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"The two sides, Israel and the Palestinians, aren't merely fighting; they're wrestling, just like in the ring, trapped in each other's grasp," said a senior official in the defense establishment this week.

"It's body to body, arm to arm, thigh to cheek, one big mix-up of limbs. And in the midst of the confusion, for a second, one of the wrestlers spots a particularly sensitive limb, and with the kind of quick decision that can determine the outcome of a struggle, he leaps forward and clamps his teeth onto that limb. For a moment, there's a sense of victory - until he feels the pain that tells him that he has bitten himself."

It's encouraging to find out that the people waging the war in the territories haven't lost their sense of humor. They'll need it in the coming years, since their reservoir of understandings and plans is no different from what goes through the minds of the random civilian pedestrians passing on the sidewalk outside their windows.

There are no conspiratorial explanations about a great strategy for the future. There are no grand plans, grandfather plans, or even a plot unfolding before our eyes. It's living from incident to incident, attack to attack, speech (Powell) to speech (Arafat). Nobody knows how to plan the move after the next one, and least of all, Ariel Sharon.

Reality has overpowered the ideas that pretended to shape it. Israel's security doctrine, in its original form, was based on very different assumptions, and so it reached very different conclusions. The most basic assumption was that Israel's society and economy could not withstand a lengthy security crisis; Israel's numerical disadvantage was a fixture of the conflict - "the few against the many;" the Arab states have "staying power" against which Israel has to produce, in brief moments of emergency, "shock power" - preferring multipurpose systems (air power and armor) over single-purpose systems (bomb shelters, anti-aircraft systems).

The forces, doctrines and operational plans were all aimed at rapid escalation to all-out war. If the foe begins some form of attrition, whether terror or mortar attacks, it has to know that it is risking transferring the conflict to a less comfortable arena; and if it is deterred, Israel has the power to attain a quick, decisive victory. That was the spirit behind the Sinai Campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967.

But what was true for Arab regimes and armies isn't true for the Palestinian Authority and the terror groups operating from within its territory. The Israelis may be vastly outnumbered by the Arabs, but they outnumber the Palestinians. The ability of Israeli society to withstand losses - even after the 242nd casualty - has not been shaken; and there's no use for shock power because bringing down the Palestinian Authority and occupying its cities will only perpetuate the war instead of deciding it.

Therefore, a new formula is needed for the relationship between offense and defense in the security equation. All out attack leads to friction, real and televised, with a poor and stubborn population. The purpose of offensive operations are not to be decisive, but to be pinpoint - ground and air ambushes, and "focused prevention" against terror cells.

In the conflict with the Palestinians, an offense is not the best defense, but rather the result of the failure of the defense. An attack that ends without many casualties pits international judgment (opposed to an Israeli attack) against domestic concerns (in favor of an attack), with the advantage tilting to the external considerations.

The same attack, with the same political background, but with a two-digit casualty count on the Israeli side, pushes the government into "releasing energy" and "exacting a price," as one of the generals said, by launching battalions, tanks, and planes. And the difference between the two is often a matter of the quality of the defense.

The Lebanon War would have found its excuse without the failure to protect Ambassador Argov in London; but preventing the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi and armoring the Dan bus on the road to Emanuel would have saved lives and escalation.

The outrageous, but necessary conclusion is that discipline is foreign to the Israeli character, while defense is wasteful to the national coffers. But without them, things can only get worse.