From the very start of Israel's brutal campaign against Lebanon, the question was: why are they responding so disproportionately? The pretext Israel gave—reprisal for the kidnapping of two soldiers—was given no credence anywhere but in America, with its airwaves saturated as they are with Bush-Israeli propaganda. Since battle plans for this operation were drawn up long before, other, more sinister explanations were proposed: destruction of southern Lebanon to create a buffer zone, weakening of the Lebanese state to reduce any threat it may pose. Now a simpler explanation is emerging: sheer incompetence.
Given his background, it was natural that Halutz would respond to the embarrassing provocation of the kidnappings by resorting to air power. It was Halutz who pushed the government into this war, with the cabinet barely bothering to deliberate before the go-ahead was given. The fundamental objective of the military actions was first to destroy, and then just to "disarm", Hezbollah. Now, Israel had already spent eighteen years occupying southern Lebanon trying to destroy Hezbollah, finally deciding it could not accomplish that goal and leaving in 2000. Why would Olmert think that aerial bombardment could accomplish what troops on the ground could not? I would say it was a combination of wishful thinking and perceived opportunity. The opportunity was having a US administration that is self-avowedly willing to let Israel do anything it wants and give it anything it wants. (For example, the US quickly replenished Israel's stock of 500 lb. bombs, the kind the US regularly uses to such great effect in Iraq.) The wishful thinking was (1) Well, even if the Americans haven't gotten great results with this, maybe it will work for us. How can you be sure unless you try it? Although we regularly bomb our enemies, usually it is on a relatively small scale, trying to assassinate some Arab political leader. We've never had the opportunity to destroy a country's infrastructure before. (2) Once the Lebanese people see the damage we have inflicted at their country, they will blame Hezbollah "for starting it". They will thus turn against Hezbollah. Without popular support, Hezbollah will be marginalized politically, and no longer able to carry on its military activities with the willing cooperation of civilians. We thus will have achieved our objective.
However, the bombardment has not worked. Although there was initial Lebanese anger at Hezbollah for having brought this upon them, that anger changed to support, once it was seen that Hezbollah are effective fighters—able to, despite heavy bombardment, to continue firing rockets into Israel and to kill Israeli soldiers, forcing them to retreat. The way this war has gone has proved once again the futility of using air power against guerrillas. If civilians are given the opportunity to flee an area before it is bombarded, guerrillas can flee, too. And any time guerrillas are killed, many more civilians will be killed. The anger and outrage that the death of those innocents produces will produce more than enough new guerrillas to replace those that were eliminated.
The effect of the Israeli actions in Lebanon has been a loss for Israel and an increase in prestige for Hezbollah. Hezbollah has shown itself capable of effectively resisting Israel, something that neither Arab armies nor Arab states, working through diplomacy, have been able to do. That makes Hezbollah an object of respect and admiration for all Arabs, and not just the Lebanese. For Israel in contrast, the outcome is that the immense military machine provided to it by the US is of limited effectiveness in fourth-generation warfare—combating guerrillas belonging to independent organizations not belonging to any state—as opposed to destroying traditional armies belonging to Arab states. To have its way in the region, Israel has long relied on being able to project invincibility. Its military machine can indeed level cities and slaughter countless civilians; what it cannot do is suppress independent resistance movements. The Israeli incursion into Lebanon has had the same effect that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has had: a diminution in the perceived power of each country.
The main lesson for Americans from all this is that Bush is no more a true friend of Israel than Tony Blair is a true friend of America. As Jacques Chirac has remarked, true friends hold back their friends from hurting themselves. But an idiot can not be a good friend.
Of late, neither major American party has shown itself capable of being a true friend of Israel. One of the hardest things for one friend to do for another is to tell him that he has a problem, and explain to him the unpleasant truth that will enable him to deal successfully with life again.
[UPDATE 3.8.2006] Here are links to three recent pieces making much the same points:
Tom Engelhardt, Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East
Alexander Cockburn, Halutz's Bombing War: Hezbollah's Top Ally in Israel
Uri Avnery, War of the Generals: Knife in the Back