Is the current unpleasantness in the Mideast now approaching the endgame?
On the contrary, this doesn't even look like the end of the beginning.
With no desire to occupy the south of Lebanon again, and no clear alternative in sight to Hezbollah's rule there, the Israelis might have preferred to conduct a guerrilla war, striking and withdrawing, much like the one Hezbollah has been waging against them.
But such a war could go on approximately forever. Now the Israelis are talking vaguely about establishing a "security zone" in the south of Lebanon. It used to be called a "buffer zone" when the Israelis occupied the southern part of Lebanon for a long, draining 18 years. But with Hezbollah's rockets now raining on Israelis, that long ordeal begins to look like a peaceful idyll, and Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago a big mistake. For Hezbollah has had six years to prepare for this war.
There are no good choices in this conflict, and the Israelis keep trying different strategies. No single one has yet jelled.
Early on, the Israelis seemed to be suffering from a modern delusion: that modern weapons have rendered infantry obsolete, and all objectives can be achieved at a safe distance - by air power, by naval guns and embargos, by artillery short- and long-range, maybe even by diplomacy.
Call it the Rumsfeld Doctrine, and the Israelis may have fallen prey to it. Slowly they have had to face the obdurate truth that in the end some grunt - indeed, a lot of them - has to actually close with the enemy in order to win a war. But even now they're thinking in terms of brigades, not divisions - as if this were a border incident and not the wider war it is.
It's one thing to prepare the battleground for the infantry to advance, quite a futile other to believe that just tearing up the land can substitute for seizing and holding it.
In a war like this, possession is ten-tenths of victory. That's an old if bloody principle, but not an outmoded one. And it finally seems to have dawned on the Israeli commanders who, like an American general named Grant, now propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.
How best to sum up the military challenge now facing the Israelis? Leave it to my old sergeant. It was a grand occasion when I finally made it through artillery-and-missile school many years ago. It was one of the few occasions when I got to wear my spiffy dress uniform with the red stripe down the pant leg. I asked Sarge what the red stripe was for - because grizzled old sergeants know everything, as green young lieutenants soon come to realize. The answer: "It's for the artillery, sir. Because we advance through the blood of the infantry."