There are real terrorists in our world, people who sow fear and death and exult in what they do. And Hezbollah is prominent, perhaps even preeminent, among them.
It has killed Jews in Buenos Aires and U.S. Marines in Beirut and on and on and now, of course, it has launched rockets all over Israel’s north and it is only dumb luck that has kept the civilian death rate in Israel as low as it has been as this war, this godawful war, has been fought.
This war, which Hezbollah has already won.
It grieves me to say that, and more: It frightens me. For if it is so, then Iran, too, has won, and is a major step closer to becoming the dominant power in the region. Yet I see no way around it, for Hezbollah has already accomplished what no Arab army has hitherto accomplished.
It forced Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, and six years later it has driven more than a million Israelis from their homes for days on end, severly damaged the Israeli econ- omy, launched first- and second- and third-generation rockets at a score and more of Israeli cities, towns, villages, necessarily raising the prospect that the next time around, its rockets will travel greater distances and carry still more explosive power. Anyone for Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear facility? Ben Gurion airport? Tel Aviv?
And Hezbollah has killed, as I write these words, 54 Israelis: 36 soldiers, 19 civilians. Given the number of rockets that have rained on Israel, the civilian death toll is tiny; given the intensity of the fighting, the loss among the soldiers has also been modest. Israel has, after all, lost many times that number in its major wars in the past.
But this was initially defined as an “action,” not as a “major war.” The Israeli military now somewhat lamely claims that it knew Hezbollah’s capabilities before it responded as it did to the killing of eight soldiers and the capture of two, back on July 12, when this all began. Yet there’s no question that most Israeli analysts, as well as the Israeli public, have experienced surprise bordering on shock at the number of missiles and missile launchers that Hezbollah has amassed over the last few years, at the scope of the underground facilities it has built, and most of all, at the ferocity and training of its fighters.
So even if Israel’s casualties, all things considered, have been modest, Hezbollah’s resilience and resistance have been remarkable — and have been remarked on, and celebrated, throughout the Arab world. Hassan Nasrallah’s stature throughout that world has soared; he has retrieved Arab honor and restored Arab pride.
The fact that such words are painful to write, such thoughts a source of sorrow and even trembling in both anger and fear, does not render them inaccurate. It is difficult to believe that Israel would have pursued the course it has pursued had its leaders known when they launched the assault that it would lead where it has led. Other responses were available to them.
But there will be time, later, for hindsight. There are, at least for the moment, two more pressing questions than the question of what went wrong and why.
First, how can Israel minimize the damage that results from a Hezbollah victory? Specifically, how can Israel restore its deterrent capacity, so much of which depends on the myth of its invincibility? For if among the Arab states and among fundamentalist Islamists the perception that Israel is a paper tiger, or even, say, a cardboard tiger, is allowed to persist, then why bother to make peace? Who in that world will be comfortable speaking in accents of moderation, who will endorse a two-state solution?
Let there be no mistake: Very many in that world wish Israel dead, believe that just as the Crusaders were eventually defeated, so, too, will Israel be vanquished. And their hateful doctrine now seems less fantastical than it did a month ago.
And second, how can the current conflict be resolved?
There is no good answer, surely no certain answer, to either of these pressing questions. It turns out that the best answer to both questions is the same, and it is this: Were Israel to quit now, to accept an unconditional cease fire, Hezbollah’s victory would be underscored and certified.
Hence, the one answer to both questions is for Israel to persist, for the time being, in its bloody assault — bending every effort to render it less indiscriminately bloody than it has been, but doing its best to dull the scope of Hezbollah’s victory, to restore its war-making reputation.
For now, therefore, no stand-alone cease fire. I say that reluctantly, not only because I loathe violence but also because a decisive Israeli victory is no longer a prospect — nor am I confident that after another week or two Israel will have achieved even more modest success. And the collateral damage — the death of still more innocent bystanders, the growing blot to Israel’s already stained good name — may well be substantial
That said, a stand-alone assault is no better than a stand-alone cease-fire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is exactly right to call for “a comprehensive settlement that includes three parts: a cease fire, the political principles that provide for a long-term settlement, and the authorization of an international force to support the Lebanese army in keeping the peace.”
Subdue and seduce; force and diplomacy. A very long shot, but the best shot that remains after the debacle.
Israel’s good name: As irritating as is the double standard by which Israel is judged, I am pleased that more is expected of us than of our murderous enemies. And more than that: That we expect more, and better, of ourselves. Still.