Jerusalem The monthlong war between Israel and Hezbollah has ended with a U.N-brokered cease-fire, and claims of victory from both sides. But was there, in fact, a winner?
Although the outcome of the fighting appears inconclusive, said Gidi Grinstein, president of Re'ut Institute, an Israeli think tank, "both sides can and do have a narrative of victory."
Hezbollah's story is about "resistance" and the ability of a small, well-equipped guerrilla force "to withstand Israeli military pressure for such a long time," he said. Israel's story is about "transforming the strategic equation so that Hezbollah no longer roams freely throughout southern Lebanon" operating as a state within a state, Grinstein said.
While Hezbollah and its main backers in Syria and Iran say they were successful in eroding Israel's deterrent power, Israel and its supporters say the high price Lebanon has paid for allowing Hezbollah to act with impunity - and the fundamental restructuring set to take place as up to 30,000 Lebanese Army troops and international peacekeeping forces deploy throughout Lebanon - is an Israeli achievement that will become more evident over time.
"Hezbollah thought they could establish mutual deterrence between their long-range missiles and the Israeli Air Force, and that they could carry out cross-border acts of aggression without compromising the wider interests of the state of Lebanon. That has been shown to be wrong," Grinstein said.
Given the total casualty count for both sides of more than 1,100 lives lost, thousands of civilians wounded and billions of dollars in economic and environmental damage, it may be a sign of political sophistication that the largest percentage of Israelis surveyed in most recent polls believe neither side came out a winner.
Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar believes the relevant question is not who won the war, but "who lost less."
To the extent that Hezbollah serves as a proxy army for Iran, he said, the government in Tehran appears to have benefited most from the confrontation because the intense fighting diverted the world's attention from Iran's controversial enrichment of uranium, which Iran says it wants for nuclear power but can also be used to build bombs.
The cease-fire that went into effect Monday also showed that it can rein in its proxy on command.
"Iran emerged a winner on two accounts," Javedanfar said. "It sent a strong message to Israel. In case our nuclear capability is attacked, this is a small sample of what you can expect in return, and it shows you can't do much about it.
"And secondly," he said, "Iran pushed Hezbollah to agree to the cease-fire. Iran could have forced Hezbollah to fight on for another year or two. Iran showed the world that it can play its card and is also willing to play along with the international community: Just remember that we can hurt you, but you can still do business with us."
Any final analysis of the winners and losers in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict has to take into account the unique logic of asymmetrical warfare.
As James Dobbins, director of the Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center, noted Wednesday at a symposium of the nonpartisan United States Institute for Peace in Washington: Organizations like Hezbollah win the moment they don't lose - and governments look like losers the moment they don't win.