Even as fighting winds down in Lebanon, the sniping is only starting on the Israeli home front. Having gotten used to handily defeating their Arab foes, Israelis are understandably unhappy that this war ended in what is, at best, a stalemate. A few days ago, Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal daily, ran a front-page article saying Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “must go.” Such cries are likely to intensify, along with calls to convene a commission of inquiry to investigate why Israel did not have more success in stopping the rain of terrorist rockets.
A weeklong visit to Israel, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, revealed a catalog of defects that analysts attribute to the fact that Olmert (a former mayor), Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (a lawyer) and Defense Minister Amir Peretz (a trade union leader) are national security neophytes.
Olmert’s inexperience showed when he ordered military action against Lebanon on July 12 within hours of a Hezbollah raid that kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others—without even bothering to hold a Cabinet meeting to explore various options. In his haste, the prime minister apparently accepted the assurances of Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the first air force general ever to lead the Israel Defense Forces, that air power alone could cripple Hezbollah.
The air force did have remarkable and unappreciated success in destroying most of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range rocket launchers —the Fajrs and Zilzals capable of hitting major cities such as Haifa and Tel Aviv. But there was little that aircraft could do against short-range Katyusha rockets, so small that they cannot readily be detected from the air. In their attempts to knock out Katyushas fired from residential areas, the fliers wound up inflicting substantial civilian casualties that, as Hezbollah intended, hurt Israel in the court of international opinion.
When it became evident that air attacks weren’t enough, Olmert ordered small-scale ground forays that met strong resistance from dug-in, determined Hezbollah fighters equipped with sophisticated antitank missiles. It took a long time, at least by Israeli standards, to mobilize enough reserves to mount a full-scale invasion. The offensive finally began just two days before irresistible international pressure imposed a cease-fire, leaving Hezbollah bloodied but unbowed.
Israeli officials argue that the cease-fire agreement, United Nations Resolution 1701, represents a victory because it will introduce a 15,000-member international peacekeeping force into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from resuming hostilities. But few think that either the U.N. force or the ineffectual Lebanese army would be willing and able to disarm Hezbollah or to prevent its resupply by Syria and Iran. Hezbollah is likely to emerge with its prestige enhanced among the Arab masses, which are already hailing its charismatic kingpin, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, for paralyzing northern Israel and sending more than a million Israelis fleeing either to the south or to bomb shelters. Hezbollah’s obvious toughness is being contrasted with Israel’s supposed softness.
Hezbollah did not, however, break Israel’s will to resist. A visit to the Lebanese border a week ago found, amid the fires started by enemy rockets and the thunderous return roar of Israeli tanks and howitzers, thousands of troops waiting “like a coiled spring,” in the words of one officer, to invade “Hezbollah land.” The soldiers were willing to close with and kill the enemy. Mayors of towns that had been under incessant rocket attack for a month told me that their constituents were willing to stay in their shelters for however long it took to finish off the terrorists. But most Israelis were at first reluctant to risk casualties by sending the army back into Lebanon, a reluctance shared by their vacillating leaders who, like NATO in Kosovo, tried to achieve victory on the cheap via air power.
Now will come the political reckoning. Some might see this fractiousness as a sign of weakness. Just the opposite is true. Arab societies tend to attribute their shortcomings to outsiders, a failing apparent in a meeting in Jerusalem last week with Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, who blamed the prevalence of autocracy and theocracy in the Middle East on (who else?) the West. Israelis, by contrast, look within for the source of their misfortune. That allows them to correct what went wrong and get stronger in the future. This process is now underway, and Israel’s enemies would be well advised not to underestimate that nation's fighting capacity, no matter how wrenching the debate.
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