Israel And United States Spreading War In Strategic Overstretch
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
There is no doubt that these close ties do indeed exist. But the remarkably forthright tone and actions taken by Israel's still inexperienced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and his neophyte defense minister, Labor Party leader and former Israeli trade union chief Amir Peretz, stand in striking contrast to the far more restrained and focused actions that Olmert's long-time boss and predecessor as prime minister, Ariel Sharon, took during his five years in office.
Sharon did not hesitate to defy international criticism and send the Israeli army into devastating counter-strikes against Palestinian Territory cities such as Gaza, Jenin and Ramallah in response to terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians during the second Palestinian Intifada. But he was always extremely careful to avoid creating a wider conflict that could draw in neighboring nations such as Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.
It is certainly true -- as Israeli officials have emphasized over the past week -- that in the last year Hamas has fired more than 850 short-range Qassam rockets at Israeli territory. And it is also true that under such an intensive continuing bombardment, eventually some of those rockets are certain to inflict serious Israeli civilian casualties and/or strike some key installations such as the chemical and oil facilities at the Israeli port of Ashdod.
However, the actual casualties caused by the Qassams so far is less than 1 percent in terms of fatalities compared with the more than 1,100 Israeli civilians killed by Hamas and other suicide bombers during the Second Intifada from 2001 into 2005.
Hezbollah's 13,000 rocket tubes and artillery pose a potentially far greater threat, but casualties from their attacks have so far been relatively low. Yet Sharon, with his lifelong reputation as the toughest, most ruthless and most aggressive of all of Israel's legendary generation of warrior leaders, never sought to escalate Israeli military operations to include Lebanon or risk bringing Syria or Iran -- or both -- into any general conflict during his tumultous five years as Israel's prime minister.
By contrast, the U.S. government and armed forces now face the real possibility that if the current conflict continues to escalate, full-scale war could possibly erupt between Israel and its enemies on every side -- Hamas, which is steadily taking over full control of the Palestinian territories; Hezbollah, which has run southern Lebanon for the past quarter century; and Syria and Iran behind them.
Israel has not fought any conventional conflict with a neighboring state since its brief stand-off with the Syrian army in Lebanon in 1982. It has not fought any full-scale war with Arab or regional Muslim states since it militarily defeated Syria and Egypt after being surprised by them in the 1973 Arab-Israeli, or Yom Kippur, War.
Therefore, there is a real possibility that any generalized conflict between Israel and its current enemies could very rapidly require the United States to intervene with direct military force in order to protect and rescue its overstretched Israeli ally.
This is especially the case if the 13,000 rocket tubes and artillery pieces amassed by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon succeed in significantly disrupting the mass mobilization of Israel's conscript citizen army and seriously hinder its effective deployment in the north.
No one appears to want a full-scale war between states to break out in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Iran's firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The danger, however, is that the cycle of escalating Hezbollah attacks provoking ever-increasing Israeli retaliation could get out of control and produce disastrous and entirely unanticipated consequences.
It is not an exaggeration, therefore, to conclude that the current Middle East crisis has the most dangerous potential for escalation in the region since the 1973 war.