During Moshe Ya'alon's final year as chief of staff, the General Staff ran a war game between Israel and Hezbollah. The way the war is being run now is a precise implementation of the scenario played out in that simulation: the escalation intensifies and spreads over all Lebanese territory and Israel's home front. A catch emerged at the end of the exercise: Israel was not victorious, despite its military superiority. In order to bring an end to the violent confrontation with real diplomatic gains, it had to utilize Syria's services by coming to terms with it, and making the necessary territorial concessions.
The circumstances under which the war is now being waged are a bit different from those imagined during the war game - the main patron of Hezbollah is Iran, not Syria - but the elements are similar, and they pose the following question before the government: How can the military stage of this confrontation end with a tangible diplomatic gain? The challenge is becoming oppressive in view of the feeling that the utility of military force is being exhausted, the brunt of the blow having already been delivered. Indeed, the target list has become repetitive, and the longer the campaign lasts, the more likely it is to take away from the operational achievements already gained.
At the core of the war's outbreak stands the breakdown of deterence; the purpose of the military effort is to restore it. The degree to which this aim is achieved will be examined in the way the military campaign is concluded, not in the way it is being experienced now. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say, "in the way it will be captured in the subconscious, in the image that will be attached to it." In other words, once the flames die out, it will be clear whether the lesson of this experience is that it does not pay to provoke Israel, or, on the other hand, that attacking it brings with it worthwhile returns.
The balance between costs and gains in the eyes of the players in this war and its observers will be affected not only by the overall cost, but also by the relative cost, to each side. If at war's end the impression is that Hezbollah was seriously harmed, but also managed to strike a heavy blow on Israel, the implication will be that the Israel Defense Forces has failed to restore its ability to deter. If the final outcome is unequivocally in Israel's favor, the war aim will have been achieved.
To increase the chances that the result of the war will be positive for Israel, the government must aspire to shorten it and immediately plan for a crossover to the diplomatic arena. The more the violent stage continues, the higher the risk that Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah will make gains - real and psychological - that will undermine the goal of imprinting the regional consciousness with the lesson that whoever raises his hand against Israel suffers unbearable punishment.
It would be enough for an aircraft to be downed, a strike against a sensitive site in Israel's rear, or an attack with multiple victims in Israel or a Jewish target abroad, to allow Hezbollah to emerge from this war with an image coup that would compete with Israel's gains. This conclusion also stems from the overt role that Iran is playing in this confrontation: it has declared its involvement in the arming and training of Hezbollah, and warns against an attack on Syria. Therefore, Tehran has made it clear that it has invested in Hezbollah, expects its relative success, and is acting to prevent its complete defeat.
There are a number of ways to end the war: by killing Nasrallah and Hezbollah's leadership, or by destroying the military might of the group and neutralizing its ability to carry out future attacks. Such a result will also contribute to restoring the Lebanese government's authority. These are coveted aims, but it is doubtful whether they are realistic. What could be considered are the following: an immediate start of negotiations as the fighting continues, while evaluating diplomatic aims that can be achieved; a cease-fire agreement that will serve as a platform for a broader agreement with the Lebanese government; and if diplomatic negotiations are not held, or if the military stage of the effort is exhausted, then a unilateral announcement of cease-fire can be made, while waiting for the other side to respond.
Hopefully, prior to the authorization given to the IDF to embark on the current campaign, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were informed of the lessons of the war game from 2004.
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