On Olmert's Watch

To restore credibility of its deterrence, Israel must declare that it will strike, without mercy, the entire chain of command of the groups that carry out abductions.

In the American comedy film "You Don't Mess with The Zohan," Adam Sandler plays a local superhero, Zohan Dvir, an archetype of a lethal yet childish counterterrorism operative, part special forces, part Shin Bet, part Mossad. Zohan, who lands his blows on Israel's enemies, dreams of curling instead of culling - he wants to be a hairdresser. Last week the person whose deeds seem to have served in part as a model for the hero heard about the movie: Brigadier General Zohar Dvir, who served for five and a half years as the commander of the police counterterrorism squad, under whom the unit killed 129 terrorists.

Dvir, who was seriously injured in a traffic accident, recovered and was appointed commander of a police district, is still as tough as ever. He burst out in laughter when he heard about Zohan. But the image of the Israeli has been reversed to the point of appearing soft. Not long ago, special forces embarked on operations Gil and Argaz to abduct people in Jordan and Lebanon to trade them for prisoners from the Israel Defense Forces. Now it is Hassan Nasrallah who is doing this to Israel, and he is painfully successful. Don't mess with the Zohan? Israel's weakness is an invitation to mess with it.

In late 2004, the head of planning at the General Staff, Major General Yitzhak Harel, suggested releasing Samir Kuntar to the custody of Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, thus taking the sting away from Nasrallah's threat to kidnap soldiers. Then-chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon and his successor, Dan Halutz, supported the idea, but the political leadership passed on it. The ministers missed the point - invest as many resources as possible in preventing the next abduction.

In his article "Discussions on the Titanic," which is included in the volume "The Third Decade," released this week by Yad Ben-Zvi, Yoav Gelber, one of the Agranat Commission's researchers, describes how by the spring of 1973, the defense doctrine's three elements had collapsed: early warning, deterrence and decisive victory. In a microversion, this is what Nasrallah did to Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. They did not deter against the abductions, the intelligence community - Military Intelligence and the Mossad can fight over the division of blame - failed to provide sufficient early warning, and in the end the effort for a decisive victory failed.

The Olmert-Nasrallah deal is an admission of personal defeat, not just a national one, because Olmert survived as the last of the senior decision makers on the response to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev's abduction in July 2006. The reaction was justified - a state cannot show restraint at a serious infringement of its sovereignty, the second time in two weeks (following the abduction of Gilad Shalit). But the result cut short the tenure of the defense minister, the chief of staff, his deputy and the GOC Northern Command. For Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi, who inherited a given situation, it is theoretically easier to reconcile with the need to fix what was broken during the watch of Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz. Olmert is the same Olmert. Everything, from the abduction to the deal, happened during his watch.

In his speech to the cabinet on Sunday, in his role as chief of staff for all soldiers, alive or dead, Ashkenazi was more touching than accurate. Essentially, new soldiers, kidnapped recently, cause old soldiers to be forgotten. That is the way it has been in the two deals with Nasrallah, on the return of those killed in the abductions at Har Dov in 2000 and Zirit in 2006. In both, new abductees were preferred - first Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omer Soued, and then Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - over the veteran missing soldier, Ron Arad.

Logic suggests that those holding Arad since contact was lost with him early in the last decade saw no point in keeping him alive so many years. But Israel is supposed to insist and not give up until a body is found and brought back. If Nasrallah is unable to provide the answers, Israel must go to the source, to Iran, and focus on the chiefs of intelligence and the Revolutionary Guard, where the secret is kept. It is not doing so, fearing a large-scale war. This is a weighty consideration, which rightfully should be considered, but it does not permit pretending to be naive and saying that everything is being done and there is no way to resolve the riddle. There is a way, but a decision was made that the cost of taking that path was too high.

This is also the case for the fallen who preceded Arad. Two weeks ago the annual memorial for the intelligence community's fallen was held at the Glilot base. Among those there were, as usual, the chief of staff and the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and Military Intelligence, the same people who participated in Sunday's cabinet meeting and were divided in their stance on the swap with Hezbollah. At the event was the only person in Israel who can overcome the powerful Mossad chief, Meir Dagan: the base's sergeant major, who ordered Dagan and his security detail to freeze until the honor guard completed its maneuvers.

Among the many hundreds of dead intelligence operatives, whose photographs were shown on screen, was Lt. Colonel Eli Cohen, the spy executed in Damascus. Syria has refused for the past four decades to return his remains to Israel. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai promised yet another attempt at negotiating with Syria, but the effort is not a condition, and the Cohen family is further from the public's consciousness than the families of Goldwasser, Regev, Shalit and Arad. Ashkenazi was also not heard going to great lengths in Cohen's case.

To restore the credibility of its deterrence, Israel must declare that it will strike, without mercy, the entire chain of command of the groups that carry out abductions. To declare and carry out the threat, even if it means that the cabinet, which dispatches others to endanger their lives and freedom, finds itself in the crosshairs of terrorists.