The suicide bombing in Dimona and the ongoing Qassam rocket fire on Sderot reveal that the "running in place" did not begin and end with the Second Lebanon War. The Winograd Committee asks how it is possible for a war that lasted more than a month to have ended with neither a diplomatic nor military victory. The war against Hamas has been going on for more than seven years, but victory seems about as close as the diplomatic horizon.
The committee complains that the strongest army in the Middle East, with complete air superiority and advantages of both size and technology, was unable to defeat Hezbollah, "a semi-military organization of a few thousand men." This same strong army, along with all the other Israeli security services, has been controlling the territories for more than 40 years and enjoys complete supremacy there, yet it has been unable to defeat Hamas, whose forces and weaponry are inferior to those of Hezbollah.
Yesterday's events prove that the policy makers have not learned the principal lesson of the Second Lebanon War. The Winograd Committee punted the opportunity it was offered to effect a real "change of direction," as the ground operation that the committee praises was called. Instead of focusing on the core issue of how a strong state deals with "a semi-military organization of a few thousand men," the committee runs in place between "the decision-making process" and "staff work." It resembles a boxing commentator who comments at length on the moves of one boxer while ignoring those of the other - as if each one's actions did not affect the other's responses.
The leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah understand that they have no power to defeat Israel by a knockout. It is enough for them to win a few points in Arab and Palestinian public opinion and gain a little sympathy from the West, via pictures of bleeding children and civilians who have lost their homes. Both organizations understand Israeli politicians' sensitivities about freeing captives and entice them to enter the arena. Had the ground operation in Lebanon lasted a few more days and ended in a "military victory," the hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite refugees who fled northward would have threatened to topple Fouad Siniora's government.
The United States warned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the danger of a Hezbollah takeover of Beirut, which would turn Lebanon into an Iranian satellite. A continuation of the fighting would have forced Israel to choose between submission to an American demand that it withdraw its forces and a confrontation with its most important ally. Arab states that initially supported the operation against Hezbollah, such as Saudi Arabia, had also begun to change direction and turn against Israel. There was a real fear that the reward of a glorious military achievement would ultimately prove to be a diplomatic loss.
Operation Defensive Shield was considered a military success. The Israel Defense Forces took over the strongholds of Palestinian militancy and significantly reduced the number of terror attacks. But the operation did not solve any strategic problems. Indeed, the situation has gotten worse. The pragmatic Palestinian camp collapsed and gave way to militant Islamists. Today, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, and the security services fear that the West Bank will go next. Hamas has already succeeded in causing friction between Israel and Egypt, and Jordan is worried about the danger of an angry Palestinian mob breaking down the West Bank's eastern border.
In Olmert's "defense," one can note that his good friend President George W. Bush, the leader of the world's greatest power, also learned the hard way that military superiority is not always a guarantee of victory. The U.S. occupied Iraq via a crushing air operation and a determined ground operation, and ever since it has been running in place there and counting its dead. Nor is Olmert the only one afflicted with this mental block: His main rival, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also never learned the limits of force. Netanyahu admitted to the Winograd Committee that he supported the war in Lebanon because "the goals set by the cabinet were worthy ones."
The asymmetry in the conflict with the Palestinians, like that in the Lebanese theater, makes Israel's military superiority an irrelevancy, and sometimes even a double-edged sword. Instead of striving for military victories, Israel would do better to strive for diplomatic achievements. After seven years in which it has tried to advance vital aims via warfare, freezes and unilateral withdrawals, it has returned to square one: an attempt to reach a diplomatic agreement that would include security arrangements. The problem is that in this theater, too, we are continuing to run in place all the way to the next conflict without victory.
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