By Ze'ev Sternhell
No situation can continue to exist for long without an ideological reason. That's how when once it was clear that it was not achieving its aims, an unsuccessful military campaign was upgraded with the wave of a magic wand to the level of a war of survival. When everyone understood that a moral reason had to be found both for the dimensions of the destruction sowed in Lebanon and the killing of the civilian population there, and for the Israeli dead and wounded (nobody is even talking about the exposure of the entire civilian population in the North of Israel to enemy fire while people are kept in disgraceful conditions in bomb shelters), a war of survival was invented, which by nature must be long and exhausting.
That is how a campaign of collective punishment that was begun in haste, without proper judgment and on the basis of incorrect assessments, including promises that the army is incapable of fulfilling, turned into a war of life and death, if not some kind of second War of Independence. In the press there have even been embarrassing comparisons to the struggle against Nazism, comparisons that are not only a crude distortion of history, but disgrace the memory of the Jews who were exterminated.
The architect of this unsuccessful campaign has outdone himself: In order to cover up his failures, he delivered a poor man's pseudo-Churchillian speech, and promised us more "pain, tears and blood." There really is no limit to shamelessness. It must be said in favor of the government spokesmen who are in greatest demand on the foreign stations, from the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman to Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- that none of them has stooped to propaganda of this kind.
At the same time, the campaign's goals have been reduced and shrunk during these three weeks. From restoring Israel's power of deterrence, eliminating Hezbollah, and disarming it immediately -- after three weeks we have arrived at the present goal, which is the dismantling of the forward outposts of Hezbollah and the deployment of an international force to defend the North of Israel from the possibility of a repeat attack.
At this point, the average citizen, who is not working day and night in the corridors of power and is not sunning himself near the generals' command rooms, is at a loss. Is this how we are restoring the IDF's power of deterrence? Haven't we accomplished exactly the opposite? Hasn't it become clear to the entire world that our "invincible" air force not only failed for three weeks to end the barrage of rockets, but also even needs an emergency airlift of war materiel, as during the 1973 Yom Kippur War?
Moreover, the ordinary citizen is asking himself another question: If several thousand guerrilla fighters do constitute an existential danger to a country with a strike force and weaponry that are unparalleled in this part of the world, how is it that during the past five or six years we heard nothing to that effect from government leaders?
It is true that since 2000 we have not been preoccupied with anything except the Palestinian issue. Hypnotized by the "Palestinian danger," Israel turned its back during the past two years on all national efforts that preceded the disengagement from Gaza, and then the split in the Likud and the establishment of Kadima, as a prologue to the second major campaign, "convergence" behind the separation fence. And when the present government was formed, a national agenda was formulated for the next two, if not four, years, whose main component is fulfillment of the "Sharon legacy": a unilateral drawing of borders in the territories, pulverizing them into cantons and in effect eliminating the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in them. This led citizens to understand that this is the issue that will determine Israel's future.
The clearest evidence of the national order of priorities is the situation in which the IDF's fighting units find themselves. It was no secret that the army almost stopped training in large units and complex operations, and became totally immersed in the struggle against the Palestinian uprising. When infantry brigades turn into a police force specializing in breaking down doors and walls in refugee camps, or in pursuit of groups of terrorists in olive orchards, when the criterion for the success of a senior officer is the number of wanted men he has managed to catch rather than his operational talents and ability to command large units -- the army deteriorates.
I cannot recall that the reserve divisions that were drafted on Yom Kippur in 1973, or the Israelis who returned as individuals from abroad in order to join the fighting, were in need of training and refresher exercises. Nevertheless, the Agranat Commission of inquiry was established to investigate, among other things, the level of the forces' battle preparedness.
The Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War were wars of survival, and through them the IDF was revealed in all its greatness. The present war is the most unsuccessful we have ever had; it is much worse than the first Lebanon War, which at least was properly prepared, and in which, with the exception of gaining control over the Beirut-Damascus highway, the army more or less achieved its goals as determined by then-defense minister Ariel Sharon.
It is frightening to think that those who decided to embark on the present war did not even dream of its outcome and its destructive consequences in almost every possible realm, of the political and psychological damage, the serious blow to the government's credibility, and yes -- the killing of children in vain. The cynicism being demonstrated by government spokesmen, official and otherwise, including several military correspondents, in the face of the disaster suffered by the Lebanese, amazes even someone who has long since lost many of his youthful illusions.