Same old song for 18 years

Maybe it's a coincidence, but the day on which the massive Home Front drill began marked the 10th anniversary of Israel's hasty retreat from Lebanon, after 1,216 fatalities and a bitter taste of failure. That wretched war had many names, but most of all it was called "the war of deceit," because the cabinet was led astray. Those who led us to war promised a 48-hour operation but ended up going all the way to Beirut. The war, in its different phases, lasted 18 years.

High school graduates destined to serve in Lebanon composed the most cynical war song ever heard in Israel's wars - "come down airplane, take us to Lebanon, we'll fight for Sharon and return in a coffin."

The generals at the time turned the supposedly brief operation into an ongoing campaign. The excuse for going to war was the assassination of our ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov, by an agent of Abu Nidal's. When Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan was told that Abu Nidal not only didn't belong to the PLO, which was based in Lebanon at the time, but didn't work for the PLO either - he responded at the cabinet session: "Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal, we've got to screw the PLO."

As time went by the voices calling for getting out of Lebanon grew stronger. It was reminiscent of a story Pinhas Sapir once told. His son returned home on Saturday all bruised. He said he had played soccer and someone kicked him in the face. Sapir replied: "I didn't ask you why you were bruised, but why you were there at all."

What happened to us in Lebanon was similar to our experience in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. We were accused of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, which the whole world denounced. No prime minister and no chief of staff dared to suggest getting out of Lebanon, even when it was clear that instead of the PLO we had gotten Hezbollah.

Ehud Barak was the only prime minister who had the required moral fortitude and strength to do what all his predecessors did not dare to - evacuate Lebanon overnight, contrary to senior officers' opinions. One of those officers, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, said in closed meetings that a slapdash withdrawal would harm Israel's deterrent power.

Barak submitted the proposal to the cabinet and secured its approval for immediate implementation that night. The pictures of retreat and abandoning some of the SLA combatants and part of the weapons were not flattering. The other side of the fence became a tourist attraction to various Israel-haters, who came to throw stones at the fence.

To this day the IDF's nocturnal desertion remains controversial. Opponents say the rushed exit did not prevent the Second Lebanon War, which brought the long-range missile threat to the heart of Israel's Home Front.

The extreme right wing still holds that flight from Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah's increased power and its threat on Israel's soft underbelly. Nobody wants to see the convoy of civilians fleeing from the center of the country southward again. Some Palestinians say that a dramatic flight like the exit from Lebanon could happen from the territories as well one day.

Not realistic, you say? Didn't Arik Sharon evacuate the Gaza Strip settlements? If he did so, as he explained, to wake the people up from the Greater Land of Israel dream, he didn't altogether succeed. On the contrary, he strengthened Hamas, which intensified the Qassam rocket fire and dragged us into another war, Operation Cast Lead, which blemished our image in the world and did nothing to speed up an agreement with the Palestinians.

The lesson to be learned from this is that a military triumph does not necessarily lead to a decisive diplomatic outcome. History teaches that in the absence of a decisive diplomatic outcome, the next war is written on the wall. The First World War and the oppression of defeated Germany generated the Second World War. The Six-Day War was brilliant from the military standpoint, but in the absence of a peace agreement, it generated the Yom Kippur War.

Sadat never dreamed of conquering Israel, but aimed at reaching an agreement with it. Fortunately for him and for us, the U.S. administration had at the time people like Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger in it, who put an end to the Vietnam War, opened a door to the People's Republic of China and cracked a window to peace with Egypt.

The conclusion is that even if 43 years have elapsed since the Six-Day War victory, it is not too late for this government, which also has the required majority, to translate that military triumph into a peace agreement.