Wed, Aug 02, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Understanding the mind of the Arab militant

Eliminating Hezbollah is unrealistic, so bringing peace to the Israel-Lebanon border requires more modest goals

By Barry Rubin

A key aspect of winning any war is to define the goals. This is especially true of the current fighting in Gaza and Lebanon. By trying to do too much -- or believing that one can achieve more than is possible -- the result can be failure and certainly will be disappointment.

In this case, the mistake is to think that Israel can destroy Hezbollah or eliminate it as a political and military entity. To claim otherwise plays into the hands of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, which want to define their victory as Hezbollah's survival.

Defining victory as merely survival is a pattern often typical of Arab (and Iranian) politics, and it is simultaneously disastrous and sensible. It is disastrous because it courts defeat by attacking superior forces: the 1967 Six Day War, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's challenge to the US and his attack on Iran, former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat's fighting an endless battle in which he was always defeated, and so on. The Arab side is left with tremendous losses in casualties and material, as is once again happening in Lebanon and with the Palestinians.

But what is to a large extent a defeat in practical and military terms also can be considered a political victory. The Arabs never "lose" because they never surrender. Thus they do not formally give up anything. The leaders that brought on failure and the groups that did not triumph become heroes for being able to claim that they courageously fought the enemy without being crushed. The important points for them are that they gained revenge by inflicting damage, showed that they were real men, did not buckle under, and survived.

Such a pattern is a formula for endless conflict and endless defeat. Yet defeats do not force new attitudes, policies or leaders. The pragmatic "lesson" remains unlearned because those who take this view perceive a different lesson.

That is why the kind of tactics that work well in conflicts elsewhere in the world do not function in the Middle East. The rules of the game are supposed to be like this: The side that loses recognizes that it is weaker and makes a deal involving concessions to avoid another costly conflict. The stronger side then gains deterrence, because recognition of its power stops the other side from going to war in the first place. Wanting to avoid war, all sides solve disputes by compromise, end the conflict forever and move onto other things.

Instead, Hezbollah and Hamas thrive on fighting as an end in itself. Moreover, Hezbollah and its friends present themselves as absolute victors no matter what happens. And millions of Arabs and Muslims, given regime and media propaganda, believe them.

The underlying cause of conflict is not that Hezbollah or Hamas have grievances against Israel so much as that they view Jews as prophet-murdering, devil-aiding, imperialistic sub-humans whose state must be wiped off the map. Formal ceasefires or political solutions are inconceivable. At the same time, the conflict gives them money, power and glory. Any losses or suffering that occurs as a result -- except perhaps to the leaders personally -- are a matter of indifference.

For its part, Israel will win an objective military and political victory but is not able to destroy Hezbollah for several reasons. First, Hezbollah has the support of most Lebanese Shiites, who make up roughly 40 percent of the population. The Shiites back Hezbollah because it appeals to their communal pride, represents their interests domestically and stirs their religious passions. The current fighting will not erode that support, which regards resistance to Israel as a victory in itself.

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