..to begin in earnest, with preparations for an Israeli invasion of Lebanon clearly underway. AP reports that Israeli troops and armor are massing along the northern border, in preparation for an invasion Lebanon.

As we noted when this crisis began, an Israeli invasion of Lebanon would come only when the IDF had mobilized sufficient numbers of reservists to carry out the operation. The Israeli Army relies heavily on reserves to flesh out its ranks in wartime; their mobilization process is quite efficient, but it still takes time to call activate and deploy the number of battalions and brigades needed for the Lebanon operation.

If Hizballah follows the usual script for Arab-Israeli Wars, their next major ploy will be the expected call for a cease-fire. As their military capabilities steadily erode, Hizballah will attempt to preserve what’s left of its rocket arsenal, and its fighters in the field. Terrorist propaganda may talk about a “fight to the death,” but Hizballah does not want to suffer the crushing blow that would come with an Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Iran and Syria will also press for some sort of negotiated settlement. Their war-by-proxy has created serious problems for their arch foe (Israel), at no cost to Damascus and Tehran. If the diplomats can work out something soon, both Syria and Iran can claim a significant victory over Israel, and reaffirm their leadership of the state-sponsored jihadist movement. From their perspective, it’s time to consolidate their gains in the diplomatic and propaganda wars–and avoid a major defeat for their terrorist allies who are actually fighting the Israelis.

If this pattern sounds a bit familiar, it should. Arab leaders began calling for a cease-fire almost from the start of the 1967 Seven-Day War, largely because the Israeli blitzkrieg caught them by surprise, and crushed their military forces. Similar calls were made in 1973, but only after the tide of battle shifted. When the Israeli Army counter-attacked across the Suez Canal (trapping an entire Egyptian Army), and pushed back the Syrians on the Golan Heights, Cairo and Damascus were more than happy to let the diplomats do their job.

As the diplomatic planets begin to align, the Bush Administration should continue to avoid this easy trap. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice has shown remarkable restraint by not rushing to the region, and making an early effort at shuttle diplomacy. She apparently understands the pattern of recent regional conflicts, and appears willing to let the Israelis take the necessary military steps, including a major incursion into Lebanon, creation of a new buffer zone, and denial of potential rocket launch sites to Hizballah. As the conflict enters a potentially decisive phase, both Washington and Tel Aviv must be careful, and avoid substituting a premature “settlement” for a military victory.

Distressingly, Washington now seems to be bowing to international pressure. Latest media reports suggest that she will travel to the Middle East as early as next week, and unveil a U.S. peace plan.