Only one Israeli leader could allow himself to use the slogan "restraint is strength," and even to stick to it for a while: Ariel Sharon. That is a privilege reserved here only for someone who has wasted most of his life, and our lives, in impulsive conduct, a pugnacity that knows no borders and a narrow-mindedness that has caused generations to weep.
Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz are only beginning to specialize in this field, and perhaps that has led to the excessive ease - lightheartedness, really - with which they ignited the flames of a major war. And without any apparent agonizing or misgivings, they fanned the flames with the expectation of a "dramatic achievement" that would retroactively justify the steep price this spontaneous war is exacting. But that is the accepted procedure in Israel: expecting the army's accomplishments or failures to retroactively define the war's national objectives.
This does not mean that restraint is always justified - certainly not in the face of provocations of the kind that Hassan Nasrallah has employed for years: humiliating Israel even within the Green Line, while also accumulating an extensive arsenal as an Iranian bridgehead. Even an outdated concept like "national honor" sometimes has strategic significance, especially when conceding it is seen as weakness that invites additional provocations, to the point of the threats of eradication coming from Iran.
One can therefore understand the angry "that's it" approach of Olmert and Peretz, and even identify with it - as well as with the argument that if we have already unraveled the seams in an attack of anger, it is better to try to complete the unfinished operation. Nonetheless, it is hard not to hang our heads in sorrow, for ourselves and for our current "civilian" leadership, which - like several of its predecessors - is afflicted with a certain type of naivete: a kind of innocent belief in everything related to their expectations of the Israel Defense Forces and military power. The army lays traps of temptation that ensnare civilian leaders like Olmert and Peretz, and like Menachem Begin and Golda Meir before them.
It is doubtful that Olmert and Peretz, even in their worst nightmares, ever envisioned this spontaneous operation extending and transforming into the longest war to which the Israeli home front has been exposed since the War of Independence (not counting the terror attacks). But the enchanting myth of a "speedy, strong and elegant" IDF that "supplies the goods" within two or three days is blowing up in their faces, just as it blew up in the faces of their predecessors.
Over and over again, the paradox is revealed: Retired generals discover the limits of power when they become political leaders, while "civilian" leaders tend to be deceived by the magical power of the IDF, leading them to try to push the Egyptians to the other side of the Suez Canal without calling up the reserves, capture the Beaufort Castle in Lebanon without injuries, or smash Nasrallah as he is making a speech. This naive belief has a decisive influence on toughening political positions, until reality hits.
One would have expected a responsible and mature civilian leadership to say "that's it" not just to Hezbollah, but also to the military dominance of decision-making procedures. Such a leadership would have recognized, for instance, the connection between our Sisyphean wars in Lebanon and our systematic avoidance of a peace agreement with Syria - meaning our refusal to withdraw from the Golan Heights. But it is more convenient to wallow in the familiar atmosphere of having "no choice" than to cope with reality in the realm of meta-policy.
We cannot know which way would have been the best. But when Peretz announces that even in the current war, "the IDF's achievements in the field are what will determine the political settlement," it appears that even in another 50 years, we will still be marching down the familiar and well-trodden path: whichever one the IDF clears in another rolling war. And the road not taken will remain just as unknown and neglected as it has been for so long now.
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