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The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens with a more pessimistic view of the Israel war.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006
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HH: I’m joined now by Bret Stephens. He’s a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. He is also the editor in chief, or was, of the Jerusalem Post a few years back, and quite an observer of, and expert upon, Israeli politics and events. Bret, welcome back. Good to have you.

BS: Good to hear from you, Hugh.

HH: It’s very jarring to see a column in the Wall Street Journal entitled Israel Is Losing This War, even more jarring when it’s written by you, as someone who knows his way around Israel. This was yesterday’s column. Anything change in your mind today?

BS: Well, not significantly. Obviously, the column is written in a…is written with a great deal of regret for the way things are turning out. I’m certainly not cheering the fact that Israel is losing, but I think that conclusion is almost inescapable. The Israelis had a chance to inflict not only a military setback against Hezbollah, but a kind of psychological blow against the organization. And also, it had an opportunity to tarnish Hezbollah’s prestige as an effective fighting force. It could have done that if it had seized southern Lebanon, and expelled Hezbollah fighters from southern Lebanon in the very early days of the fighting, not least to prevent them from firing these short-range katyusha rockets all over northern Israel, and basically forcing a million Israelis to flee from their homes and workplaces. And the Israelis chose a different strategy. You could call it the Kosovo strategy, which was based on air power alone, thinking that air power could do the job. Israeli generals and security officials have been making very rosy prognostications about how effective their air campaign has been in degrading Hezbollah’s arsenal. But in fact, today we’ve had a record number of katyushas falling into Israel, and even more advanced, longer-range missiles falling. So it’s becoming harder and harder to credit the idea that Israel is really significantly degrading Hezbollah. All the while, the delay in launching an ground attack is making Hezbollah seem like it’s stood up to the mighty Israeli army. The most worrying thing here is that while this is happening, I think the diplomatic clock is running out on Israel, and I don’t know how much longer it will have, how much diplomatic cover it will continue to have from the U.S. to prosecute the war ’til victory.

HH: Three events, though, come up, Bret Stephens. One, that Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel says today we’ll go on the offensive until and unless international force arrives in south Lebanon. Number two, 10,000 IDF’ers on the ground moving into Lebanon tonight. And then yesterday, the raid deep into the Bekaa Valley, the city of Baaleck, in order to snatch and grab a half dozen or so Hezbollah senior people. And this suggests, to some people at least, sort of a new commitment, a new approach to this. What do you think?

BS: Oh, I mean, I have been advocating moving ground forces in now for a couple of weeks, and I’m glad the Israelis are doing this. The question is whether it’s too little, too late. As I said, just by virtue of the fact that Hezbollah has managed to withstand a…withering Israeli air strikes for three weeks, is going to burnish their reputation in the Muslim world, and it’s going to burnish the reputation of its principal patrons, Syria and Iran. Now the second thing is that even if Israel moves forcefully into southern Lebanon, all the way up to the Litani River, which is about 15, 20 miles north of its coastal border, it’s not clear to me how effectively it will be able to operate, particularly if the U.N., with an American vote, demands a cease fire. And if that’s the case, Israel’s hands will be tied politically, they’ll be tied diplomatically, and it will not be able to achieve its military objectives. But the key thing here, and this is what I think the Israelis have missed, the objectives here are only partly military. They are also largely psychological. They had a chance to show that Hezbollah was a weak and dangerous organization, and discredit it in the eyes of much of the Arab world. They were unable to do that, and I think in that sense, that’s going to be almost impossible for the Israelis to recover.

HH: A couple of contrary points. One, that of course, what may happen is not a guarantee of what will happen. It’s still possible to completely shatter Hezbollah. But B, maybe it’s not a bad idea for the world to see, Bret Stephens, that Hezbollah has Iranian-made missile capable of striking and almost sinking warships, and that it is very deeply entrenched. It’s got tunneling systems. It is a state within a state. Maybe if it had been too easy, Israel would be a bully. But that in fact, the world is saying that this threat is real, not just to Israel, but to the world.

BS: I mean, if the world saw things the way Hugh Hewitt and Bret Stephens do, maybe your thesis would be correct. But I just don’t think that’s how it’s going to be broadly perceived. In the Arab world, the perception’s going to be that Hezbollah has guts, has muscle, and has staying power.

HH: Well, you’re talking about the Arab street again, and in the mythical Arab street, I saw Wahabist imams condemning, early on, the Hezbollah thing. I saw the EU members, Germany, Poland and Great Britain vetoing a demand for an immediate cease fire. Bret, I just think it’s too early to be deciding whether or not, or to be so pessimistic about how this is going to go. But maybe…are you talking with people in Israel every day? Do they share your pessimism?

BS: I’m talking with people all over the region every day, and what you described was true two weeks ago, and that’s why Israel had such a magnificent opportunity back then. You’re absolutely right that there are serious rifts and hatreds, especially between the Sunni and Shiite communties. There was a sense among Arab states that a Shiite state within a state inside of Lebanon was bad news, particularly if it was an arm of the Iranian regime, which they fear. But now, I think there’s a very different sense. You don’t have the same…I mean, the weight of Arab opinion has moved pretty sharply against Israel, for whatever that’s worth. The weight of European opinion has also moves sharply against Israel, again for whatever that’s worth. But the important point here is that there was a chance to demolish Hezbollah as a significant political force, demolish and discredit Hezbollah as a significant political force within Lebanon, and I fear that chance has been lost. And you know something? Lebanese politicians are very adept at figuring out who’s winning, who’s losing, and making sure that they get on the winning side. I think it was very significant that Prime Minister Siniora of Lebanon, who early on was clearly aghast at what Hezbollah has done, has become more and more strident in trying to be seen as effectively an ally of Hezbollah, possibly even…raising the possibility that the Lebanese army might come in on Hezbollah’s side. This is the worst possible outcome, and I think it’s a result of pretending that Israel had the luxury of time. It did not. You know, in 1973, probably the gravest crisis in Israel’s history, managed to defeat two very well-armed Soviet-backed militaries in 20 days. We’re now in day 23.

HH: So Bret, what do you…Bret Stephens, what do you want to see Israel do now?

BS: Look, I think that Israel has to move in very quickly, very effectively with ground forces, and I think it has to seize and clear the area all the way up to the Litani River, and it has to insist that it’s going to continue to operate in that area until A) all Hezbollah forces are cleared out, and B) you have a multi-national force which is serious, which is one that doesn’t run under the U.N. flag, with the U.N. rules of engagement. Even then, I’m worried that that force will be an effectively feckless force. But I think that’s as much as Israel can reasonably expect to salvage right now. What they might have done earlier on, too, is taken the fight to Hezbollah’s patrons in Syria, and put that regime on notice about what it’s sponsorship of terrorism would get it, but they failed to do that.

HH: So now, is it possible, with a minute left, though, to A) find a world awakened to Hezbollah and Iran, willing to sanction Iran at the end of August? Is it also possible that as the rockets fall silent, and as we find out who’s been snatched, and we find out what other things have happened, that you could be wrong about your assessment in profound ways, Bret Stephens?

BS: Hugh, I desperately hope I’m wrong. I’m desperately hoping to be proved wrong. But I very much doubt it. And in fact, Hezbollah has now made itself the premiere political player in Lebanon, and I guarantee you’re going to hear voices from respectable quarters in the West, in the United States, saying that the obligation now is to recognize Hezbollah for the power that it is, and to engage in it diplomatically. And I think that would be a terrible reversal for the United States…

HH: Have you seen anyone other than Jimmy Carter intimate such a thing yet?

BS: Sure.

HH: For example, whom?

BS: Read David Ignatius’ column today.

HH: Who’s? David Ignatius. Anyone in the American political establishment?

BS: I think that is exactly where the so-called foreign policy establishment, which has such a decisive voice in the American State Department, that is exactly what they’re thinking right now.

HH: That would be disastrous. Bret Stephens, thanks for spending some time. We’ll check back with you next week to discover what the assessment of week 4 is.

End of interview.

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