August 14, 2006
Israel's Fog of PoliticsBy James Lewis
It is easy to imagine the heated arguments in Israel's war cabinet, but it's hard to know what they portend for the future. The Doves, led by Shimon Peres, are saying, in his words, "We didn't start this war, so we don't have to win it." On the face of it that is simply false; Israel can't afford to lose any significant battle in its long war for life. But Peres is the last Grand Old Man of the founding generation, comparable to James Madison or Alexander Hamilton in American history. Without his outspoken support, Prime Minister Olmert would lose his own party backing.
On the more Hawkish side the argument is also clear. The IDF succeeds with brilliant, fast, unexpected strikes. The original plan, which has apparently leaked, was a classic superfast chess game. It might have worked, but it was not without risk ——— nothing could be. The question the Doves raised was, "What about afterwards?" Israel occupied southern Lebanon for eighteen miserable years, regularly losing soldiers to guerrilla attacks, in a long war of attrition. The occasional Katyushas fired at the North during the prewar period seemed the better of a bad deal.
So the inner cabinet, which runs the war, may have ended with a dubious compromise: A slow, grinding advance, with painful casualties, at some cost to Israel's military reputation.
But this is a hall of mirrors: What you see is never what you get.
Every day Prime Minister Olmert has been giving out contradictory messages. It is impossible to say whether they reflect his actual thinking or were intended to confuse the enemy. Olmert is a group—think politician, not necessarily a bad thing in the contentious politics of the Knesset. He tends to echo his version of the consensus. The effect has been to keep everybody guessing, including the Israeli public, which appears to be demoralized as a result.
But look at the facts on the ground. While publicly zigging and zagging, sending out "No" and "Yes" signals every day, the IDF has in fact now reached the Litani River. A portion of Hezb'allah has been ground down. Some of its underground fortresses have been bypassed and sealed off, following classic mobile warfare doctrine. Much has been learned about the enemy. Casualties have been relatively light ——— at Iwo Jima, where Japanese suiciders held out against US Marines for weeks, they were immensely heavier. But of course in a small like Israel's, the ability to sustain casualties is very limited.
The strategic situation is similar to Iwo. In both cases, heavy bombing by air and artillery had limited effect against deeply entrenched enemies willing to fight to the death. Iwo Jima came down to meat—grinder warfare against deeply entrenched fanatics who were happy to die for the Emperor. It was immensely heroic; but it is not the choice the Israeli political echelon has made.
Once the IDF lost the advantage of potential surprise it made the best of political indecision, constantly advancing when possible, and retreating or avoiding combat when necessary. A rational case can be made for that middle way. The outcome on the ground is actually not bad.
But the IDF has lost some of its reputation for invincibility. In fact, that reputation has never reflected reality. Israel's armed forces have suffered reverses before. The IDF fights best when defending the heartland, not against Egypt at the Suez Canal in 1973, and not against Hezb'allah's underground fortresses in Lebanon.
The apparent lack of decisiveness in this war may invite further aggression. But Israel becomes very decisive indeed when its heartland is directly threatened. Even the dovish Golda Meir was willing to go nuclear as a last resort when she was Prime Minister. The Arabs and Khomeini cult must know that. They are waging a war of attrition and harassment, to avoid driving Israel into a corner.
There is an entirely different layer of strategic debate. Hezb'allah is an arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the apocalyptic war cult that threw up Ahmadinejad and his boss, Ayatollah Khamenei. These are suicide killers in the old Japanese mode. As Ahmadinejad likes to boast, "With martyrdom everything is possible." Given Ahmadinejad's history in the Iran—Iraq war, and given the ruthless way the Khomeini cult treats its own people, those words are meant literally. The philosophy of martyrdom means "we want to die for Allah and the Twelfth Imam, as long as we kill our enemies." It is what Mark Steyn calls a death cult.
That's just not the way the Israelis are. They believe in a culture of life. That is one reason Americans easily identify with them. The overriding question in the current clash of civilizations is stark: Can a nuclear—armed death cult win against a Western, freedom—loving culture of life? And the answer is not clear. We may know in a few years.
Israeli Doves might argue that the answer was never in Lebanon but rather in Tehran. Destroy the head of the octopus there, and the Hezbollah tentacle withers away. Cutting off a tentacle is useless if you don't hit the nerve center. Like some movie monster, it will simply grow more arms. But Israel is reluctant to cut off the head all by itself. It could do so: It has the long—range missiles, fighter bombers, air refueling tankers, and submarines. It is simply not willing to raise the stakes that high ——— not today.
America is only nation in the world that has the capacity and fortitude to kill the Khomeinist octopus. It may or may not; we simply do not know, and this is one of the most difficult decisions any nation has ever had to make. As always, it makes us grateful to have real adults in charge in Washington. Adults understand about reality. Whatever decision they make will be based on reason, history and evidence. Contrary to the paranoid fancies of the Left, Bush, Rice and Cheney are humane, generous, and warm—hearted people. They are constantly wrestling with the facts, as honestly as possible. That is all we can ask.
Israel will have a ferocious debate after this war. Chances are that Labour will lose support, and perhaps Likud will gain. Labour's Doves are not indecisive when push comes to shove, but they have revealed a possible vulnerability to Israel's enemies. The current war was arguably optional ——— but the time may come again when an unavoidable decision is thrust upon the country. At such a time indecision would be fatal.
James Lewis is a frequent contributor.