The government of Benjamin Netanyahu excels at presenting what is self-evident as the peak of wisdom. The decision to make do with a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip following the terror attack north of Eilat a week and a half ago, was celebrated as tremendous brilliance. By extension of this logic, a minister who will suddenly announce that two and two equals four would expect the Nobel Prize in Mathematics (and being turned down will be explained as anti-Semitism).
The formula “restraint is strength” was discovered and made public by Ariel Sharon. The discovery was late in coming in his case. As a young officer, hungry for fame and advancement, Sharon sought to carry out operations beyond the border, was bitter when a feeble government − on the basis of its foreign-born considerations − thought of canceling them, and turned his small approved plans into major wars, sending battalions and brigades through the eye of the needle meant for companies and platoons. The result can be measured − in addition to the many deaths for the IDF, the enemy and civilians − in the escalation which deteriorated the security situation.
As Defense Minister, Sharon did not hold back at the 40 kilometer line in Lebanon. Years passed and as leader of Likud, at a particularly sensitive moment in the political process with the Palestinians, he forgot to show restraint and defiantly insisted on visiting the Temple Mount. Only as prime minister, as a partner in the secret which binds those in the club of leaders who no longer need to climb the ladder, but who maneuver in an effort to stay on, did he become exposed to the hidden wisdom of restraint.
Sharon’s declaration that restraint is strength was made following the attack on the Dolphinarium in June 2001. It was preceded by the intention to use force against Palestinian targets and an international effort to prevent such intent. American superpower forced restraint on Israel’s power. Necessity stemming from the balance of power was marketed with the cover of ideology, which was well positioned between nonsense and common sense: “War is peace,” a la George Orwell’s “1984,” instead of the Talmud’s “the hero is the one who conquers his instincts” (if he conquers too much he becomes a monk, and no one ever suspected Sharon of that).
Ten months and hundreds more dead later, came the Park Hotel attack in Netanya. And then the wish of those who pushed for the competing slogan − “Let the IDF win” − came true. The IDF embarked on Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002 and achieved an unequivocal victory against the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank − even though three more years of fighting were necessary, and with the added help of a fence that was sluggishly built, targeted assassinations (Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and others), and the arrest of senior Palestinian figures; meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership moved from Yasser Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas, but the result was clear. Israel paid with many casualties, more than a thousand, but the war, with Defensive Shield at its epicenter, came to an end with its military victory. With Sharon as prime minister, it turned out that strength is still more effective than restraint.
If that is the case, then what was the difference between the Park Hotel and the Dolphinarium? September 11, 2001. Arafat’s refusal to join the pro-American camp which fought against terrorism released the rein which George Bush had placed on Sharon until then. Bush allowed Sharon to let the IDF win.
Except that military action is meant to serve a political goal, and in Sharon’s case the opposite occurred: along with a military gain, there was political failure. Even before the extent of the success of Defensive Shield emerged, when Bush demanded that Sharon pull out from the West Bank cities and forced him to set up a committee of inquiry into the massacre which did not happen in Jenin (the move was foiled by other elements), Bush had been the first president who expressed support in the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. At the same time, the Arab states met in Beirut to adopt the Saudi initiative, which aimed at achieving the same result.
Sharon was pushed into withdrawal, which surrendered the Gaza Strip to Hamas. Defensive Shield lowered the threat of terrorism and advanced the Palestinians toward their goal: international recognition of an independent state.
There is no proof that Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and their colleagues pondered and decided − for the time being, and until the next major and unacceptable confrontation − to favor military restraint. To the really important question − what is the political goal to which Israel is moving? − as it bombs and raids, or it holds back and shows restraint, they have no answer.
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