with driving Israel out of Lebanon. Experts say the 46-year-old Nasrallah has grown cocky, and may have underestimated the ferocity with which Israel would respond to the kidnapping of its soldiers.

But Israel may have underestimated what it would take to crush a guerilla group with several thousand trained fighters and substantial popular support.

"My belief is that the majority of Lebanese would really like Israel to do the job for them, but 40 percent are Shiites and half of those are more or less Shiite extremists," Diskin says.

"Because of that, to get rid of Hezbollah altogether in the near future is unfortunately something impossible."

Though accused of excessive force, Israel is operating under a broad international consensus that Hezbollah at least must be permanently disarmed. Since airstrikes have not stopped the rocket attacks, Israel is now sending ground troops into south Lebanon to wipe out launch sites and create a buffer zone.

The danger, Israel's own military chief of staff has warned, is that Israel could be dragged into a long guerilla war. Hezbollah, he said, is counting on Israeli resolve to falter over time, as it did with the 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.

But another danger, NYU's Ben-Meir thinks, is that Israel's reluctance to fight a ground war means it may settle for something "considerably less" than crushing Hezbollah.

"That may defer the crisis to the years ahead," he says.

Ben-Meir thinks a key to resolving the problems of both Hezbollah and Hamas is to break the alliance between Syria and Iran. He argues that Syria's main goal is to regain the Golan Heights, which Israeli captured in the 1967 Mideast War. Without negotiations on that issue, he says, Syria will continue to support Hamas and Hezbollah in concert with Iran.

"I have dealt with the Syrians for years, and yes, you can calm down the situation, but Syria is not going to stop creating problems in the region unless the Golan issue is addressed," Ben-Meir says. "That is the only way to separate Iran from Syria."

But Ben-Meir doesn't see any breakthrough on the Golan Heights or the broader Arab-Israeli conflict unless the United States gets actively involved. Unfortunately, he says, it has no relations with Iran and only limited contacts with Syria.

"It is a tragic mistake that the United States could not find a way to deal with Iran four or five years ago," Ben-Meir says. "An even worse mistake is that it attempted to exclude and isolate Syria."

Israel and the United States continue to largely blame Iran and Syria for the current crisis. And for now, Israelis are fully behind their government's approach despite the heavy loss of life and tremendous property damage in Lebanon.

Less than two weeks into the fight, 21-year-old Michal Zeevi has lost one friend, a soldier. Several other friends have come to stay with her in Jerusalem, terrified by the rockets falling on their town in northern Israel.

"They are crazy," Zeevi says of Hezbollah. "I think we need to go into Lebanon and get rid of them."

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 01:23:42]


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