In the last few days there have been a lot of rumors of impending cease-fires and diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice, to the cheers of many, is reportedly heading to the region to head off further escalation. I hope she doesn't go, and if she does, I hope her success is measured in photo ops and nothing more, because Israel has a moral and strategic obligation to invade southern Lebanon.
For nearly a week, Israel has been bombing significant swaths of Lebanese territory - not merely Hezbollah strongholds, but the suburbs of Beirut itself. Israel's defenders as well as most impartial analysts surmise that Israel is doing this for two reasons. First, the bombings of Lebanese bridges, roads and airports is necessary to cut off Hezbollah from its sponsors in Iran and Syria. The idea is simple. Recall how Colin Powell promised to "cut off and kill" the Iraqi army in 1991? Same thing here. If Hezbollah cannot be resupplied by its paymasters in Tehran and Damascus, then it can be slowly destroyed by the Israeli military.
The second explanation is that Hezbollah, like many of its terrorist counterparts, has learned the benefits of hiding itself in civilian areas so that any military defeat can be spun into a public relations victory. Israel is forced to inflict collateral damage and, sure as shinola, some French editorial cartoonist depicts the Israelis as Nazis.
Hezbollah's "brave" soldiers might as well strap babies to their torsos as shields. Morally, what they're doing is no different and, who knows, it might give them a P.R. boost. Regardless, while Israel goes to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties, it cannot be held hostage to such tactics. Hezbollah's headquarters cannot get a free pass.
As it stands now, a loose coalition of propagandists, Israel haters and idiots argues that Israel is deliberately targeting civilians in Lebanon. I believe - and hope - this is not true. Of course, Hezbollah is randomly targeting victims in Israel with its missiles. But Israel must have something larger in mind.
Hezbollah is the goon squad of Iran and Syria, and since the Lebanese government is too weak - and too infiltrated by Hezbollah members - to disarm it, the Israelis must do it. Even leading Arab countries want Hezbollah defanged, which is why Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others have put the blame squarely on Hezbollah for this whole mess. For UN fetishists, there's even a UN Security Council resolution saying Hezbollah must be disarmed.
Hezbollah instigated this round of fighting when it infiltrated the (UN-recognized) Israeli border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers while killing others. Few doubt that Hezbollah was put up to this act of war by its masters, Tehran and Damascus.
By all accounts, Hezbollah possesses thousands of missiles, some of which can penetrate deep into Israel. And, oh yeah, its entire reason for being is to see that glorious day when Israel is wiped off the map. In other words, the strategic imperative is obvious, legitimate and pressing. Meanwhile, all a cease-fire will do is put off the inevitable, muddy the waters and give Hezbollah an escape hatch while it's on the ropes.
If Israel agrees to a cease-fire, the story so far will have frozen in place. And what does that story look like? It looks like a tale of Israel bombing civilian targets as an end in itself. It looks like the sort of "collective punishment" that Israel's critics routinely decry. It looks like an attack on a struggling democratic government in a beleaguered yet heroic Lebanon in order to punish terrorists only nominally under the Lebanese government's control. Stop now and Hezbollah not only will have been left substantially intact, but perhaps even politically strengthened, not necessarily among the Lebanese, but certainly in the region as a whole.
Israel's bombing campaign, unlike Hezbollah's, must have a larger goal than mere terror and bloodshed. I'm certain that it does. But if the situation freezes under the current circumstances, Israel's larger goal won't be apparent to much of the world. It will seem like a hugely disproportionate response in which Israel killed hundreds of civilians in order to get back two kidnapped soldiers. And Hezbollah will still be there, ready to dance for any coin Syria or Iran puts in its jukebox, threatening Israel and strangling Lebanon's democratic hopes.
Hezbollah can only be destroyed by a ground campaign. If Israel doesn't launch one, it will be worse off, laughter will echo in Damascus and Tehran, Lebanon will have been dealt an unjust and cruel blow for nothing, and we'll all be back here again in the near future.