Foreign Affairs

Olmert’s Failure

Hizballah is rejoicing. The special commission the Israeli government appointed to investigate its own mishandling of last summer’s war in Lebanon, has just released a scathing interim report. Hizballah’s TV station immediately began airing its usual mix of vitriol and self-congratulatory propaganda.

Once again, Hizballah and its likes just do not get it. They fail to comprehend that democracies confront their setbacks, learn from them and make sure to be better prepared in the future, that admission of mistakes is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, of firm and healthy resolve. 

The Commission, like most Israelis, did not question the basic justification of last summer’s war — if ever there was a justified, defensive, war, this was one. Hizballah had long sought a clash with Israel, indeed, repeatedly tried to provoke one through ongoing border incidents and attempts to kill or, even better, kidnap Israeli soldiers.

The problem was not with the war’s justification, but, as the report bluntly stated, with the governmental decision making process and the war’s prosecution. Poorly defined and unrealistic objectives, a mismatch between the means applied and the goals set, over-reliance on air power and sheer hubris, were just some of the Report’s findings. Though it made no personal recommendations, the Chief of Staff has already resigned and the ball is now in the court of the Premier, Olmert, and Defense Minister, Peretz, with mounting public pressure for them to resign, as well. Currently engaged in a stonewalling campaign that would do Nixon or Clinton proud, it appears that only a truly massive public outcry will convince them to resign, turning what could be an hour of national pride in Israel’s ability to confront its failings, into petty political wrangling. All that remains is for them to debate what "is" means (as in their resignation "is" truly desirable.)

Should Olmert be forced to resign, his likely successors appear to be one of three. Foreign Minister, Livni, is the rising star of Israeli politics, a young woman with great leadership potential and a rare and much appreciated penchant for straight talking. A possible "caretaker" — though do not tell him that — could be Shimon Peres, still young at heart and especially mind, at 83. A third possibility, if the Kadima party crumbles and early elections are held, is former Premier Netanyahu, now riding a wave of popularity that has far more to do with his successors’ failures, than any deep yearning for his return.

Domestic developments in Israel obscure a more positive reality than might otherwise be understood. The war’s serious failings notwithstanding, the bottom line is that it did achieve some important outcomes. Hizballah took a severe hit, which will undoubtedly inform its future behavior, the new international force in southern Lebanon has proven more substantive than initially thought and makes it harder for Hizballah to reconstitute and attack Israel. Most important of all, Hizballah and Iran used the massive rocket arsenal they built in Lebanon under the wrong circumstances. Rather than preserving it for a massive retaliation against Israel, in the event of a US or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program, they exposed it and its limited — though certainly painful — capacity, far too early, providing Israel with the opportunity to develop counter-measures. 

The political process in Israel will run its course and one way or another Israel will again have an effective government within months. This, unfortunately, is not true of the Palestinian Authority and will likely not be for years to come. The PA remains divided between its well-meaning but ineffectual President, Abu-Mazen, and its Hamas led government. Diplomatic double-talk aside, the long awaited — and I believe even MUCH longer to be awaited — process of Hamas moderation has yet to begin. The Bush Administration has recently decided to reengage in the peace process and a flurry of diplomatic activity has taken place. The bottom line, however, is that the Saudis have again failed to deliver, basing an initiative on their leadership was dubious to begin with, and it is unlikely that the PA would respond in any significant way, even if the Israeli government was able to at the moment.

More importantly, Hamas, Hizballah and Iran remain committed to their fundamental ideology of Israel’s destruction and recent reports indicate that Iran’s nuclear program is even further advanced than previously known. With the Israeli government almost fully focused on political survival and the Bush Administration preoccupied with Iraq and its own domestic difficulties, the timing of both countries leadership crises could not be less propitious. Although recent weeks have demonstrated some Iranian sensitivity to the initial sanctions imposed on them, it is clear that far more draconian ones will be essential if Iran is to be forced to cease its nuclear program by peaceful means. Both Washington and Jerusalem need strong, effective leadership, to deal with this threat.

Finally, another round with Hizballah, is probably in the offing, whether in the immediate future, or a few years hence. Iran’s strategic ally, Syria, has also been making disturbing moves in recent months, indicating that it may be following its time honored tradition of misreading events, falsely concluding that the outcome of last summer’s war provides them with an opening for a successful military option against Israel.

The Middle East is mired in its normal state of turmoil and there is little reason to be optimistic. The dark forces of extremism in the region — the fundamentalists, promoters of terror as a policy of choice, proliferators of WMD — are on a roll. Both the U.S. and Israel have got to get their acts together rapidly, to deal with the real issues they face, not just their mistakes, serious though they may be.      


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