The manner in which the new Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon handled the affair of recently assassinated Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, testifies to his talent and to his ability to draw conclusions quickly. Only a few hours after the bombing in Gaza, the lavish praise from government officials gave way to excuses and to placing the blame on the army and on military intelligence. Ya'alon got the message, and quickly passed down the responsibility. In his briefing to the weekend newspapers, the chief of staff disclosed those who were really to blame for the failure - the air force operations researchers, who suggested dropping the heavy bomb.
Ya'alon began his term with an attempt to escalate the war with the Palestinians, and was caught up in a series of failures. He apparently wanted to demonstrate that he is no less aggressive than his predecessor. Following an unsuccessful pursuit of the terrorists responsible for the attack in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel, the IDF arrested the terrorists' families and threatened to deport them to Gaza: Here is a daring operation, a miracle cure for suicide terrorism, which even the militant Mofaz avoided carrying out. When his deportation hit a legal mine, Ya'alon went to bomb Shehadeh, and slipped up with a superfluous killing of citizens.
In long wars, like that which Israel is waging against the Palestinians, one wins by gritting one's teeth, by means of superior endurance. Attack isn't necessarily the short way to victory in such wars, which don't produce stories of heroism and distinguished service medals.
Israel was surprised by the outbreak of the intifada, and its war aims have changed with time. Under the leadership of former prime minister Ehud Barak, Israel tried to buy quiet by means of political concessions, and failed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began his term by working toward a cease-fire with Palestinian Authority [PA] Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The escalation in the fighting, which reached its peak in the terror campaign of February-March and in the subsequent Operation Defensive Shield, brought about a change in Israel's goals. Military success and White House backing whetted our appetite. The confrontation now looks like an all-out war, which will continue until the Palestinians surrender and their leader is removed. The victory that Sharon and Ya'alon want is designed to convince the other side that it won't achieve anything through terror and violence.
How does one accomplish that? Israel's strategic weapon against the Palestinians is not the F-16, but the economic siege, by its various names, which is backed by the reoccupation of Palestinian cities and by American pressure to remove Arafat. The distress and the shortages, more than any aggressive activity, are likely to convince the Palestinians that their struggle is hopeless.
The talks between the PA, the Tanzim and Hamas regarding a cease-fire, are a sign that the Palestinians are getting tired. They are now fighting to maintain their military capability and the present regime - that same unique combination of dictatorship and anarchy. Sharon refuses to pay attention to it, and rightly so. Stopping the war in the present situation will leave the territories under the control of various gangs and violent organizations, which will be able to blackmail Israel as they desire. The war will be long, as shown by yesterday's attack in Jerusalem and a recent briefing to the cabinet about the hundreds of Palestinians willing to commit suicide.
But just when Israel is at a military and political advantage, it mustn't lose its accomplishments because of arrogance and mistakes. Aggressive actions that achieve a tactical success are liable to cause strategic damage, leading to unnecessary complications and risking the loss of American support. Israel must also prevent an outbreak of famine and plague in the territories, which would force it to withdraw and to bring in an international force to the territories, masked as a "humanitarian aid organization."
And no less important, Sharon has to think about the day after the victory, and about the conditions for peace he will offer the Palestinians. A surrender that is too humiliating will bring quiet to Israel in the short term, but will ignite the fuse of the next war. Only political and economic generosity, even if it makes things hard on Sharon in his race to remain head of the Likud, is likely to ensure a stable agreement, that same "peace for generations" that the prime minister promises his citizens, who are exhausted by the conflict.
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