Israel may appear to be solidly in the driver’s seat in its fight with Hezbollah – pushing relentlessly to weaken the Islamic guerrilla group as much as it can while there is little international pressure for a quick cease-fire.

But in the long run, wars in the Middle East are not won only on the battlefield, especially when they are waged against tough and savvy militant groups like the one in south Lebanon.

In many ways, the biggest risk is that this sudden, violent little war will tip the balance toward extremists and away from moderates across the Middle East, including in Lebanon, where the government has been dramatically weakened by the fighting.

Not only can Israel lose soldiers, as it did Thursday in an ambush in the south. It also faces the risk that whenever the fighting ends, Hezbollah – and its key backer, Iran – might be in a stronger, more influential political position than before.

That would be a bad outcome not just for Israel but also for the United States, hurting everything from U.S.-led Palestinian peace efforts and the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program to the still-rocky struggle to stabilize Iraq.

Damage to the fledgling democratically elected government would be a loss for the United States as it struggles to realize its secular vision for the region.

Hezbollah already has held its own sufficiently that it can present a cease-fire as a great victory, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, “can emerge victorious if he can plausibly claim that he conceded nothing … He can write off the damage to Lebanon as the price of war.”

Of course, Israel does have a powerful short-term interest in destroying as many of Hezbollah’s weapons as it can and pushing the Shiite militants away from the Lebanese border.

A cease-fire that resulted in moving Hezbollah farther from the border with a depleted weapons supply, or a strike that killed the charismatic and popular Nasrallah, could give Israel valuable breathing space.

But the reality is that as long as it has political support in Lebanon, Hezbollah can always resupply through Iran and Syria. It has a group of committed fighters and supporters.

And the greater the destruction to Lebanon, the more likely that Lebanon’s fledgling, Western-backed government will remain weak and unable to disarm Hezbollah.

All of that means Hezbollah’s overall position in Lebanon – and its ability to use the country as a base against Israel in future – could actually improve as anger at Israel and backing for the guerrillas grow.

Hezbollah at first seemed to have miscalculated when it snatched two Israeli soldiers. It may have believed Israel would negotiate a prisoner swap as it had in the past. The Saudis and Egyptians initially criticized Hezbollah but now are turning the harsh words on Israel.

But instead, Israel hit back hard, and as it did, Hezbollah appeared to be losing political ground. Many in the Mideast were deeply dismayed at the group’s provocation and blamed it for the destruction wreaked on Lebanon.

Yet as the fighting goes on, the mood is shifting perceptibly, at least among average Arabs, from anger at Hezbollah to more-familiar feelings of hostility toward Israel. That is what Hezbollah counts on, and Nasrallah is highly skilled at using the region’s media to beef up his political position.

Unless Western-leaning and pro-democracy supporters in Lebanon can somehow rejuvenate the street strength they showed last year in their push for democracy, their side – the moderate side – seems certain to lose influence.

In one troubling sign, airports all across the Mideast were packed this week with the cream of Lebanese society – middle-class families, businessmen with laptops, young affluent students – all headed to Canada, the United States, South America, Europe. If they leave for the duration, as they did during the country’s civil war years, that could again leave their country mostly helpless against Hezbollah.

All of that is bad for both the United States and moderate Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who America depends on to carry its agenda in the Mideast. Those countries, on the defensive as Hezbollah fights Israel, lose their ability to push for peace talks or mediate for moderation behind the scenes with other militant groups like Hamas.

None of that means Hezbollah or Iran wins, either – their ability to cause trouble does not necessarily leave either of them, long-term, any nearer to their goals, said Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Unless the current fighting somehow really does lead to the disarming of Hezbollah, a flood of aid to Lebanon, and a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian war … the mid- to long-term outcome will be as bad for any apparent victor as the defeated,” he said.

“The Israelis will lose, Hezbollah will lose and so will everyone else.”

Sally Buzbee is the AP’s Chief of Middle East News in Cairo, Egypt.

AP-ES-07-22-06 1740EDT

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