The Park Hotel Paradox

To prevent a serious incident, one must deal with its fundamental causes. However, the justification for this initiative will only be evident once the serious incident actually takes place.

A great deal as happened since then, but anyone who was present at the festive event that took place on January 1, 1995 will have a hard time forgetting how Ehud Barak, impatient to shed his uniform and prepare himself for taking aim at the target of the Prime Minister's Office, transferred the post of chief of staff to Major General Uri Saguy, or was it Matan Vilnai. Seated among the invitees, wearing civilian clothes, was a reserve colonel, who years beforehand had been tapped for greatness: Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. The Litani Operation of 1978 was supposed to have sent Shahak back to civilian life. In the sector under his command - despite his efforts - five soldiers had blazed themselves a private trail to the north, and were captured by the enemy and murdered. Defense minister Ezer Weizman and chief of staff Motta Gur, frustrated by the flurry of operational blunders and breakdown of discipline in the IDF, decided to dismiss Shahak, commander of the 35th Paratroopers Brigade, despite his proven past and projected future.

If not for one determined individual, this sad ending - and not only what came before it - would have taken place. Uri Simhoni, who was at the time the chief infantry and paratroopers officer and a division commander with a brigadier-general's rank, heard about the decision to dismiss Shahak and camped out in Gur's office, intent on dissuading him from carrying out the decision. Don't dismiss Shahak, implored Simhoni - the IDF would be losing a future chief of staff. Gur refused to be persuaded, at which point Simhoni declared he would persist in his sit-down strike. Later that night, Gur caved in, and then headed over to Weizman to calm tempers.

There are many such events in the annals and wars of the Israel Defense Forces, events that according to a strict approach should have ended in a mass beheading and the burgeoning of another top brass, one that the revolution would have also quickly eaten up. Had OC Northern Command Yossi Peled been dismissed in the wake of the "night of the hang gliders" in 1987, the State of Israel would have lost a television commentator who homes in on the faults of his successors, and their successors; and if OC Northern Command Gabi Ashkenazi had been dismissed after the seizure of the three Engineering Corps soldiers on Mount Dov, he would not have been in line to be a candidate for chief of staff, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz would not now be on the verge of appointing him director-general of the Defense Ministry, as a counterweight to Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

Context is everything. The seizure of the soldiers on Mount Dov, serious as it was, was framed by the serious and recurrent episodes in the escalating conflict with the Palestinians - a little bit after Joseph's Tomb, a little bit before the lynch in Ramallah. The Hezbollah incursion at Metzuba, which ended in the death of six Israelis, was construed as being secondary to the suicide bombings taking place in Israel's cities. The two kidnappings along Israel's borders in the past few weeks, at Kerem Shalom and at Zarit, made headlines because on both of these fronts there had until then been a string of successes in foiling such kidnap attempts.

As usual, the post-mortem investigations have shown that the attacks ended in the seizure of Israeli soldiers could have been prevented. What they don't show, because they are not intended to do so, is that preventing said attacks would not have eliminated the reality that caused these actions, but would have only delayed the next flare-up of reality; and it is not natural to expect infinite successes.

You could call it the "Park Hotel paradox." To prevent a serious incident, you must deal with its fundamental causes. However, the justification for this initiative will only be evident once the serious incident actually takes place. Until the Pesach massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in March 2002, the Ariel Sharon government refrained from approving Operation Defensive Shield. Hezbollah's presence on the border fence may have been intolerable, but in actual fact, it was tolerable so long as the Northern Command and the 91st Division succeeded in foiling kidnapping attacks. These successes denied the army any incentive for sanction, domestic or otherwise, to launch the wide-ranging operation that was required.

In the wake of the army's previous successes, the recommendation of OC Northern Command Udi Adam to refrain from responding to Hezbollah had been accepted. The General Staff now assesses that Nasrallah erred in concluding from this that the IDF would also prefer restraint in the future, even when the kidnapping was not foiled. He did not understand that the circumstances had gradually changed, and reduced Israel's willingness to maintain restraint. It is harder to exercise self-restraint in the face of a serious failure. The Israeli team is more ready to fight, in particular, Chief of Staff Halutz and Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, both of whom are proponents of the use of overpowering force - mainly from the air (in keeping with the corps from which they themselves emerged) - for strike and deterrence; the previous chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, and the MI head during his tenure, Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, subscribed to a different school of thought: "Let the rockets rust."

And in the Iranian context, the existence of Hezbollah's missiles as a deterrent factor, for potential use against Israel in the event of an attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities, made it difficult to plan such an attack. Perhaps Iran is currently enjoying its ability to keep its secrets from Israeli intelligence, be it coordination of the kidnappings at Kerem Shalom and Zarit, or its supply of ground-to-sea missiles to Hezbollah, but it is losing a capability it had reserved for a more important time.

And another lesson to be drawn from the explosion of the rockets in Majd al-Krum and the mixed city of Haifa: Iran and Hezbollah don't care that Arabs are being hurt. The presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will not deter the Iranians from launching a nuclear threat, not even at Jerusalem.