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The Courage To Be Humble

Now that the shooting’s over (one hopes), the postmortems, quite literally, begin. And they are already ugly, very ugly.

By and large, the growing conviction in Israel is that the entire affair was a costly fiasco. A people accustomed to lightning victory — think the Six Day War of 1967, think the Entebbe rescue in 1976 — made mistake after mistake. One might have taken for granted that a guerrilla movement cannot be defeated through air power. But whether through simple miscalculation or because of America’s interest in testing the tactics it is considering for Iran, an air war is exactly what Israel fought in the first weeks after July 12.

Day after day and night after night, its air force pounded away. But when, belatedly, it sent in its ground forces, they quickly discovered that Hezbollah’s capacity at resistance had not been much diminished, if at all.

The debate we can anticipate in Israel in the weeks ahead — that part of the debate that doesn’t focus on personalities — will be a classic case of people talking past each other. On the one side, there will be those, most likely a substantial majority of Israel’s Jews, who will blame the politicians for holding back the army. (Shades of the miserable post-Vietnam debate.) If the force that was used didn’t get the job done, it follows that more force should have been used.

But it wasn’t, and many Israeli will conclude, especially as their sons come home from the war with stories about inadequate provisions and equipment, that the problem went beyond the mismanagement of the war, went all the way to the condition of the Israeli military — until now, the one state institution widely trusted and honored. Accusations and recriminations will fill the air.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz were without significant military experience. The military chief of staff, Dan Halutz, himself an air force man, turns out to have taken care to sell off his personal stock portfolio just before news of Israel’s decision to go to war became public, casting serious doubt on his judgment.

The intelligence branch was plainly inadequate, the training branch as well, and the quartermaster corps was asleep at the switch. Fingers will be pointed at nearly everyone who helped shape the basic decision to attack Hezbollah in force, and still more against those who managed the implementation of the decision.

In all the shouting, a richer and more trenchant analysis may well be inaudible. The question: Starting in 2000 when Israel withdrew from its occupation of southern Lebanon and coming right up to July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah launched diversionary rockets against Israeli settlements and then captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight more — during that six-year period, what might Israel have done to lower the probability of such a provocation and of such a response? How, in other words, might the debacle have been avoided altogether?

Make no mistake: Just as a cessation of hostilities ended the war, a furlough preceded it. In the heat of the military moment, it is well to remember that the peace process was dead before the war was born.

The prewar years were littered with missed opportunities, missed imagination, missed boldness, a missed sense of urgency. Hezbollah lit the match that ignited the war — but the brush that fed the flames had been gathering and growing dry for years, a pyrotechnic heaven produced and misdirected by Iran and Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and yes, by Israel.

Item: Bush can allow himself to condemn Syria as part of the “axis of evil” and sever all contact between the United States and Syria, but Israel cannot simply parrot the American position. Syria is its problematic next-door neighbor — with whom, not long ago, it came very, very close to cutting a comprehensive deal. It was a bad mistake to fail to pursue an agreement with Syria.

Item: Israel and America are allies, we’re told. Yet there are many ways in which the nature of the relationship looks less like an alliance and more like a client-sponsor relationship. Israel cannot allow itself to be a client state, still less the client of a state so ideologically driven as is the United States these days. Bush may be thought a good friend to Israel, but if in the name of that friendship he has effectively damaged, if not destroyed, America’s record as an honest broker in the Israeli-Arab dispute, the friendship has been bought at too high a price.

Item: Israel has spent and is spending a great deal of money, and good will, to build a separation fence that may protect against suicide bombers but that does nothing to defend against rockets and missiles aside from inducing a false sense of security.

And so forth. The list is very, very long. The instant question is whether the Israeli system and state will accommodate to Israel’s new ironic situation: The aftermath of Israel’s stunning 1967 victory was, in the main, a disaster, begetting as it did the occupation and the settlements, the corruption and the arrogance that have hurt Israel so badly.

Might the defeat of 2006 have the reverse effect, leading not only to a humbler profile but to a humbler self — and thence to productive negotiations? For if not, then what? What, now that we have learned that Israel is not, after all, invincible?

Hard times, dreadful divisions, a daunting challenge to Israel’s next government; Olmert’s 15 minutes in the sun will almost surely soon be over, and it will be up to his successor to muster the courage to be humble.

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