Yom Kippur is approaching and it's a good opportunity for some soul-searching and reexamination of the situation compared to the past. There's not too much effort required to reach the conclusion that the Israeli leadership has fallen victim in 2003 to a strategic "concept" as it did in 1973. Like then, the leadership has overestimated Israel's military strength. Then as now, Israel blames the mistakes of its American friends. In both cases, the state was led by an elderly, conservative leader, who did not believe anything the Arabs said, and rejected any change or concessions. The main difference is the result. Instead of a successful crossing of the canal in broad daylight, Israel is bleeding in an unending war of attrition with the Palestinians.
The concept of 2003 is based on a profound conviction that the U.S. intends to use force to change the status quo in the region and topple or shock the anti-Israel regimes in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Iran. The state's leaders and the heads of the defense and intelligence establishments made far-reaching statements about 2003 being "the year of decision" in the conflict with the Palestinians. They expected the occupation of Iraq to create a domino effect throughout the region as the beaten Arabs, lacking any military option, would accept an Israeli dictate to hold onto the territories for many years to come (a "long-term interim agreement," as Ariel Sharon calls it). They spoke of the integration of the big bang in Baghdad and the internal power struggles in Ramallah leading to the departure of Yasser Arafat from the world stage and resumption of the political process on terms much more convenient to Israel.
That assessment led to two logical conclusions, or tenets of faith. One was that Israel should not offer any political initiative, flexibility or concession, until the Arabs feel the pain of the American club and hurry to surrender or give up on their own. The second was that the U.S. would grant legitimacy to the use of Israeli force in the territories, in the spirit of Washington's own actions in Iraq. Thus was born the equation of "Saddam equals Arafat," and the sorry attempt to crown Mahmoud Abbas as the head of a puppet regime. The only voice not in harmony with that optimistic chorus was the Shin Bet, which warned that there is no connection between the territories and Iraq, and that Arafat remains powerful. But The Shin Bet's voice was drowned out in the general enthusiasm.
The rosy assessments were nurtured by the constant contacts between Israeli officials and the neoconservatives in Washington who believed in the same scenarios, enthusiastically supported Sharon and fed Israel with hopes for dramatic changes on the day after, so that Israel would stay out of the way in Iraq. The skepticism from the State Department about the war was perceived in Israel as typical "Arabist" weakness, rather than professional conclusions derived from years of service in the region and knowledge of its ways.
Now all those assessments appear to be totally wrong. The U.S. may have succeeded with its military operation to bring down Saddam, but it is entangled in a war of attrition in Iraq. The old Middle East remains in place. Arafat is still the Palestinian leader, Syria and Iran said no to the Americans and came out without a scratch and Egypt and Saudi Arabia rebuffed pressures for democratization. Europe and the UN stood on the sidelines, and Bush now pleads for their help.
Last year, Israel proposed a plan to America for a new order in the region after the war in Iraq. It's interesting that no Israeli official mentioned to the Americans the dangers they could expect, even though every Israeli knows that in the Middle East, a military victory is only the start of the war, and not its end, and that it's easy to conquer but difficult to withdraw, as Israel learned in the Six Day War, the Lebanon War and the current conflict in the territories.
As the Days of Awe of 5764 approach, it's time for a new assessment. Instead of giving up any political effort and waiting for the Americans to beat up the Arabs for Israel, the main lesson of the Iraq war and its outcome should be understood: Even the only superpower in the world suffers from the limits of power and sometimes a country has to change policy, even if it means swallowing the hubris of yesterday.
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