The term "victory" is becoming more and more mixed into the public debate on the conflict with the Palestinians. Last week, Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said the Palestinians must not be made to feel that they have won the struggle; Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has reiterated his diagnosis that any Israeli concession is seen by the other side as an expression of weakness; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is speaking about a victory that will be achieved over time, and intelligence experts are ruling that Israel must emerge from the intifada having gained the upper hand, lest its existence be in danger.
This view packs significant persuasive powers. At its roots lies the convention that the survival of the state depends on its deterrent power, which depends on the image of its strength, which, in turn, is decisively influenced by its military achievements. Hence, the conclusion: Any loss in a battle gnaws away at Israel's image of strength and, therefore, it must strive for victory in any hostile encounter with the Arab side.
From this point of view, the withdrawal from Lebanon - and, primarily, its pressured and rushed format - is perceived as a destructive signal: The Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular, see the withdrawal as evidence of Israel's vulnerability, taking heart from it to resort to violence. The lesson from the way in which the Palestinians view the withdrawal from Lebanon is etched on the consciousness of the captains of the state and the heads of the Israel Defense Forces, confirming the fundamental perception on which they were raised: Israel must not lose central battles because the Arab side understands only force and any expression of weakness - or, alternatively, generosity - only leads it into landing more forceful blows.
Under this fixed way of thinking - for which there is much internal logic, as well as an abundance of evidence - alternative approaches remain dormant. Here is one of them:
The experience of Israel's relations with Cairo teaches that the Yom Kippur War, which ended with an Egyptian sense of victory, paved the way toward the peace agreement. The Syrian experience teaches that unequivocal Israeli victories - in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War - did nothing to ready the hearts in Damascus for a peace agreement. The Jordanian experience teaches that Jordan's crushing defeat in the Six-Day War did not prompt it into rushing to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but rather to reach a settlement, based on mutual concessions, years later - only after Amman had cut itself off from the West Bank and only after there were signs of a positive turnaround in the Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Even if the conclusion coming out of these examples does not definitively contradict the perceptions of the defense establishment, it is, at the least, evidence of the range of attitudes on the Arab side with regard to the terms for reaching a settlement.
Moreover, the conflict with the Palestinians has a moral dimension that did not exist in the conflicts with the remaining Arab neighbors - the fact that they, the Palestinians, are under occupation. This factor influences the attitudes toward the conflict of at least a portion of the Israeli public and significantly projects itself onto this public's willingness to face up to its troubles.
In this context, presenting the goal of an unequivocal victory is not self-evident: For that part of Israeli society that loathes the continued hold on the territories and is prepared for an arrangement based on the 1967 lines and the dismantling of the settlements, provided that the Palestinian side waives its dream of a Greater Israel, a military defeat of the Palestinians is not necessarily a prerequisite. One can assume that this part of Israeli society would willingly support a settlement that ends the conflict even if it is preceded by a military outcome that is viewed by the Palestinians as their victory.
Furthermore, what, as far as Sharon, Ben-Eliezer and Ya'alon are concerned, would be considered a military victory? The raising of white flags in the West Bank? The removal of Arafat? An end to the terror? None of these scenarios provides a real guarantee of reconciliation between the peoples - the correct objective toward which we should be striving.
And still no mention has been made of the possibility that a crushing military victory would only strengthen the feelings of rage and contempt on the part of the Israeli public toward the Palestinians, further sealing it off from the need to achieve an end to the conflict with them.
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