The blessed fruits of defeat

August 14, 2006

In News

By Gideon Levy

The bad (and predictable) news: Israel is going to come out of this war with the lower hand. The good (and surprising) news: This ringing failure could spell good tidings. If Israel had won the battles in an easy, sweeping victory of the kind Israelis prayed so much for, it would have caused enormous damage to Israel’s security policies. Another slam-bam win would have brought disaster upon us. Drugged with power, drunk with victory, we would have been tempted to implement our success in other arenas. Dangerous fire would have threatened the entire region and nobody knows what might have resulted.

On the other hand, the failure in this little war might teach us an important lesson for the future, and maybe influence us to change our ways and language, the language we speak to our neighbors with violence and force. The axiom that “Israel cannot allow itself a defeat on the battlefield” has already been exposed as a nonsensical cliche: Failure might not only help Israel greatly but, as a bonus, it might teach the Americans the important lesson that there is no point in pushing Israel into military adventures.

Since 1948’s war, Israel has only achieved one sweeping military victory on its own, in the Six-Day War. There is no way of imagining an easier and sweeter victory. Israel’s “deterrent capability” was restored – and in a big way – in a manner that was supposed to guarantee its security for many years. And what happened? Only six years went by and the most difficult war in Israeli history, the Yom Kippur War, took place. Hardly deterrence. On the contrary, the defeat in 1967 only pushed the Arab armies to try to restore their lost honor and they managed to do so in a very short time. Against an arrogant, complacent Israel enjoying the rotten fruits of that dizzying victory, the Syrian and Egyptian armies chalked up considerable achievements, and Israel understood the limits of its power. Maybe now, this war will also bring us back down to reality, where military force is only military force, and cannot guarantee everything. After all, we are constantly scoring “victories” and “achievements” against the Palestinians. And what comes of them? Deterrence? Have the Palestinians given up their dreams to be free people in their own country?

The IDF’s failure against Hezbollah is not a fateful defeat. Israel killed and absorbed casualties, but its existence or any part of its territory were not endangered for a moment. Our favorite phrase, “an existential war” is nothing more than another _expression of the ridiculous pathos of this war, which from the start was a cursed war of choice.

Hezbollah did not capture territory from Israel and its defeat is tolerable even though it could have easily been avoided if we had not undertaken our foolish Lebanese adventure. It is not difficult to imagine what would have happened if Hezbollah had been defeated within a few days from the air, as promised from the start by the bragging of the heads of the IDF. The success would have made us insane. The U.S. would have pushed us into a military clash with Syria and, drunk with victory, we might have been tempted. Iran might have been next. At the same time we would have dealt with the Palestinians: What went so easily in Lebanon, we would have been convinced, would be easily implemented from Jenin to Rafah. The result would have been an attempt to solve the Palestinian problem at its root by pounding, erasing, bombing and shelling.

Maybe all that won’t happen now because we have discovered first-hand that the IDF’s power is much more limited than we thought and were told. Our deterrent capacity might now work in the opposite direction. Israel, hopefully, will think twice before going into another dangerous military adventure. That is comforting news. On the other hand, it is true that there is the danger the IDF will want to restore its lost honor on the backs of the helpless Palestinians. It didn’t work in Bint Jbail, so we’ll show them in Nablus.

However, if we internalize the concept whereby what does not work by force will not work with more force, this war could bring us to the negotiating table. Seared by failure, maybe the IDF will be less enthusiastic to rush into battle. It is possible the political echelon will now understand that the response to the dangers facing Israel is not to be found in using more and more force; that the real response to the legitimate and just demands of the Palestinians is not another dozen Operation Defensive Shields, but in respecting their rights; that the real response to the Syrian threat is returning the Golan to its rightful owners, without delay; and that the response to the Iranian danger is dulling the hatred toward us in the Arab and Muslim world.

If indeed the war ends as it is ending, maybe more Israelis will ask themselves what we are killing and being killed for, what did we pound and get pounded for, and maybe they will understand that it was once again all for naught. Maybe the achievement of this war will be that the failure will be seared deeply into the consciousness, and Israel will take a new route, less violent and less bullying, because of the failure. In 1967, Ephraim Kishon wrote, “sorry we won.” This time it is almost possible to say, it’s good we did not win.