Ever since Gaul's Celtic leader Brennus declared "vae victis" - woe to the defeated - following his seven-month siege of the Capitol in Rome, human history has taught us that some victories are merely temporary. Of others it can be said, like Pyrrhus after his ruinous victory over the Romans: "One more such victory and Pyrrhus is undone."
When Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon declared last week that Israel had been victorious in the conflict with the Palestinians, he had the historical lesson in mind. Ya'alon didn't sit down to speak with the military reporters with the intention of declaring a victory; the statement was drawn out of him by means of quick-fire journalistic questioning.
The original terms with which he described the results of the intifada were different. He spoke of the resoluteness of Israeli society and the Israel Defense Forces' operational determination, including the decision to strike at the Hamas leadership, and concluded that these had been the factors that had prompted the Palestinians to declare a cease-fire.
Only when asked if this meant that Israel had come out on top in the conflict did he reply that this would indeed be the way the results of the conflict would be described. "In other words, we won?" one reporter pressed. And Ya'alon replied, "Of course."
Ya'alon says his response was made in a sarcastic tone, but those present did not get that impression. In another interview about a month ago with Yedioth Ahronoth's Nahum Barnea, he made similar statements. Barnea pressed explicitly: "Are you saying this sarcastically?" he asked. And the chief of staff replied in the affirmative.
In any event, even if from the point of view of Ya'alon the uproar evoked by his statement has more to do with petty newspaper wars rather than with his sober evaluation of the results of the conflict on the battlefield, it reflects a primal need, apparently inherent in every general, to present a victory - even if merely for the sake of his troops' morale.
Or perhaps this wasn't the motivation for his statement, but rather the need to prove the veracity of what he has been saying since the signing of the Oslo Accords - that without neutralizing Arafat, and without dealing painful blows to the leaders of the terror organizations, the Palestinians would not be persuaded to abandon violence and divert the dispute with Israel to the negotiating table.
It would be best if the discourse of the country's leaders did not center on the simplistic question of who won the war of a thousand days. They should be asking themselves how do we translate the results of the violent campaign into a political achievement, how do we ensure that they lead to a peace settlement. Arbitrary declarations of victory won't be convincing in any case. Deep down, the public senses the bottom line of the bloody conflict of the past 32 months.
The Palestinian war of independence, which began in October 2000, ended with mutual attrition. Not just the Palestinians were beaten - Israel, too, suffered painful blows. In the conscience of the Palestinians, this war will be remembered as a period of much suffering, but also as a national struggle that brought them significant achievements. In the conscience of the Israelis, the past three years will be etched as a serious regression in the development of the state, but also as an important national test that it stood up to honorably.
If for a moment one disregards the terrible human significance of the bloodshed, it's a pretty good balance. Experience teaches us that when each side emerges from a war with a sense of achievement, the chances of attaining a peace settlement are increased.
Ya'alon understands this well and therefore the loud headlines about "the victory declaration" did him an injustice in their conciseness, as they did not reflect the complex manner in which he views the three-year battle. He draws a parallel between the manner in which the Yom Kippur War is etched in the consciences of the Israelis and Egyptians, and the manner in which the 1,000-day war will echo in the national memories of the Israelis and Palestinians.
He understands that he should refrain from making provocative statements against the Palestinians; and he relates with due seriousness, not to mention true respect, to the government revolution they have experienced and the political adeptness of their new leadership.
He points to the fragile nature of the cease-fire, yet he tends to believe that it will lead to a positive turnaround in the relations between the two nations.
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