With the miniwar between Israel and the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah halted, at least temporarily, the usual "who-won-who-lost" debate is raging in the media.
Since, in politics, perceptions are often more important than reality, it would be futile to try to establish a clinical assessment of what happened. Hezbollah and its supporters are confident that they won, and nothing will shake their belief. The same is true of Israel whose Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has had the temerity to claim that he achieved all his objectives.
Thus, what matters are not the conflicting claims of victory that one hears. What is important is the conclusion that the protagonists draw from their rival claims.
Let us start with the immediate protagonists - Israel and Hezbollah.
The initial dispute, over exchanging two captured Israeli soldiers against some 1000 Hezbollah prisoners, that triggered the war, could have been resolved through diplomatic channels as in the past. The fact that Olmert chose to use force meant only one thing: The new Israeli leader wanted to try something different. That "something different" was military action against Hezbollah. If Olmert now believes that he won, we must assume that he will play the military card more often. And that could mean major changes in Israeli policies as developed since 2000.
The truth, however, is that Olmert's "something different" did not work.
He did not get the captured soldiers back, and there is no guarantee that he will see Hezbollah fully disarmed by the so-called "international community."
As for Hezbollah's claim of victory the logical conclusion is that the price paid, in Lebanese lives and the destruction caused, was worth paying. Logically, Hezbollah should reject all talk of laying down its arms. If Hezbollah won the "historic and strategic victory" that Hassan Nasrallah has claimed, this is no time to abandon the struggle. A victorious army does not disarm; it pursues the war until the enemy is forced to surrender. The truth, however, is that the United Nations managed to obtain a cease-fire after the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is part, agreed to put southern Lebanon, nearly 10 percent of the national territory, under virtual UN mandate. Hezbollah will also lose most of its arms caches south of the Litani River.
While the miniwar was fought between Israel and Hezbollah, everyone knows that the real clash was between the United States and Iran over their conflicting scenarios for the Middle East.
It is certain that Israel would not have taken military action without at least a nod and a wink from Washington. Thus, President George W. Bush's claim that the war would help his "Grater Middle East" project matters beyond mere diplomatic considerations. The logical conclusion from Bush's assessment of the outcome of the war is that the use of force remains a live option for removing obstacles to the American project for the region.
The truth, however, is that the military option does not enjoy the level of popular support that any US president would need before he sends in "the boys." Worse still, the latest Israel-Hezbollah duel may persuade more Americans that force does not work against enemies who fight asymmetric war and are not impressed by the so-called "shock-and-awe" style of warfare.
Many observers see Iran as the biggest winner from the conflict. That view has been endorsed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has spoken of a "divine victory" and renewed his promise to wipe Israel off the map. He has also said that the "American dream of the Greater Middle East" has been buried in the rubbles of south Lebanon.
The logical conclusion from that analysis would mean a more aggressive Iranian diplomatic, political and propaganda campaign in support of Ahmadinejad's vision for the region. However, such a campaign would make no headway if Iran were to bow to the pressure over its alleged nuclear weapons' program. If Iran has won such a great victory against the United States in Lebanon, it could not adopt a defeatist posture by accepting the humiliating resolution passed against it by the UN Security Council last month.
Logically, Ahmadinejad should reassert Iran's right to pursue its nuclear program unhampered, and tell the US-led coalition to take a walk. And, that would force the US-led coalition either to push the conflict one notch higher or to eat humble pie, thus emboldening Ahmadinejad further.
Syria's position is also interesting to note. At the start of the Israel-Hezbollah war, Damascus insisted that it was in no way involved and denied any prior knowledge of the Hezbollah plans.
Now, however, Syria is anxious to claim a share of the victory it believes Hezbollah has secured.
In what must be rated as the most important speech of his career so far, President Bashar Assad hailed Hezbollah's victory, claimed a share in it, and forecast the defeat of "American plans" for the Middle East. But he did two things that may prove to be of greater importance in the long-term.
The first was his energetic attack on other Arab regimes, thus emphasizing Syria's alliance with Iran in support of an anti-American vision of the Middle East. By doing so, he ended more than a quarter of a century of ambiguity, generated by President Hafez Assad, about the strategic nature of the Damascus-Tehran axis.
President Bashar's second important move was his re-commitment of Syria to a strategy of armed struggle to liberate the Golan Heights, and other Arab territories occupied by Israel. By doing so, he ended another ambiguity cultivated by his illustrious father who talked of war but never directly fired a bullet against Israel, and kept channels open to Washington at all times.
The upshot of all this is that the idea of wiping Israel off the map, something that no one seriously advocated even a year ago, is now forcefully presented as a realistic and achievable goal. Suddenly all the talk about the "road map", a "two-states formula", and even "unilateral transfer of land to Palestinians" appears out of context. If the whole of Palestine, including the part known as Israel, can be "liberated", there is no reason why those who always saw the creation of the Jewish state as a "nakbah"(catastrophe), should settle for only a small parcel of the "usurped land."
If one takes the conflicting claims of victory seriously, only one conclusion seems possible: The protagonists are in no mood to modify, let alone abandon, their rival projects to remove the threat of war. There will be no place for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Baathist regime in Syria and the Hezbollah in an American-designed "Greater Middle East". At the same time, there could be no place for Israel, US influence, and pro-American regimes in a Middle East where the Islamic republic and its allies, including non-state players, set the agenda.
The miniwar fought in Lebanon was one battle in what could be a bigger, longer, costlier, and deadlier struggle for setting the agenda for the Middle East that would also affect the global balance of power. Because the prospect of such a war is looming larger than before, it may be too early to draw hasty conclusions from the five-week test of wills that Lebanon had to witness this summer.