For 78 days, the U.S. air force bombed the Serbs, led by Slobodan Milosevic, until it achieved a resolution in Yugoslavia in 1999. The Israel Air Force will not have 78 days for its air offensive in Lebanon. There are more restrictions on the IAF's activity in Beirut than there were on the U.S. air force in Belgrade, and Hezbollah is a lot more sophisticated than Milosevic's army was.
The significance of this is clear: There will be no resolution from the air, even if the pilots ultimately manage to locate Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and kill him. Despite the media euphoria and the patriotic spin, the aerial war led by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz is not heading for victory. In the best case, it is heading for a limited military achievement.
Following the humiliation of the ground forces by abductions in the north and south, the air force strikes are straightening the national spine and arousing combative instincts. But the hard truth is that the air force's hammer blows are hitting Lebanon harder than they are hitting Hezbollah. At least two-thirds of Nasrallah's war machine remains intact. The achievements in curbing the Katyusha fire are insufficient. There is no chance of dismantling the guerrilla army in a matter of days.
According to the pessimistic scenario, the IAF - despite all its efforts - will not manage to silence the rocket fire, and its operation will end with Nasrallah coming out of his bunker capable of threatening Israel once more. In the optimistic scenario, Nasrallah is assassinated, his forces are pushed away from the border and his rockets fall silent.
But even in the best-case scenario, Hezbollah will rise from the rubble within two months. Within a year or two, south Lebanon will once again be a vibrant Iranian state within a state. The rocket campaign will not be launched, but it will continue to pose a threat. The lesson that the Middle East will learn is that a small, sophisticated and disciplined army of believers can taunt Israel and survive.
Israel cannot agree to teach such a lesson. The reason is simple: We are in a new era - an era of high-trajectory weapons. As the rocket attacks on Haifa, Ashkelon and the Sycamore Ranch have shown, Israel has no direct response to this weaponry. The only response is decisive deterrence.
Hezbollah, which attacked Haifa and is flourishing in south Lebanon, completely negates decisive deterrence. It is a continuing testimony to Israeli weakness. It portends a new war, a much tougher one, which will happen suddenly within a short time.
The aerial offensive notched quite a few accomplishments, and there are more to come. But if it does not lead to a decisive point, it is liable to cause the security of Israel more harm than good. The destruction of real estate in Beirut, the decimation of a few Zelzal rocket launchers, and the killing of a few top Hezbollah officials are not the strategic equivalent of breaking the taboo involved in attacking Tiberias, Afula and Haifa.
Israeli leaders who have not considered this will discover in the coming days the disadvantages and limitations of the aerial offensive. Then they will be faced with a tough dilemma: Should they finish off the aerial operation with a diplomatic process, which is liable to rehabilitate Hezbollah, or should they finish it off with a ground operation that could involve heavy losses and entanglement in Lebanon?
One way or the other, the illusion of a magic solution is about to burst. The Israel Air Force is trying - but not succeeding - to do all the work on our behalf.
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