Why Israel lost

Posted: Aug 16, 2006 12:01 AM

With Israel's decision to accept a United Nations-brokered cease-fire with the Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, it has suffered the most ignominious defeat in Israeli history. Israel's aura of invincibility has been shattered; its will has been called into question; its citizens are still under constant threat; its enemies have been elevated in the eyes of their radical compatriots. Syria, emboldened, is talking war. Iran, emboldened, is talking war. And the Lebanese government, emboldened, will refuse to disarm Hezbollah.

What happened? There are many reasons Israel did not finish off Hezbollah. It underestimated Hezbollah's capabilities. It overestimated its own capabilities. But most of all, Israel did what it has done in varying degrees since its inception: It mis-defined its enemy. Israel, afraid of defining its enemy in ideological terms, fell into the trap of defining it in military terms. Israel's enemies, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated in a speech to the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) on July 16, 2006, were those who "challenged [Israel's] sovereignty," those "radical, terrorist and violent elements" interested in "sabotaging the life of the entire region and placing its stability at risk." Even though Israeli Muslims rallied throughout the war in support of Hezbollah, even though Israeli Arab parties openly opposed Israeli self-defense, even though Arab party members have visited with Hezbollah and announced their support for terrorism in the past, the Israeli government refuses to define its enemies in ideological terms.

Israel's decision to define the Israeli-Arab conflict as a "war on terror" rather than a "war on Islamo-fascism" doomed Israel to failure from the start in the Lebanese engagement. What distinguishes Israel from its enemies, according to the Israeli government, is its unwillingness to kill civilians. Terrorists engage in terrorism (a term which has no formal international definition); Israelis invariably engage in targeted strikes designed to minimize civilian casualties.

This is nonsense. What distinguishes Israel from its enemies is the fact that Israel fights for liberal democracy, while its enemies fight for sharia law and the subjugation of all non-Muslims. Yes, Israel's code of morality proscribes superfluous killing -- but defining superfluous killing in war is a difficult task at best. In today's world, civilized nations attempt to draw a bright line between civilians and military. For centuries, however, military forces have been integrated with civilian support structures. The bright-line distinction between civilian and military simply does not exist -- it was obliterated long ago.

The question in modern war, therefore, is how much can be accomplished through occupation, and how much must be accomplished through simple military force. If a substantial portion of the civilian population does not support your enemies, there is no utility in or moral justification for killing civilians. If a substantial portion of the population intensely supports your enemies, conversely, you must destroy the civilian support base. During World War II, we did not merely kill Japanese on battlefields in the Pacific -- we firebombed dozens of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, and then dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan could not be subdued if its civilian support system remained standing. Occupation is far simpler once the civilian populace has been quieted.

Israel, however, declined to take such drastic measures. Wide-ranging and hard-hitting airstrikes were vetoed, as was a large-scale ground invasion. Israel certainly knew that Lebanese civilians throughout the south offered aid and support to Hezbollah, but heavily bombing such sites would have destroyed Israel's foolishly drawn distinction between "us" and "them." Israel certainly knew that the Muslim Lebanese would never welcome them as liberators; a thousand years of Muslim anti-Semitism precludes that. But attacking Hezbollah's civilian support sites would have turned Israel's "war on terror" into a "war on Islamo-fascism" -- a war Israel does not want to fight. Israel had to eliminate Hezbollah's civilian support network in southern Lebanon -- but that was precisely what Israel was unwilling to do. Israel lost because Israel blinded itself to the necessities of war. America must learn from Israel's failure.