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Against the Wall

Lee Smith

Israelis are coping well with the war; Hassan Nasrallah may have backed himself into a corner.

Jerusalem — Today is the 9th of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of both the first and second temples. Last night I walked to the Wailing Wall in a quiet, solemn parade of several hundred, protected by a police cordon. Given the war in Lebanon and the rhetoric of Hezbollah’s Iranian patron, it is an appealing journalistic conceit to suggest that thoughts of yet another Jewish disaster can’t be too far from the minds of most Israelis right now, but that is not really how it is here.

The night before last I was at a small bar when one of the departing patrons wished the bartender, a barrel-chested guy in his mid-20s, a good night and added, “Hey man, I hope you get called up.” “Thanks,” said the bartender cheerfully, “I appreciate it.” Did he mean that he hopes you get called for reserve duty, I asked. “Yes,” the bartender explained. “Everyone really wants to do their part in what’s going on right now.”

It has been curious these last three weeks to follow the ongoing press narratives: On one hand, there is the “Israel” constructed by the media, a country divided, fearful and unsure of itself and its capacity to fight; and then there is the press version of “Lebanon,” where “disproportionate” Israeli bombing has driven all the Lebanese into the warm embrace of the Islamic resistance.

It is worth remembering the young Lebanese Forces members who explained some months ago how they wanted to see Netanyahu succeed Sharon as Israeli prime minister because he would surely disarm Hezbollah. I find it hard to imagine that those guys, now that they are seeing their wish being granted, are now suddenly in love with Hezbollah. I suspect that they would like this bar, but I am not sure that, despite their largely pro-Israeli politics, the bartender would find them entirely sympathetic.

The young LF people idolize their za’im, Samir Geagea, even though, among other bloody acts, Geagea is believed responsible for the 1978 assassination of Tony Franjieh, his wife, and daughter. In contrast, My bartender, who served in Gaza last year where the Palestinian factions repeatedly used human shields, did everything possible to avoid hurting civilians, especially children. “You want to protect yourself,” he says, “but you can’t fire if you see a kid. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I hit a kid.”

Clearly Hezbollah, like the Palestinian groups, uses human shields. We do not know precisely what happened at Qana and may never know for sure, but it is likely that we have reached a stage where the IDF believes itself damned regardless of how it regards civilian life, which makes things worse for Lebanese civilians, easier for Israeli troops, and will likely have no effect at all on the international media campaign that Israel has already lost.

And yet Israel seems to be gaining in another of the war’s psychological battles. There’s been some mention lately of Israel’s psy-ops campaign against Hezbollah: hacking into the telephone system and interrupting Al-Manar broadcasts with messages warning of Nasrallah’s impending death. But the most significant Israeli victory to date has largely been overlooked. Hassan Nasrallah, the man whom large sections of the Western press claim without any evidence is more popular now than ever, has been sent underground and will not ever publicly ascend to the real world again in safety. Nasrallah will never again be able to lead a rally of thousands without knowingly endangering the lives of everyone shouting along with him. It is sadly indicative of the state of regional politics that the most charismatic Arab leader since Nasser has been, as Martin Kramer puts it, bin Ladenized.

This will likely have a profound effect on Lebanese politics as well, for if Hezbollah’s leader is spending most of his time hiding from Israeli bombs, he cannot effectively lead the Party of God. And whether we are talking about a Fortune 500 company, a major league baseball team, or an armed Islamist militia, leadership matters. Other Lebanese officials, such as Fouad Siniora, Michel Aoun and Nabih Berri, would be wise to avail themselves of the opportunity to determine the future of a sovereign and peaceful Lebanon, rather than continue to lend a hand to a man who has led their country to ruin.

Not surprisingly, the one Lebanese leader who has been most critical of Nasrallah, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, is also holed up. Jumblatt understands that the Syrians wish him dead and that he is a marked man, certainly as long as Syria’s main proxy in Lebanon—Nasrallah—is still alive. And thus Nasrallah has reason to see Jumblatt as Israel’s main proxy, which could well lead to what we might call, after the fashion of many interestingly named Lebanese civil war battles, “The War of the Bunkers.”

There is not likely to be a ceasefire in the offing because all of the simplest scenarios are impossible. It will be a long time before an international force is drawn up to separate the two sides (if such a force were to be assembled at all); the Lebanese army cannot go to the south, no matter how many people wish it so; the Israelis do not want to reoccupy any part of Lebanon; and—this should be of some consolation to those Lebanese who fear that Bashar al-Assad will once again be given a free hand in Lebanon—it seems unlikely that Israel is willing to concede a “stabilizing” role to Syria.

Here’s another possibility: Assuming that Jumblatt is going to have to fight at some point in order to survive, and recalling, as he says, that Jumblatts do not die in their beds, there is an avenue open for him to take on Hezbollah, especially as the Israelis continue to degrade the Party of God.