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."
Is this an invasion or a traffic jam? The television networks keep showing Israeli tanks, trucks, armored personnel carriers, tankers, ambulances, mobile artillery . . . lined up like sitting ducks somewhere in northern Israel preparing to drive into Hezbollahistan, formerly southern Lebanon.
My second reaction: One chance Katyusha could set off one heckuva chain reaction. Don't these people have any road discipline? Or are they deliberately trying to present a tempting target?
Then the thought occurred: The Israelis may not be worried about protecting these armored columns; their enemy tends to scrupulously avoid military targets.
Eyeless in Gaza: It seems the prime minister of the Palestinians' now Hamas-led government, Ismail Haniyeh, has asked the American secretary of state to make Israel lay off in Gaza. That's the word from this war's second and almost forgotten front. ("Palestinian wants/Rice to stop Israel" - headline over an Associated Press dispatch in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 25, 2006)
But why does the prime minister need Condoleezza Rice to end the fighting in the Gaza Strip? All Hamas need do is return that Israeli soldier it abducted and stop the firing of rockets into southern Israel. And this continuing Israeli incursion would stop.
The Israelis withdrew from Gaza a year ago, remember? Lock, stock and settlers. It was the rocket fire at Israeli towns and finally a cross-border raid that brought them back. The key to ending this continuing war in Gaza is in Hamas' hand. But, like Hezbollah, it long has been better at starting wars than ending them.
The French have a word for it, and the word is "disproportionate." That's how Jacques Chirac, French president and embarrassment-in-chief, described Israel's both-barrels response to Hezbollah's long record of attacks on the Jewish state - a record that now has led to all hell, or at least an awful lot of it, breaking loose in the Middle East.
Talk about a totally disproportionate response to an act of war, consider the not-so-little incursion into Normandy that began June 6, 1944, aka D-Day. Think of the troop ships that covered the ocean to the horizon, the unending bombardments from sea and air, the armor and artillery and paratroops and supplies and support of every kind, the innocent civilians caught in the middle . . . and even then, as Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a damned close-run thing. Now there was a totally disproportionate response. Thank God.