Facing the Storm

Israel has faced national tests since its inception and passed them all. Three things, however, enabled Israel to meet past challenges: suitable leadership, a sober concept of reality and impressive preemptive strike capabilities.

Regardless of their worldview, strategic observers all concur on Israel's strategic situation: There are dark clouds on the horizon.

Beyond the mind-numbing reality-show world of "Big Brother," "Love Bay" and Kadima, a genuine reality is developing, in which a storm is building. Iran's nuclear program, Syria's agreement-or-confrontation policy, Hezbollah's increasing strength and Hamas' entrenchment surround Israel with a tightening noose of threats. The Israel Defense Forces has a reasonable response to most of these threats, but military might does not alter the basic fact: There is a high probability that in 2009 or 2010, Israel will face a national test.

There are no grounds for fear or depression. Israel has faced national tests since its inception and passed them all. More than once, it even came out stronger. Three things, however, enabled Israel to meet past challenges: suitable leadership, a sober concept of reality and impressive preemptive strike capabilities.

Israel held strong in 1948, was victorious in 1967 and achieved strategic superiority in the 1970s not because it was an omnipotent power, but rather because it saw what was happening around it and took the initiative. It identified threats on the horizon in advance and took action to thwart them. Israel was well aware of both its strengths and its weaknesses, and knew how to prepare so that at the moment of truth, the strengths would come to the fore and determine the outcome.

That is how Israel should have conducted itself since the end of the Second Lebanon War. It should have seen what was happening around it and taken the initiative. Israel should have gone from Washington to London, from Paris to Brussels to Moscow, in an attempt to impose a political and economic embargo on Iran. Israel should have left no stone unturned in its efforts to reach a real breakthrough with Damascus that would keep war at bay and isolate Hezbollah. Israel should have formulated a systematic and consistent policy toward Hamas and treated it as a state-like entity that bears all the responsibilities of a state.

At the same time, however, Israel should have prepared for those diplomatic efforts to collapse and a violent confrontation to ensue. It should have equipped itself and strengthened itself for the moment when the storm would hit her shores.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Israel did nothing of the sort. The years of Olmert's government were years of corruption, the destruction of norms and an assault on the rule of law. Yet above all, they were wasted years. Garbage-time, in basketball lingo. Squandered time, when time was so precious. When so many clocks were ticking all around. Garbage-time, while the horizon grew ever blacker with storm clouds.

It is already late, but not too late. Israel has about a year at its disposal in which to effect a change on the Iranian front. It has a final opportunity to reach a diplomatic breakthrough on the Syrian front. It even has some chance, however hesitant, to establish a different relationship with Hamas. But in order to do all that, Israel must combine moderation with forcefulness. It must strive for peace while preparing for war. Thus Israel needs the right leadership, a sober sense of reality and a renewed ability to strike first.

The Olmert era will end next Wednesday. An unconscionable two years late, the ruling party will choose either an unsuitable male leader or an imperfect female leader to replace the hollow prime minister. But the question that will be asked immediately after the ballots are counted will not only be the personal-political one - Tzipi Livni, or Shaul Mofaz, or elections. The question will be whether the garbage-time is over. Whether Israel is capable of seeing the storm building beyond Big Brother, Love Bay and Kadima's internal politics. Whether we still have the strength to recover and consolidate a suitable leadership that will know how to cope with the approaching storm.

Kadima's chosen leader will bear a heavy responsibility. On the very evening of his or her victory, this leader will have to demonstrate a new kind of leadership. The victory speech will have to reflect a new spirit, addressing both the public and leaders of the other parties.

If the decision is finalized next week, that week ought to be a watershed. Immediately afterward, Israel must form a grown-up, high-quality emergency government. And immediately after that, it must return to itself and start coping energetically and wisely with its future. Before the storm hits.