I don’t think that anyone is surprised that Iran and Syria are declaring that Hizbullah "achieved a great victory" in the month-long confrontation with Israel. Indeed, most observers concede that Hizbullah won simply by surviving. In Israel there is widespread belief that Prime Minister Olmert and his young government were not up to the challenge. Many in the press were calling for his resignation even before the guns fell silent, and the country appears headed toward a bruising round of inquiries into what went wrong politically and militarily.
There is much reason for Israelis to be frustrated with how the Olmert government conducted the war. After engaging in a series of decisive air strikes in the first hour following the seizure of its two soldiers, the government thereafter appeared paralyzed and seemingly unable to decide whether to depend solely on airpower or to engage in a ground operation. Following a frustrating and prolonged period during which a combination of air strikes and special forces operations failed to reduce the number of daily incoming rockets, the decision was finally made to unleash Israel’s formidable army. But instead of giving the Prime Minister an image of resolution, the patience of the Israeli public was finally exhausted when on the very eve of the long-anticipated ground assault, the advance was delayed for two days following a phone call from US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Only after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1701 calling for a ceasefire did the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) finally launch the ground offensive. The delay left the IDF with too little time to accomplish its objectives. The Army, a majority of Israelis, and most observers believe the IDF was denied a decisive victory by Prime Minister Olmert’s waffling.
Even though the victory is a Pyrrhic one, represented by the pathetic image of an Hizbullah guerrilla waving a yellow flag standing on top of a pile of rubble, Hizzbullah won by default, at least in the short run. But will this victory stand? History has yet to be written.
If the conventional wisdom is correct, then Olmert is incompetent, and Israel will pay for his incompetence. The country’s deterrence strategy based on an image of IDF invincibility has been dealt a severe blow, emboldening Muslim extremists across the region and strengthening Iran’s emerging bid for hegemony in the Middle East. All of this, of course, also undermines the West in the struggle against Islamic Fascism.
For my part, I am not yet convinced that incompetence is the reason that Olmert appeared unable to act decisively in this war. Other reasonable arguments include that he was concerned that the IDF had grown incapable of taking on a somewhat more conventional operation following its prolonged engagements in what have amounted to little more than skirmishes with the Palestinians, that the Israeli public had no stomach for a replay of IDF losses in the “Lebanon swamp,” or that a major ground offensive would undermine his party’s political program. The first two probably bolster the argument for incompetence, but the third should be taken more seriously.
The Prime Minister heads a Center-Left government coalition elected on the promise of Convergence, a program of ceding the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. The ideological basis for the policy is provided by the Left’s contention that Israeli actions are the primary cause of the conflicts from which the country continually suffers. Eschewing the argument that hatred of Jews and the determination to eradicate the Israeli state are something for which Arab and Iranian extremists bear sole personal responsibility, the Left argues that Israel can resolve the conflict by modifying its aggressive behavior in order to achieve accommodation. According to this line of thinking, a prolonged and intense battle would only undermine the rationale for Convergence; and therefore, Olmert attempted to reduce the scope of the war.
There is another closely related explanation for Olmert's conduct of the war as well; one that dovetails nicely with the general logic of accommodation. That explanation finds the cause of the government’s lack of decisiveness in the calculation that there was a diplomatic advantage to be gained by reducing the intensity of the military response. In essence, the government may have believed that there was a tradeoff between the potential loss of military deterrence and prospects for achieving greater regional security and stability. In order to achieve these strategic diplomatic gains and avoid undermining its strategy of accommodation, the government supported a limited war of low intensity.
What might be the potential diplomatic gains? It seems to me that the key to that question lies in the not insignificant observation that this was the first war in which Israel was not virulently attacked diplomatically by Arab states. While they were ultimately forced for the sake of public opinion to condemn Israel’s bombing of Lebanese civilians, they reserved their most severe rebuke for Hizbullah. Judging by the fact that the Syrian representative to the Arab League left the negotiating room in a storm during the League’s meeting in Beirut, it may well be that they made their feelings about Syrian and Iranian meddling known as well. Egyptian President Mubarak’s subsequent meetings with representatives from Iran at which he called on that country to help make the peace work would suggest so as well.
Gaining ground diplomatically with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar among others would not hurt Israel. In fact, it would help to isolate Syria and could potentially culminate in that country’s deciding to eschew its current alliance with Iran in favor of assuming a position among the ranks of Arab states. That would effectively halt the trans-shipment of arms and munitions to Hizbullah. It would also greatly stabilize Lebanon and leave Israel with no serious security threats on its borders. It could then turn its attention to resolving the Palestinian issue in a fashion preferred by the Israeli Left – Convergence. There are other less significant, but not less substantial, potential payoffs to Israel for moderating its military response as well. Among them are the good-will of the international community (for the first time in Israel’s history), the further global isolation of Iran, and the labeling of Hizbullah as a terrorist arm of Iran (at least in the West).
All of this suggests that Olmert may be pursuing a Leftist strategy to peace and stability. In fact, the very argument that Israeli indecisiveness has dealt a serious blow to its deterrence, emboldened Iran, and rendered the next war inevitable is premised on right-of-center presuppositions about human nature and the relative importance of force in achieving security. For that reason I find it strange that part of the Israeli Left is joining the call for Olmert’s resignation. Either they have concluded that he is indeed incompetent, or they have failed to see the broader strategy that he may be pursuing. If it is the latter, then Olmert is to be faulted for failing to articulate it well enough. In democratic politics that is sufficient for a government to fall.