Israel’s ChallengeBy P. David HornikFrontPageMagazine.com July 14, 2006
Israel is like the archetypal retired gunslinger in Westerns who tries to stay out of trouble but ends up rejoining the fray when the provocations get too severe. In Israel’s case, though, the price of “retirement” has been inexcusable.
During the months of post-disengagement Qassam attacks on Sderot and other Gaza-bordering communities, it was painfully obvious that Israel’s restraint would end on the day the Qassams took a worse toll than injury, traumatization, and making life unlivable for thousands of Israelis. The “policy,” if any, of the Sharon and Olmert governments was to count on the Qassams’ relative inaccuracy and hope one’s luck would hold out.
The only surprise, then, was that when the fatal attack came it was not over the Gaza border fence by rocket, but under it by tunnel; and not against civilians but against soldiers, two of whom were killed and one kidnapped in the dawn raid at Kerem Shalom almost three weeks ago. It was only then, after a catastrophe whose occurrence, if not its exact nature, was entirely predictable, that Israel launched a large-scale military action in Gaza.
The script repeated itself Wednesday on the Lebanese border in a Hizbullah assault that took an even worse toll of eight Israeli soldiers dead and two kidnapped.
Here too, Hizbullah’s encampment along the border since Israel’s ill-conceived evacuation of Lebanon in 2000 was clearly a time-bomb waiting to go off. In particular, Hizbullah’s positioning of twelve thousand Iranian-supplied rockets along the border led to demands by IDF commanders for preemptive action. But, again, the Sharon and Olmert governments preferred to wait and see. On Thursday it was too late for scores of residents of northern Israeli communities, from Haifa to tiny villages, as the rockets rained down on them sowing death and injury.
The Hizbullah onslaught has also made clear that whatever Israel has done so far in Gaza has in no way restored its deterrence. Seemingly, by a rational calculation Hamas, Hizbullah, and their backers in Damascus and Teheran would conclude that the Kerem Shalom raid was not worth it: in retribution for two soldiers killed and one abducted, Israeli forces have killed dozens of terrorists in Gaza along with collateral deaths of civilians, damaged infrastructure, ominously hit official structures like Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s office and the PA Foreign Ministry, and arrested dozens of Hamas figures in the West Bank.
Israel’s enemies, though, are fanatics who are willing to pay any price if they perceive themselves to be prevailing by inflicting harm on Israel and wearing it down. Teheran is also seeking to divert attention from its nuclear plans at the upcoming G8 summit by shifting the focus to the Israeli sphere. So far, the jihad axis can also take satisfaction in the fact that Israel’s Gaza operations are yet to achieve either of their two main declared aims: retrieving kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit or stopping the Qassam fire, at least nine Gaza-fired rockets having landed in Israel on Thursday alone.
Israel’s challenge, then, is to prove that attacking it is not worth it and restore its deterrence. It responded on Thursday by pounding not only Hizbullah but also Lebanese infrastructure and military targets from air and sea on the assumption that Lebanon can be gotten to disband Hizbullah and reassert sovereignty over its southern border. That would entail a degree of independence from its Syrian masters that Lebanon may not really possess. Israel may eventually engage Syria as well, but its early battle plan appears to be trying to play the Lebanese card.
Above all Israel has to be prepared to remove the Hizbullah missile hoard, much of which is hidden underground, even if this requires a ground invasion that risks casualties. The missile arsenal not only constitutes an unacceptable threat in itself but constrains Israel in acting against Syria and Iran. A freer hand against Iran may eventually be an existential necessity.
Israel begins the confrontation with certain clear handicaps. Hamas and Hizbullah, tiny as they are compared to the IDF, enjoy massive backing not only from Iran and Syria but from the world jihad movement in general, and fighters and infrastructure can always be replaced if Israel limits itself to temporary incursions and selective strikes.
Israel also can hardly count on world support, and is helped little by being attacked on its sovereign territory from places where it removed all vestiges of “occuaption.” Already on Thursday—after less than a day of fighting in Lebanon—France’s foreign minister condemned Israel’s “disproportionate act of war.” The EU as a whole said it was “greatly concerned about the disproportionate use of force by Israel in Lebanon [and] deplores the loss of civilian lives and the destruction of civilian infrastructure.” Predictably the Europeans could not wait to verify reports or to consider Israel’s rationale for hitting Lebanon, which is hosting the jihadist movement that attacked it, a member of which is a minister in its cabinet. And this is only a foretaste.
Israel’s advantages include not only its superior operational capacity but also a growing realization among its leaders and populace that it has done all it could to reach accommodation with foes who do not want accommodation and is now fighting with its back to the wall. It has not taken long for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose sights were set on yet further withdrawals from the West Bank while hoping the Qassams wouldn’t do too much harm, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a longtime extreme dove who still talks of himself as a man of peace and dialogue, to get harshly initiated into Middle Eastern reality.
It is critical for Israel’s future that they now leave behind their delusions about a Middle East that can either be made peace with or kept at bay with fences. At least in adamantly refusing to negotiate another lopsided prisoner exchange, Olmert is showing greater resolve than some previous Israeli governments. He needs to revive an older Israel that knew what the stakes were and knew how to win. That means—at least—hitting Hamas so hard that it will be left reeling and unable to pose a further threat; uprooting southern Lebanon’s kingdom of terror; and then not meekly retreating to let the enemy recuperate and rebuild. It also means not letting sensitivity to world reactions loom so large that one is helpless. Israel has no place left to turn and no choice, at this late hour, but to fight.
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