One former general in the Israel Defense Forces made an original proposal this week: If in the swap of the murderer Samir Kuntar for Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser it is possible to learn the abducted soldiers' fate, Kuntar's fate should be decided accordingly. If they are returned alive, he will be returned alive. If they are brought back in coffins, he will also be put to death, on the spot, and his body returned to Lebanon in exchange for their bodies.
It was not serious, of course. A state that considers itself enlightened does not behave this way, at least not since it was caught and incriminated in the Bus 300 affair, when a bus was hijacked. The idea reflected the desperation that has taken over the Israeli establishment. It is defeatist, caught up in ethical, political, and legal chains of events, and unable to use the tools available to it.
For the Americans or the French, for example, it is important to bring to justice the killers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri - by conducting an investigation and setting up an international tribunal. Even more potent logic would suggest that since Israel is the direct victim of aggression, it is entitled to take action against Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who publicly announced that he ordered the attack on the soldiers. But it is paralyzed.
When the IDF prepares its plans, it does so with the Supreme Court in mind. The military advocate general, Brigadier General Avihai Mandelblit, recently visited Washington. One of his visits was to the office of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts. At the end of the meeting, Mandelblit and his hosts, U.S. officers, went to the Supreme Court's souvenir shop. At the entrance they ran into Justice Antonin Scalia, who shared with the American officers stories of the wonders of the Israeli Supreme Court, which rips apart the defense establishment with rulings on the separation fence, and much more, not allowing it to operate unhindered.
To avoid taking fire from the Supreme Court, even if under Dorit Beinisch's leadership it has been even more attentive to practical security needs than its predecessor, Mandelblit is careful to coordinate his important legal opinions with Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. One of the more important ones concerns the Gaza Strip's status after its evacuation by the IDF and the subsequent takeover by Hamas. Gaza is now considered closer to being an enemy state, like Lebanon regarding Hezbollah, than the territory under Israeli responsibility - the West Bank.
This has practical implications on rules of engagement, on authorizing assassinations of senior figures in the Palestinian organizations and of other militants. In the West Bank, the Military Advocate General requires that the IDF first try to arrest fugitives and not rush for the kill. In the Gaza Strip, if the cease-fire is broken, there will be no legal obstacle to targeting Hamas' leaders and to an even more lax interpretation of commanders' military needs in an operation to counter threats to their soldiers' lives.
This may affect the next round, which will occur because the trend is not one from war to peace but one of rounds. But for now what counts is that Samson has tired from the battle in Gaza and the Philistines have won this round. Domestically it was seen that Israel enjoyed overwhelming force, and there was the mystique of its intelligence, special forces and air force. Now, what dictates the events are a handful of Palestinian youths who dug a tunnel up to the military position in Kerem Shalom, abducted Gilad Shalit and have managed to prevent his release for two years.
This lesson resounds far and wide. If, when it is so near the source of danger, Israel is shown to be hapless, people in Beirut, Damascus and Tehran may conclude that it is possible to challenge Israel and force a difficult reality on it, because the government will fear society's response to the price of the effort to alter such a reality.
There was no need for an air force exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, which was reported in the New York Times on Friday (which is to its joy outside Israeli military censorship), to conclude that the air force is capable of flying great distances in large numbers. It has done so in the past, including the strike on PLO headquarters in 1985 in Tunis, and in publicized exercises in Turkey, which borders Iran. The main military challenge in planning an operation is, and has always been, intelligence: The air force needs to know in order to hit. If it has good intelligence and is given realistic targets, nothing too ambitious, it can be relied on to succeed.
The real difficulty is not military; it is political. Iran's progress in its nuclear program and the election countdown in Washington may lead the Israeli leadership to conclude that it is best to act in the summer-fall 2008 and not wait for next year. It is from this that a fateful decision stems, and which requires a credible and stable government.
There is currently no such government, and proof of this is the triple dispute on hand: over the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, the release of Gilad Shalit, and the deal to let Kuntar go. As long as Ehud Olmert is running the government - someone suspected of felonies in a matter coming closer to an indictment each day - the government is disqualified from making such a decision. So his immediate removal from office is a national necessity as much as an existential one.
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