Was It a War of Choice?

The moment Regev and Goldwasser were abducted, Israel and its leaders − Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, as one − had no real alternative to taking action.

Reports about the testimony of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz before the Winograd Committee have led to the resurfacing of the question regarding the campaign against Hezbollah during the past summer. Was it a war of choice?

Halutz restated what had been reported at the time of the Hezbollah attack, the abduction of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and the rescue attempt, events that claimed eight IDF dead. The General Staff presented the political echelon with two options, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, with the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the ministers who are part of the defense committee, opted for the more ambitious one, which, as expected, resulted in an escalation, and against all expectations, lasted a month.

The disagreement between the two echelons, the army and the government, may focus on this eternal issue, of who recommends and who decides, who determines "what" and who proposes "how." But this is only an internal debate. On a broader level, as a state, Israel considered all the possible types of action, and decided that it would not show restraint, and also that it would not make do with a single day of fighting, in which the damage to both sides would be limited. On the face of it, this was indeed a war of choice.

In practice, however, on July 12, 2006, Israel had no real choice. The move from passively sustaining attacks to going on the offensive was something it had to do. The moment Regev and Goldwasser were abducted, an event that followed the abduction of Gilad Shalit from Kerem Shalom on June 25, Israel and its leaders - Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, as one - had no real alternative to taking action. This was true regardless of how well the army was prepared, or of how effectively the military and diplomatic campaign were managed in the effort to have the best possible achievements. Restraint following the second abduction would have been interpreted in the Middle East simply as outrageous weakness, and would have invited further challenges.

The 1982 Lebanon War was a war of choice par excellence, involving an Israeli attempt to alter the regime and the situation in Lebanon. Unlike a war of choice, during the six years since the IDF pullout from southern Lebanon Israel adopted a strategy of choice along its northern front. This strategy involved a mistaken mix of defensive goals and defensive means, instead of defensive goals and offensive means, which would have been both wiser and justified.

When Israel opted to withdraw, the choice nominally included a built-in option for a future invasion. However, just as with the pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the option was not a realistic one. The assumption was that the price of a major ground offensive would be higher than the cost of avoiding one.

The practical meaning of this was that it allowed Hezbollah to position itself along the border fence, to plan attacks and decide when to carry them out. The price for Hezbollah was that some of its outposts sustained shelling - most of which fell on the rocks around them. In Israel, this was called "containment," a generous way of describing what amounted to Hezbollah's success in having an increasingly stronger deterrent effect over Israel. The deterrent was partly based on Israel's concern that a strike against Hezbollah's leadership would result in attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets throughout the world, such as those against the embassy and the offices of the Jewish organizations in Argentina following the 1992 assassination of Abbas Musawi; and it was even more significantly based on the thousands of rockets that threatened northern Israel.

Hassan Nasrallah managed to convince Sharon and Olmert, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon, Peretz and Halutz, to hold out until the next blow and avoid initiating an operation. During these six years, 22 Israeli civilians and soldiers were killed in the North. In a meeting between Olmert and the General Staff last week, Major Generals Avi Mizrahi and Meir Klifi, former commanders of divisions 36 and 91, respectively, discussed former chief of staff Ya'alon's recent complaints that the "High Waters" plan, which involved a large ground offensive, was not initiated in July. Ya'alon, they noted, is ignoring his own refusal, when he was in the post, to carry out the same plan.

Successful or a failure - or somewhere between those two - this was a war of no choice. On the other hand, a war with Syria, if it is initiated by Damascus in order to break the diplomatic impasse to restore the Golan Heights in return for peace, will be a war of choice: a war for which Israel will be responsible, an unnecessary war, reckless even.