What Are They Fighting For?

The Israeli military wanted a rapid victory; now they need an exit strategy.

The scenes from Qana in southern Lebanon were devastating though revealing. More than 30 children were among the 54 killed Sunday morning by an Israeli air force strike. This is the same place where Israeli shelling of a U.N. compound killed more than 100 civilians in 1996. The outcry over that incident effectively ended Operation Grapes of Wrath, the last previous major Israeli campaign against Hezbollah.

Qana was devastating for the obvious reasons—and revealing for anyone trying to understand why the Israeli military, with all its might and sophisticated technology, has been unable to defeat Hezbollah in two full weeks of war. It is a cruel and clear example of the complications that are built into asymmetric warfare. The United States learns this lesson in Iraq every day. Israel is now being schooled in Lebanon.

Had Hezbollah succeeded in killing 30 Israeli children while launching a rocket attack on the city of Haifa or the town of Afula, it would have been considered a “success,” proof of the terror organization’s effectiveness. Killing civilians is exactly what Hezbollah is expected to do. But when the Israeli military struck this problematic blow, it was a huge failure. Maybe even a turning point. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rushed to apologize. A 48-hour halt to the airstrikes was announced. The winds of ‘96 were blowing hard: Is this the beginning of the end of the operation?

“War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory,” Georges Clemenceau once said. Israel had its share of catastrophes Sunday, but the victory is not yet in sight. “The Israeli military needs to achieve 90 percent of its goals in order to be considered victorious in this war,” an Israeli diplomat told me last week. “But all Hezbollah has to do is survive, keep firing, and avoid annihilation”—a much more modest task. Its members can strike and hide, they can disappear among the civilian population, they can surround themselves with children. This, an Israeli officer explained, presents two sets of problems—one operational, one psychological. First, you have to find a way to fight the war, then you have to find a way to convince the public that you won.

So far, Israel has failed on both counts. It might have achieved some modest goals in the field—it has killed Hezbollah combatants and discovered and destroyed some missile launchers. But, as long as Hezbollah is still capable of shelling Israeli towns, a declaration of success will seem hollow. That’s why Olmert asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for 10 more days of license to operate. He is hoping that this will bring some visible gains, without which the war over who won the war will never be decided.

And for a country launching a war to deter its enemies from further attacks, a dispute means failure, doubt means a let-down.

How can Israel get to the point where it is able to say that it achieved something meaningful from this war? As often happens in such cases, there’s an undercurrent of blame. The military says it doesn’t get enough breathing space from civilian leaders. Officers wanted a more comprehensive ground operation, but the civilians balked, afraid of more casualties and of public opinion turning against them. The civilians—and you can’t blame them for this—want a victory on the cheap.

So, they need a grandiose crescendo for the war. The assassination of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would be an acceptable outcome. So would the discovery and dismantling of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles. Even getting to the point at which Hezbollah requests a cease-fire and offers to stop shelling Israel is an option. But stopping short of all these scenarios will enable the enemy to show it has not surrendered.

In his speech to the Knesset almost two weeks ago, Olmert set the bar high: “We intend to do this. We will continue to operate in full force until we achieve this.” “This” meant “to take control and terminate” the activities of “radical, terrorist, and violent elements” and more specifically, “the return of the hostages … a complete cease fire; deployment of the Lebanese army in all of southern Lebanon; expulsion of Hezbollah from the area, and fulfillment of U.N. Resolution 1559.”

Arguably, all but the last of these goals can be met. And that is the most important, if one wants a “long term solution,” as Secretary Rice has said—many times—she does. Resolution 1559 demands the dismantling of all armed militias in Lebanon, and that’s the one task neither an international force nor an agreed cease-fire will be able to easily achieve—unless the Israeli military gains the decisive victory it aspired to. In the time that has passed since Olmert’s speech, the Israeli government has blurred its message about the ways such an outcome can be achieved: maybe not now, maybe not us. But in that case, what is it that Israel is still fighting for so fiercely—and will it be enough to count as victory?

Israel needs to answer these questions. It needs to formulate what victory means and then convince the rest of the world it can be accomplished. The war that was forced upon Israel was just and moral—but an exit strategy should also be just. It should let people feel that this battle was not fought over too modest an achievement.

Update, Aug. 1, 2006: On July 31, the Israeli government decided to launch a more comprehensive ground operation. According to Ha’aretz, “The object of the operations was to complete the destruction of Hezbollah border strongpoints by Thursday.”