A High-Stakes Gamble or a Turning Point in the Lebanon War
Hassan Nasrallah’s recorded statement over Hizballah’s Al Manar television Wednesday night, August 9, at 20:15 local time, had a nail-biting audience: US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Washington, French president Jacques Chirac at the Elysee in Paris, prime minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem and his Lebanese counterpart Fouad Siniora in Beirut.
He was also watched closely by Maj-Gen Benny Gantz at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv. Gantz had been entrusted a few hours earlier with taking charge of the newly-expanded Lebanon offensive which the Israeli security cabinet had just approved. Israeli ground forces were to head up north past the Litani River to seek out and destroy Hizballah’s rocket sites.
But until he was good and ready, the Hizballah leader kept everyone waiting to find out where he stood in the next stage of the Lebanon war that he triggered on July 12.
The day’s timetable tells the story:
At 16:00, the Israeli security cabinet approves by nine votes and 3 abstentions a new ground operation deep inside southern Lebanon as far as the Nabatea plateau and Arnoun on the northern bank of the Litatani River, roughly 45 km from the Israeli border. It was limited in time to 14 days. The action would start at a signal from the prime minister and defense minister Amir Peretz. They all knew that the extended operation had in fact begun several hours earlier and that Israeli ground forces had been fighting as far north as Qantara and al Khiam from the morning.
At 16:30, US undersecretary of state David Welch, who had arrived in Beirut Wednesday morning, was paying his second visit to PM Siniora. He informed him: If you can persuade Nasrallah to accept a broadened UNIFIL force to back up the Lebanese contingent in the south, then we can have our multinational force and save Lebanon from sinking further into a dangerous war. But if you can’t, Israel will extend its invasion tonight and conquer more than a third of Lebanon.
debkafile‘s Middle East sources report that the Lebanese prime minister took the point and promised to do his best to bring the Hizballah leader round.
Both were entirely frank; an emergency was clearly at hand and it was too late for diplomatic niceties. Siniora knew that the Americans had found out Monday from the Turks that Nasrallah had set up his war room in the Iranian embassy in Beirut under the protection of two Revolutionary Guards commando companies.
At 18:00, Siniora and the Shiite parliament speaker Nabih Berri hold a meeting with Nasrallah’s representatives, hoping to hear his answer to the proposal of an expanded UNIFIL that would pave the way to a halt in the fighting. But they are disappointed. The representatives say their chief has not authorized them to discuss the matter.
At 19:00,The Lebanese prime minister goes back to Welch to report that his efforts failed and the Israelis cannot be stopped from moving further north.
At 19:20, while they were talking, Al Manar interrupts its broadcasts to announce that Nasrallah will address the Lebanese people shortly. This was his eighth speech since the war began. They hoped the Hizballah chief would clear up the uncertainty surrounding his intentions.
Olmert reacted to Al Manar’s announcement by calling chief of staff Lt.-Gen Dan Halutz and asking him if the army was ready to move. The reply was that the units were ready to start rolling within minutes of receiving the order and would link up with the contingents already deep inside Lebanon.
Gen. Halutz then phoned Gen. Gantz to confirm that everything was ready.
At 20:20, the speech Nasrallah had recorded at the Iranian embassy went on air. Twenty minutes into his harangue, he delivered his reply: Under no circumstances would he accept a multinational force in South Lebanon. He warned the Lebanese prime minister not to give an inch on this issue. Siniora had no choice but to obey.
Thus, in a few words, the Hizbalah leader scotched the US-French attempt to generate a UN Security Council resolution that would wind the conflict down by calling for a ceasefire and the deployment of a multinational force, followed by an Israeli withdrawal.
At 21:30, Condoleezza Rice calls Olmert and informs him that her undersecretary had come away from his Beirut mission empty-handed and there is no bar to him giving the signal to launch the next stage of the Lebanon offensive.
At 22:20, A massive movement of Israeli ground troops and tanks begins thundering across into Lebanon.
debkafile‘s military sources note that Nasrallah in throwing down the gauntlet is undertaking the biggest gamble of his life. A defeat at Israeli hands would finish him and his militia off for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he does not have to beat Israel to claim victory; it is enough for him to hold on for another month and keep up his rocket offensive against northern Israel to come out on top.
On paper, his chances of success look slim. His troops are still fighting but they are exhausted and, two weeks ago, Nasrallah threw the last of his trained professional reserves into the fray. The forces stacked against him are formidable.
But it is worth keeping in mind that the Hizballah chief is a whiz at concocting tactical surprises and may still have one or two up his sleeve. Furthermore, he is backed by the full logistical and military might of Iran’s radical Revolutionary Guards.
Therefore, Nasrallah is not the only side throwing all his chips on the table; so too is Ehud Olmert. The Israeli army has had a bad month, culminating Wednesday in the highest death toll on the battlefield in 30 days – 15 dead and 34 injured – 7 seriously. Nine belonged to special operations units.
Olmert will be gambling on the IDF’s ability to wrench the wheel round and start winning. A similar feat saved the day in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when after a row of disastrs in Sinai, Israeli units managed to outflank the Egyptian army and drive forward across the Suez Canal up to 101 kilometers from Cairo. It is up to the Israeli army to cross the Litani River and strike forward up to the Aouli River, crushing the Hizballah as it advances.
But if Hizballah forces in the south are not subdued and the rocket blitz continues, the war will intensify and Israeli forces will be in trouble. So too will Olmert.