Israeli Exit Strategy Coming Together

The London Guardian is reporting that the Bush administration is telling Israel that they have one week to wrap up operations against Hezbollah before the United States exerts diplomatic pressure to end the conflict. Whether that’s true–and the administration denies it–it does appear that some thought is being given to an exit strategy.

The US is giving Israel a window of a week to inflict maximum damage on Hizbullah before weighing in behind international calls for a ceasefire in Lebanon, according to British, European and Israeli sources.

The Bush administration, backed by Britain, has blocked efforts for an immediate halt to the fighting initiated at the UN security council, the G8 summit in St Petersburg and the European foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels. “It’s clear the Americans have given the Israelis the green light. They [the Israeli attacks] will be allowed to go on longer, perhaps for another week,” a senior European official said yesterday. Diplomatic sources said there was a clear time limit, partly dictated by fears that a prolonged conflict could spin out of control.

US strategy in allowing Israel this freedom for a limited period has several objectives, one of which is delivering a slap to Iran and Syria, who Washington claims are directing Hizbullah and Hamas militants from behind the scenes. George Bush last night said that he suspected Syria was trying to reassert its influence in Lebanon. Speaking in Washington, he said: “It’s in our interest for Syria to stay out of Lebanon and for this government in Lebanon to succeed and survive. The root cause of the problem is Hizbullah and that problem needs to be addressed.”

Every bit of that last sentence is true. Which is why a fixed timetable, as opposed to strategic milestones, makes no sense. As Bill Quick observes, saying Israel has seven days to achieve its objectives is tantamount to saying, “Hezbollah, if you can just hang on for another week, you’re home free.” Given that this is precisely why Bush has rejected a timetable in Iraq, I’d be surprised indeed if he was issuing such an ultimatum to Israel. I’d be even more surprised if Israel acceded to it.

Tony Blair yesterday swung behind the US position that Israel need not end the bombing until Hizbullah hands over captured prisoners and ends its rocket attacks. During a Commons statement, he resisted backbench demands that he call for a ceasefire. Echoing the US position, he told MPs: “Of course we all want violence to stop and stop immediately, but we recognise the only realistic way to achieve such a ceasefire is to address the underlying reasons why this violence has broken out.”

Which certainly doesn’t sound much like a timetable to me.

From the beginning of this latest escalation, I’ve expressed concerns that Israel seemed to be applying mass violence without any clear goals or, even worse, for the sole purpose of getting one prisoner released.

Israel is already laying the ground for negotiations. “We are beginning a diplomatic process alongside the military operation that will continue,” said Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, yesterday. “The diplomatic process is not meant to shorten the window of time of the army’s operation, but rather is meant to be an extension of it and to prevent a need for future military operations,” she added.

Moshe Kaplinsky, Israel’s deputy army chief, said the offensive could end within a few weeks, adding that Israel needed time to complete “clear goals”. Israeli officials said fighting could begin to wind down after the weekend, if Hizbullah stops firing rockets.

Rather odd to have a goal that was the status quo ante, no? The firing of rockets into Israel was the Hezbollah response to the invasion, not its cause.

A peace formula is also beginning to emerge: it includes an understanding on a future prisoner exchange, a deployment of the Lebanese army up to the Israeli border, a Hizbullah pullback, and the beefing up of an international monitoring force. For the first time, Ms Livni suggested Israel might accept such a force on a temporary basis.

Finally, we have something like a meaningful strategic goal that is both achievable and unachievable without war. The Lebanese government had neither the will nor the leverage to take control of their southern territory from Hezbollah prior to the Israeli incursion. Ditto the United Nations, which would simply chase its tail with fruitless talks without an emergency.

If the government of Lebanon–and the Palestinian authority, for that matter–can actually be coerced into doing something about the terrorist shadow government in their midst, we would have at least some basis for hope. And, while the UN is virtually worthless for putting an end to war, it has historically been quite adept at legitimate peacekeeping operations. The longstanding Multinational Force and Observers operation in Sinai is a particularly apt model. Let us hope all this killing has not been for nothing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy70 says:

    The UN is there now, and they have done a piss poor job. Hezbollah fires rockets right under the observation tower, with no outcry from the UN. I think this article is wrong. The Israelis have a plan that they have been working on for five years, and I doubt they will stop because “European sources” say they will. The Israeli cabinet voted to keep these operations going for as long as it takes to get the threat from Hez’s missiles off their necks. 90% of Israelis demand it.

    What is Hezbollah’s exit strategy?

  2. legion says:

    Hezbollah’s exit strategy is to kill every last Israeli man, woman, and child. I’ve always been sympathetic to the Palestinian desire for a homeland of their own, but until they get the clamps on this bloodthirsty group of animals in their midst, they’re never going to achieve anything.

  3. Anderson says:

    “Keep killing civilians for another week or so, then we’ll try to wrap things up.”


    Note to Israel (and the U.S.): Airpower is not particularly well suited to anti-guerilla operations in an urban setting. I realize it’s convenient for you, but it kills a lot more civilians than it does enemies.

    If you want to fight guerillas, you have to do it on the ground, and you have to lose some troops to do it.

    The attitude that the deaths of Lebanese women and children are preferable to the deaths of Israeli soldiers is stunningly immoral.

  4. Joe says:

    Bush gets to have an open-ended time table in Iraq, but Israel gets 5 more days.

  5. I think there is a major difference between the UN operation and the one in the Sinai. In the Sinai, both sides wanted peace and were looking for a way to protect themselves from a sudden attack. The distance involved guaranteed that a certain amount of trip wire warning was available for any major military move. The logistics of supporting a sustained military move across the Sinai without pre-positioned support along with a desire for peace on both sides makes the situation work.

    Lebanon is a much more compressed space, one side showed clearly that they were not interested in peace and the UN peacekeepers are much more adept at having sex with pre-teens than deterring attacks.

    The end game I see shaping up is a continued isolation and degradation of Hezbollah military capability by air. This will reduce infrastructure and isolate the terrorist groups. But as pointed out above, it will not defeat the terrorists. They can re-build, re-stock and re-establish communication when the air strikes seek. But I think that after the air strikes, we are likely to see significant ground resources put into Lebanon by Israel. Then the isolated groups of Hezbollah terrorists will be dealt with extreme prejudice (aka killed, not captured). A generation of troops will be more than decimated. Because Hezbollah seems to be trying to prevent families from fleeing southern Lebanon and keeping the UN from facilitating the families to leave, there will undoubtedly by some heavy civilian casualties.

    After Hezbollah’s military and personnel capabilities are severely eroded, I suspect we will see a combination of UN/Lebanese governments occupying the Hezbollah areas in South Lebanon. How effective they will be is questionable, but they will at least have a chance.

    Alternatively, Israel may expand this into Syria, but I suspect this is less likely. A key indicator to watch is the US army in Iraq. If they start drawing their troops into larger units, as opposed to conducting anti-insurgency patrols, then the move into Syria becomes more likely.

  6. The Guardian quotes an anonymous European official on US policy and motivations. Let’s not our panties in too much of a bunch about this report.