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Israel at War by Jonathan Rosenblum

July 20, 2006

Israel at War
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Yated Ne'eman
July 19, 2006

Israel faces today a threat to its very existence. Yediot Achronot's Sever Plocker put the matter as bluntly as possible: "If [Hizbullah and Hamas] come out of this war with the upper hand, if they can rightly wave the flag of victory, Israel will be finished."

Worse, a draw would constitute a major victory for Hizbullah and Hamas. Israel can, under no circumstances, permit a return to the situation prior to Hizbullah's ambush last week of an IDF patrol in Israeli territory. One of Israel's leading military reporters, Zev Schiff of Ha'aretz, quotes former Turkish president Turgut Ozal, "The only thing that should not be done during a time of crisis is to return at the end of the crisis to the status quo ante."

If Israel responds to international appeals for restraint and allow tensions to subside without having rendered a severe blow to the operational capacities of both Hizbullah and Hamas and without having changed the rules of engagement with its enemies, it will have lost. Such a result would, in the words of the Shalem Center's Michael Oren, "accelerate a process in which Syrian and Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon can keep the country in a state of perpetual military mobilization, paralyzing it economically and deepening its diplomatic isolation."

"To survive," writes Oren, Israel has no choice but to "fundamentally alter the security situation on its northern and southern borders."

Minimally, all agree, Israel must push Hizbullah and its katyushas away from Israel's northern border where it has become entrenched over the last six years, ever since Israel's precipitous flight from Lebanon, and prevent its return to the area. And it must convince Hamas that the cost of the continued firing of Kassams on southern Israel is too high.

For years Daniel Pipes has been arguing that Israel has no choice but to inflict an overwhelming defeat on the Palestinians – a defeat that will cause them to abandon once and for all the hope of ridding the Middle East of Israel. He points out that only the unconditional surrender the Allies forced upon Germany and Japan in World War II made possible the successful reconstruction of those countries and their development into leading democracies. Nothing less can ever put an end the Palestinian dream of a Middle East without Israel.

UNFORTUNATELY, NO SUCH DEFEAT of the Palestinians or of Hizbullah will result from the current round of fighting. Indeed it is not yet clear that Israel will succeed in achieving its minimal goals. Part of the problem is that Israel began the current round of fighting in the North from a weak position.

For six years, Israel did not react to Hizbullah's creation of an immense rocket system in southern Lebanon. The air force neither struck at Hizbullah's rocket storehouses nor attempted to stop the convoys of rockets from the Damascus airport to the South. Hizbullah was able to put into place over 10,000 katyushas aimed at northern Israel. The lethal capacity of those katyushas has now been proven, at the cost of the lives of 12 Israeli civilians [ed. now 13] in Haifa, Nahariya, Meron, and Tzefat. Moreover, Hizbullah was able to operate unimpeded right along the fence separating Israel and Lebanon, close enough to take down the license plate numbers on Israeli military vehicles, and to plan periodic ambushes at their convenience.

Thus far Israel has been unwilling to send any ground troops into Lebanon, in part because Hizbullah has had the opportunity to lay extensive mine fields over any possible invasion route. Those mines could exact a heavy price, as in the case of the Israeli tank destroyed as it pursued the Hizbullah force that kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on the first day of fighting in the North. Four members of the tank crew were killed when the tank fell into the Hizbullah laid trap. Even more important, Israel is petrified of the prospect of being drawn back into the quagmire of an occupation of southern Lebanon.

Yet it is far from clear that the air force alone can destroy all Hizbullah's rockets or even the far less numerous launchers. And without clearing out Hizbullah from southern Lebanon, it will be impossible for the Lebanese Army to assert control in the area, even on the assumption that it is willing to do so.

Despite Israel's overwhelming aerial firepower, Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz summed up the situation after five days of aerial bombardments: "[The air force] has to date achieved nothing – militarily or diplomatically – to guarantee that any damage sustained by Hizbullah cannot be quickly corrected through a renewal of the Iran-Syria supply line."

Israel's strategic goal is to force the Lebanese Army to take control of southern Lebanon, as called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. Air force attacks on Lebanese power stations, Beirut airport and Lebanese ports have been designed to convey a message to the Lebanese government, in which Hizbullah holds two ministries, as well as more than a fifth of the members of parliament, that there will be a heavy price for allowing Hizbullah free rein. Lebanon's summer tourist season has been destroyed, as has that of Israel's North.

Yet it is by no means certain that this strategy will bear fruit, at least absent international pressure on the Lebanese government to exercise its sovereign authority in southern Lebanon. Though many Lebanese have expressed anger at Hizbullah for having dragged the country into the current situation, many others have directed their anger primarily at Israel for what is viewed as an unprovoked attack on the rest of Lebanon.

Further, it remains to be seen whether the Lebanese Army is even capable of asserting control of southern Lebanon if battle-tested Hizbullah forces contest its entry into the area. Just as Israel is paralyzed by memories of being stuck in southern Lebanon for 18 years, so are memories of Lebanon's decades-long civil wars fresh in the minds of most Lebanese. They fear that entry of the Lebanese Army into southern Lebanon could not only trigger another civil war with Hizbullah and the Shiite population, but also provide Syria with a pretext for reentering the country.

Michael Oren and his Shalem Center colleague Yossi Klein Halevi argue that Iran and Syria must pay a price for their sponsorship of Hizbullah and Hamas. Yet how Israel could inflict the requisite damage, absent some concerted actions by the international community, is far from clear. Iran provides no easy targets for Israel's F-16s. And the diplomatic cost of launching a long-range attack on Iran would be very high.

Syria does offer many targets, and has provided Israel ample excuse by giving safe haven to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the mastermind of the attack on the IDF outpost at Kerem Shalom. Still an attack on Syria would not only open up a third front for the IDF, but also run the risk of the onus falling on Israel for triggering a full-scale war.

Time may prove to be the biggest obstacle of all. President Bush has been to date very supportive of Israel, and has not attempted to impose any time limits on Israel's responses to the two attacks on its soil. But he was also very supportive at the outset of Operation Defensive Shield, which Israel embarked upon after the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya, only to demand an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities less than a week later, long before Israel had come close to achieving its goal of destroying the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure. Meanwhile the Europeans are already calling for diplomacy and an international peacekeeping force for southern Lebanon.

ISRAEL CANNOT ACCEPT ANY SUCH CEASEFIRE as long as its goals remain unrealized and the smile remains on the face of Hizbullah leader Nasrallah. In his news conference, on the day Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others, Nasrallah mocked Israel's military and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's threats of massive retaliation. And since then he has made good on his threat that Israel will pay dearly for any offensive launched against Hizbullah. More than a thousand katyshas have fallen thus far on the North, claiming the lives of 12 civilians and keeping 1.5 million Israelis close to the nearest air raid shelter.

True, when Nasrallah spoke again this Sunday some of the swagger had gone out of his voice. By that time, his home lay in ruins, Hizbullah's television station was destroyed, and he was hiding from Israeli bombs in an underground bunker. But if he escapes alive and to fight another day, and without his forces having been totally routed, that swagger and smile will surely return.

THE SAD TRUTH IS THAT ISRAEL had done much to earn Nasrallah's contemptuous dismissal of it as a spider web that would soon be swept away. Our leaders have long since forgotten Teddy Roosevelt's wise adage: "Talk softly and carry a big stick." Since the beginning of the Oslo process, they have consistently done the opposite, threatening dire consequences if terrorism continues, after every Israeli territorial withdrawal. And they have equally consistently failed to act upon those threats. As a consequence, both the withdrawals and the threats have only served to encourage the perception of Israel's enemies that Israel lacks the will to defend itself. As Yediot's Plocker puts it, "The greater the gap between ‘we'll show you, we'll really teach you a lesson' and Israel's actions on the ground, the more is Israel's soft underbelly exposed." Not by accident were IDF troops attacked on Israeli soil over the last two weeks from precisely those areas from which Israel withdrew unilaterally.

NOT ALL ISRAELI LEADERS HAVE CONSISTENTLY REFUSED TO ACKNOWLEDGE the spiritual dimension of the conflict with our enemies, and the importance of national will. As long as the comparison is between Israel's military and technological might and that of its adversaries, it is clear that there is no contest. But military and economic power are only part of the story. As Batya Melamed wrote at the end of June, they fail to measure the most important weapon of any country that wants to live: "Faith in the justice of its cause and actions. The ability to walk upright, and even the willingness to ‘die for one's country.'"

As Daniel Pipes noted already six years ago, history shows that victory usually goes to the side with the greater determination. Precisely because our leaders have been too little concerned with the question of will, they have repeatedly failed to weigh the consequences of territorial withdrawal and other concessions on our enemies' confidence in their ultimate triumph.

As opposed to the confidence exuded by Nasrallah or Hamas' Mashaal, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert famously told a group of New York Jewish business leaders that Israelis are tired of fighting, tired of being brave, tired of winning. Understandable sentiments to be sure, but dangerous ones as well when the only alternative to winning remains flight or death.

There is a tried and true formula in chareidi journalism to conclude pieces such as this with a reminder that we have no one upon whom to rely other than Our Father in Heaven. I am no more fond of that particular formula than most other boilerplate one repeats without too much thought.

But there are times when HaKadosh Boruch Hu makes it crystal clear that He wants us to grasp this point – not only grasp it, but act accordingly. The present consensus in Israel is that our Prime Minister and Defense Minister are completely out of their depth in the current crisis. Nothing in their experience prepared them for a situation of such complexity, and in which so many crucial decisions must be made. Worse, there is not even another potential leader figure who inspires more confidence than those in presently in power. Hashem has made it truly palpable that Ein lanu l'hisho'ayn ela al Ovinu she'ba'Shomayim.

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