Report: US helped Israel plan Lebanon offensive

White House denies as ‘flat wrong’ a US role in Hizbullah conflict, with an eye toward Iran.

A special report in The New Yorker says the Bush administration was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks against Hizbullah in Lebanon, and US officials hoped that by helping Israel destroy or disarm the militant Islamic group, it would make it easier for the US to launch a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The report, written by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who also helped break the story about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prision and in the 70s broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, alleges Israeli officals travelled to Washington to talk to US officials, in particular Vice President Dick Cheney, about the plan.

“The Israelis told us it would be a cheap war with many benefits,” a US government consultant with close ties to Israel said. “Why oppose it? We’ll be able to hunt down and bomb missiles, tunnels, and bunkers from the air. It would be a demo for Iran.”

A Pentagon consultant said that the Bush White House “has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a pre-emptive blow against Hezbollah.” He added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.” (As this article went to press, the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution, although it was unclear if it would change the situation on the ground.)

Terrorism experts believe that Iran supplies and trains many Hizbullah fighters. Mr. Hersh writes that the idea of the campaign against Hizbullah originated with the Israelis, who consider the group a threat to their country’s survival. The Israelis also knew that Hizbullah normally undertook some kind of action against Israel “like clockwork” every month or two. Once informed of Israel’s plans, Hersh writes, the US saw it as a way to achieve several goals.

The Middle East expert said that the Administration had several reasons for supporting the Israeli bombing campaign. Within the State Department, it was seen as a way to strengthen the Lebanese government so that it could assert its authority over the south of the country, much of which is controlled by Hezbollah. He went on, “The White House was more focussed on stripping Hezbollah of its missiles, because, if there was to be a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hezbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel. Bush wanted both. Bush was going after Iran, as part of the Axis of Evil, and its nuclear sites, and he was interested in going after Hezbollah as part of his interest in democratization, with Lebanon as one of the crown jewels of Middle East democracy.”

CBS News reports that Israeli officials “fiercely denied” that it had sought a “greenlight” from Washington, and that it had no advance plan to attack Hizbullah, but only attacked in response to Hizbullah’s provocations.

“Had it not been for the shelling of Hezbollah over our population, had it not been for the kidnapping of our soldiers and killing of eight, we would not have taken any action,” said Israeli Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon. Israel also denied another Hersh claim: That its military leaders began talking tactics with US generals early this spring, developing a strategy that could be used not only by Israel against Hezbollah, but potentially by US forces in a military campaign against Iran.

Meanwhile at the White House, national security adviser Steven Hadley said: “The suggestion that the US and Israel planned and coordinated an attack on Hezbollah – and did so as a prelude to an attack on Iran – is just flat wrong.”

The Guardian reports, however, that in interviews on US cable news networks, Hersh continues to say his story is correct.

Yesterday Mr Hersh told CNN: “July was a pretext for a major offensive that had been in the works for a long time. Israel’s attack was going to be a model for the attack [Bush administration officials] really want to do. They really want to go after Iran.”

The Independent also points out that Hersh is not actually the first reporter to allege that the attack on Hizbullah had been planned in advance. There were, the paper points out, several previous media references.

Last month the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Israel’s military response by air, land and sea to what it considered a provocation last week by Hizbullah militants was unfolding according to a plan finalized more than a year ago”. The report said that a senior Israeli army officer had been briefing diplomats, journalists and think-tanks for more than a year about the plan and it quoted Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at [Israel’s] Bar-Ilan University, who said: “Of all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared.” Last week the New Statesman magazine reported that Britain had also been informed in advance of the military preparations and that the Prime Minister had chosen not to try to stop them “because he did not want to”.

Hersh writes in The New Yorker that some former Bush administration officials now believe the US-Israeli campaign may have had the exact opposite outcome than the one originally envisioned.

According to Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State in Bush’s first term – and who, in 2002, said that Hezbollah “may be the A team of terrorists” – Israel’s campaign in Lebanon, which has faced unexpected difficulties and widespread criticism, may, in the end, serve as a warning to the White House about Iran. “If the most dominant military force in the region – the Israel Defense Forces – can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of seventy million,” Armitage said. “The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”

Tony Karon, a senior editor at Time magazine, writes in an analysis of the conflict that neither the Israelis, nor Hizbullah can claim total victory.

Claiming victory may be harder for the Israeli leadership, which initially defined success by the image of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah either dead or crying for mercy, his army and its rockets scattered to the four winds. Instead, Israeli leaders now have to convince their increasingly skeptical citizens that the war has been won … Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has seen his poll numbers take a dive similar to those of President Bush, from upward of 70 percent approval to figures in the low 40s – except that while Bush’s slide occurred over the four years that followed 9/11, Olmert’s came in just four weeks of war. The Prime Minister has looked skittish and indecisive, caught between the impulses of escalation and restraint, and apparently more reliant on signals from Washington than Israeli leaders prefer to show themselves to be.

But Mr. Karon also writes that Hizbullah, while it will try to claim ‘victory’ just because it survived the Israeli onslaught, it nevertheless diminished militarily. “It will be forced to cede control of southern Lebanon to the Lebanese Army, which it had previously resisted, and will have seen much of its capability to strike Israel with missiles neutered. The political path ahead remains perilous for a movement now forced to choose between its identity as an anti-Israel resistance and as a Lebanese political party and social movement.”

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