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'The Islamist axis'

Special Report: America needs to understand why Israel is 'losing' in Gaza.

passion of its inner cadres. By its own account, membership in the party and its militia has doubled, as have the ranks of its youth scout program, which trains future Hezbollah fighters and bureaucrats.

Border villages hard hit during the war have been quickly rebuilt. Ayta al-Chaab, the frontier town from which Hezbollah launched its cross-border raid, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and sparking the 2006 conflict, was ravaged by bombing and then ground fighting: About 90 percent of the town’s buildings were ultimately damaged or destroyed. Now, it’s been almost completely reconstructed, and expanded. There are several hundred new houses, built by Hezbollah supporters who were encouraged by the party to relocate to the sensitive border region, to counter a perceived Israeli desire to depopulate southern Lebanon.

For Hezbollah’s supporters, the question isn’t if they’ll fight Israel again, but when. “Now is not a good time for the people. We have just recovered from the last aggression. And the Islamic resistance does not want to be seen provoking a war,” says Faris Jamil, 52, a Hezbollah supporter whose house was destroyed in 2006.

Jamil and his family live in the basement of their half-completed home, an ornate three-story structure accented with Grecian marble columns and floral stone cornices. From his front door, he watches the sun set behind the next line of hills, a mile away in Israel.

“We are ready to respond if attacked,” Jamil says, warming himself by a wood stove. “But otherwise, we should expect the next war in two or three years.”

Israel Alarmed by Rising Calls for its Destruction

Equally alarming to Israel and its friends — and more energizing to the “resistance axis” that spans Tehran, Damascus, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and a panoply of smaller Palestinian, Iranian and Arab Islamist groups — is the swelling rhetoric about “liberating Jerusalem,” sending Israel’s Jews “back to Europe and America where they came from.”

Such words are nothing new in the Middle East; but the conviction that a total military defeat of Israel is a realistic possibility is. One hears echoes of it in the words of Iran’s supreme leader — Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the speeches of Nasrallah, the statements of Hamas, and in the bubbling ferment of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish hatred roiling the region’s mosques, television channels and cafe chatter.

This belief, that an Islamic resistance can eventually disestablish Israel as a state, is in part an outgrowth of an approach that has prioritized the law of the strongest above all else. Israel, at its peak, extended a tight grip over the West Bank and Gaza, building homes for hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers.

Now, the Islamists see their own star rising and believe Israel’s is waning; Hezbollah drove Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon in 2000, after 18 years of occupation. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and Hamas successfully sold the pullout to its constituents as a victory for its fighting brigades. Hezbollah’s successful reemergence from the 2006 war only strengthened the Islamist bloc’s narrative of growing prowess.

Critics inside Israel’s political and military establishment have consistently bemoaned the rise of an Islamist axis and have decried the vain effort to quash it by force. Only months before the Gaza conflict, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a candid exit interview, harshly derided his own tactics, declaring that Israel could only achieve peace through political negotiation, not by conquering hilltops.

Israeli analyst Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz at the close of the Gaza conflict that Israel had failed all its aims, and had increased popular support for Hamas. “Deterrence, my foot,” he wrote. “The deterrence we supposedly achieved in the Second Lebanon War has not had the slightest effect on Hamas, and the one supposedly achieved now isn't working any better… Their [Hamas’] war has intensified the ethos of resistance and determined endurance.”

There are certainly differences between Israel’s two most recent campaigns, against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009. Hezbollah benefits from unimpeded access to armaments supplied by Iran and transferred through Syria. Hamas smuggles in some weapons through tunnels from Egypt, and relies primarily on the locally manufactured Qassam rockets, which cause more terror than actual damage and death in Israel. Hezbollah is larger and better-funded than Hamas; its fighters operate in wide expanses of hilly and mountainous terrain, which offer cover and room for maneuver not to be found in the flat, claustrophobic, urban Gaza Strip.

And Israel appears to have learned at least some lessons from its failures in 2006, this time around acting with decisive force. Israel’s military and political leaders have acted more in concert, and have avoided setting impossible goals like the elimination of Hamas.

Tel Aviv strikes, but leaves room for negotiation

The Islamist axis commands real power and is a force to be reckoned with. Israel has never stopped negotiating with Hamas and Hezbollah. European diplomats are quietly talking to Hezbollah officials, and looking for ways to initiate contacts with Hamas without violating European law. American intelligence services and diplomats find they have less and less leverage and understanding from their increasingly isolated stations and embassies; they’ll need to craft new channels through which to speak to groups in the Islamist axis.

Military force surely will continue to play a central role in the Middle East, a region where competing well-armed groups frame every conflict as a question of survival and are quick to shoot back when provoked. But Israel’s conflicts failed to decisively turn the popular tide against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israel, like the United States, wants to shift the balance of power in the Middle East away from militant Islamist groups. To accomplish that end, the Obama administration and its allies will have to forswear an approach built around military force. Bombs alone will not eliminate popular ideological movements like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

(Thanassis Cambanis is writing a book about Hezbollah for Free Press, due to be published in 2010.)

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