JERUSALEM—Israel's dual military campaigns—one in Gaza that began two weeks ago and the other that exploded this week in Lebanon—began with the same goal: Free Israeli soldiers seized by Islamic militants.
But Israel's ambitions now go beyond the soldiers' fate and seem aimed at eliminating the threat from two of Israel's most intractable enemies, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Achieving that goal will be difficult, analysts warn, and could bog Israel down in endless military campaigns unless it embraces diplomacy in trying to resolve the crises.
"The situation is deteriorating, and it is a situation that should be stopped if we do not want to see a complete collapse, maybe beyond the scope of Israel and Lebanon," said Yoram Meital, the chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University.
The speed with which the two incidents escalated into major military campaigns surprised even seasoned observers. What had been a crisis became a regional battle with the growing potential to become a broader war.
The battle has stirred memories for many Israelis of their last major incursion into Lebanon, which began in 1982 as a response to attacks from the Palestine Liberation Organization and lasted 18 years.
"Lebanon and fighting in Lebanon is for us, in a way, America's Vietnam," Meital said. "We were in Lebanon for 18 years, and we paid a heavy price."
The current fighting began around dawn on June 25 when Palestinian militants captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit during a sophisticated attack on one of Israel's military outposts along the Gaza Strip. Shalit was spirited into the Palestinian territory and hasn't been seen or heard from since.
Almost immediately, Israel sent tanks and soldiers into Gaza, less than a year after its widely praised decision to end its military occupation there and forcibly remove some 8,000 Jewish settlers.
At first, Israel said it would leave once it found Shalit. Then it declared that the military would remain until it had permanently stopped the rain of rudimentary Qassam rockets into southern Israel.
Negotiations to end the Gaza crisis had sputtered and stalled when Israel found itself confronting an even bigger problem on its northern border with Lebanon.
In a well-planned ambush, Hezbollah militants hit an Israeli patrol, killed three soldiers and captured two more on Wednesday.
Israel tried and failed to block the gunmen from taking the soldiers deep into Lebanon. Then it turned its anger on Lebanon's fragile, year-old government, which has little power or influence over the well-entrenched Hezbollah forces that control southern Lebanon.
As in Gaza, Israel made finding its soldiers its top priority. But now it's looking to bring down Hezbollah, the militant group that helped drive Israel out of Lebanon after a demoralizing 18-year conflict.
While many Israelis, especially those who've suffered from Hezbollah attacks for years, support that goal, the previous long involvement in Lebanon is one reason Israel has so far stopped short of sending large numbers of ground forces back into the country.
But it hasn't stopped Israel from issuing broad threats to its neighbors.
After Shalit was captured, Israeli fighter jets buzzed the summer retreat of Syrian President Bashar Assad because Syria provides a haven for Khaled Mashaal, the hard-line Hamas leader believed to have condoned the attack.
When the two other soldiers were captured on Wednesday, Israel made it clear that it held not only Hezbollah responsible, but also the weak Lebanese government that failed to contain the militants, as well as Syria and Iran, both of which provide political and financial support to the group.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said he doesn't see the conflict exploding into a war with Syria or Iran.
But he said that none of the major players, including the United States and Israel, appears to have any sense of how to prevent the crisis from becoming into a drawn-out conflict.
"I think we still have more escalation left in this, and one of the things I find most disconcerting is, I don't think anyone has a strategic horizon that they are trying to work for," Alterman said. "What seems to be missing is a clear sense of what the military might is trying to do and how the military might would lead to a political outcome."
Even if it achieves its broader goal of curtailing the influence of Hezbollah and its leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Israel might not be happy with what happens next.
"You can bring Nasrallah to his knees, but what comes afterwards?" asked Shaul Mishal, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. "Who will fill the black hole left by a military campaign? You may find something worse than Hezbollah, like al-Qaida, which would turn not only against Israel, but act outside the Middle East."
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed from Jersualem.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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