In wake of war, Lebanon is weaker and Israel is stronger

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May 13, 2007 

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made a remarkable statement last week. He praised Israel for conducting an inquiry into last year's war with Hezbollah - an inquiry that accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of "serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence."

Nasrallah was quoted by the BBC as saying Israelis "study their defeat in order to learn from it," in contrast with the Arab regimes that "do not probe, do not ask, do not form inquiry commissions, as if nothing has happened."

One has to be impressed by his honesty, but he did not take it all the way, since the Arab leader who most needs to be probed is Nasrallah himself. He started the war with Israel, which was a disaster for both sides. If there were an honest Arab League Inquiry Commission into the war, here is what it would say about him:

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters directed by Nasrallah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in an unprovoked attack across the Lebanon-Israel border, on the pretext of seeking a prisoner exchange. This triggered a war that killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis. After interviewing all relevant parties, the Arab League Commission finds Nasrallah guilty of a serious failure of judgment, responsibility and prudence - for the following reasons.

1. Nasrallah demonstrated a total failure to anticipate Israel's response to his raid. He assumed Israel would carry out the same limited retaliation it had with previous raids. Wrong. He failed to take into account the changed circumstances in Israel. The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in Gaza a few weeks earlier, plus the fact that a new chief of staff of the Israeli army, a new prime minister and a new defense minister had just taken office and all felt they were being tested, triggered an enormous Israeli response. About 1,200 Lebanese died because of this gross error in judgment.

2. In unilaterally launching a war against Israel, without a vote of the Lebanese cabinet - of which Hezbollah is a member - the militia did grievous harm to Lebanon's fragile democracy and democratization in the Arab world. All of the fears that if you let an Islamist party into government it will not respect the rules of the game were fulfilled by Hezbollah.

3. Iran and Syria gave Hezbollah its rockets for their own deterrence. Hezbollah was their long arm to pressure Israel into political compromises and to threaten Israel if it attacked Iran or Syria. By launching all these rockets prematurely, without strategic purpose, Hezbollah has diminished its capability and Syria's and Iran's. The commission can't find a single strategic gain from Nasrallah's actions.

4. When the war started, Hezbollah's fighters were sitting right on the border with Israel, operating freely. This was a real threat to Israel. As a result of the war, Hezbollah was pushed off the border by Israel and, in its place, the U.N. inserted a new peacekeeping force of some 10,000 troops, including a big European contingent, led by France and Italy. Yes, Hezbollah still has fighters in the area, but it has lost its military infrastructure and can't attack Israel now without getting embroiled with France and Italy - a huge strategic loss for Hezbollah.

5. Israel had allowed its ground forces to be degraded in order to invest more money in its air force's ability to deter Iran and into policing the West Bank. Hezbollah's attack exposed just how degraded Israel's army had become. As a result, Israel has embarked on a broad upgrade of its military. In any future war Arab armies will meet a much better trained and equipped Israeli force.

6. Hezbollah claims that its Shiite militia, in attacking Israel, was serving the security needs of Lebanon. But Israel's response to Hezbollah's attack has resulted in billions of dollars of damage to Lebanese homes, factories and roads, with Shiite areas the worst hit and with zero security benefit to Lebanon.

In sum, Nasrallah might have won popularity for himself and Hezbollah by fighting Israel. But so what? Today, less than a year after a war that Hezbollah called a "divine" victory, Lebanon is weaker and Israel is stronger. That's what matters. And that is why, if the Hezbollah leader had any honor, he would resign.

Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.

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