All Writings
August 14, 2006

The War of Perception

Regardless of how and when the guns fall silent, Israel has lost the war of perception. No matter how many Hezbollah fighters were killed, or how many Katushka rockets destroyed, or how severe the damage to the Lebanese and Hezbollah’s infrastructure, what matters in the Arab streets is that for five weeks Hezbollah stood up to the mighty Israeli army. Hezbollah’s ability to rain thousands of rockets on Israel’s urban centers and, as a result, send a million Israelis into bomb shelters is in sharp contrast to the performance of the Arab states during previous conflicts with Israel. As the dust settles, Israel must reassess its strategy toward Iran and the Arab states, and reestablish its military credibility, not only for its own sake, but for the sake of its enemies to prevent their making a tragic miscalculation, based on recent events.

Whether because of tactical reasons, a leadership inexperienced in military matters, or a miscalculated reliance on an air campaign, Israel’s inability to claim total victory against Hezbollah will continue to reverberate in the Arab and Muslim world. Israel’s failure will undoubtedly embolden Iran to challenge it at a different time and circumstance, while Syria may decide that Israel is not such a formidable military after all and resort to more aggressive tactics to regain the Golan. Hamas’s resolve to resist Israel may harden, and Hezbollah which, by every objective military standard, suffered a strategic defeat has already emerged as triumphant in the eyes of the Arab world for having withstood the Israeli onslaught with valor, may be emboldened to lie in wait for the next confrontation.

Having lost the war of perception Israel must be careful not to translate this into real strategic losses in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict or with Iran. Specifically, Israel must remain relentless in its efforts to bring about the disarmament of Hezbollah. Otherwise, it will only be a matter of time before new violence erupts, exacting an ever-increasing price. Allowing Iran and Syria to arm Hezbollah to the teeth for the past six years while ignoring UN resolution 1559 was a tragic mistake that must never be repeated. Not a single Israeli soldier should be withdrawn from Lebanon unless the entire area south of the Litani River is emptied of Hezbollah’s armaments and the process of disarming it has begun in earnest. Lebanon deserves to be free and at peace and to never again become a battleground for other regional powers to settle scores. Accepting anything less will allow Iran to continue its relentless efforts to destabilize the border between Israel and Lebanon and deny both nations the opportunity of reaching peaceful accommodation.

Although Iran may lose some of its sway over Lebanon because of the requirements of the ceasefire, it will continue to instigate and encourage Hamas to continue its violent resistance against Israel. Iran should not come out of this tragic misadventure in Lebanon unscathed: this will only embolden Tehran to plot the next confrontation with Israel directly or by proxy. The United States and the European community have to be in the forefront in dealing with Iran’s egregious misconduct. The Bush administration must not wait for the Chinese, the Russians, or the French to approve a UN resolution imposing economic sanctions on Iran because of its continued defiance in pursuing a nuclear weapons’ program. Such a resolution’s passage may not happen any time soon, but even if it does, it’s likely to lack any teeth and so be insufficient to effect a strategic change in Iran’s conduct. Given this reality, the United States and those allies willing to take a real stand against Iran, must agree on a stiff regime of economic sanctions and political pressure that will threaten Iran’s economic wellbeing. In addition, Iran’s nuclear program must be brought to a halt by whatever means deemed necessary, not excluding the threat of force.

Although Iran is the main culprit behind Hezbollah’s initial attack on Israel, Israel is correct in placing some of the blame on Syria. But Israel must distinguish between the two nations. Whereas Iran’s enmity toward Israel may not be mitigated unless there is a regime change in Tehran, Syria is fully aware that it must live in a neighborhood that includes Israel. Notwithstanding their many common interests, including their mutual hostility toward the United States and concern over being the target of its policy of regime change, Syria and Iran differ in their strategic assessments and their ultimate national interests. While Syria views its conflict with Israel mainly as territorial, for Iran it is existential. Although Israel, for a variety of reasons, including timing, may not be in position to make a real gesture toward Syria, Israel should begin to seriously rethink its position regarding the Golan. As the centrality of Syria in any future permanent solution is galvanized, Damascus might find itself more comfortable in making a gesture of good-will toward the United States and thereby opening the door for Syrian direct involvement. Separating Syria’s interest from Iran’s and cutting off the supply line to Hezbollah are critical steps to weakening Hezbollah, dramatically diminishing Iran’s influence in Lebanon leading to a substantially improved prospect of permanent calm on Israel’s northern borders.

However battered Hamas may be after 40 days of painful punishment, it may still feel emboldened by Israel’s perceived failure in Lebanon. Whatever might happen in Lebanon and whatever turns Hezbollah’s fortunes take, for Israel, resolving the conflict with the Palestinians must now assume greater urgency. This means that Israel has to take a hard new look and reexamine its entire approach to the Palestinian question. Considering the Olmert government’s domestic vulnerabilities, part of the fallout from the war in Lebanon, unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank may no longer be a viable option. The time for hesitation and vacillation is over. The Israeli government must act with clarity and resolve. Hamas too should understand that they have their own choice, to either accept peaceful coexistence or be dealt with as a mortal enemy of Israel and, as such, suffer the consequences. Israel, however, must be prepared to make the necessary territorial concessions and seek a permanent solution that can be hammered out and agreed on through negotiations with Palestinian moderates as long as they have the mandate to speak for all Palestinians. Israel must bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians with dignity with whom it must coexist in one form or another.

Seriously damaged, the Olmert government can no longer act from a position of strength. That does not mean, however, that Israel has to turn to the Likud leader, Natanyahu, or someone like him, who would set back the peace process fifty years. Rather, the nation needs a strong, visionary, and resolute leader, in the mode of Rabin and Sharon, who is able to assess objectively the reality of Israel’s situation after the war in Lebanon. The real danger in the future comes from Iran, and it looms extremely large. If it is to respond effectively, Israel must develop strategies that deny Iran not just the opportunity to meddle in the Arab-Israeli conflict but make Tehran fear for its very existence, and so refrain from even contemplating any act of hostility against Israel.

It may be impossible for the Olmert government to overcome the loss of the war of perception. If Mr. Olmert can hold his government together he might still have to reshuffle his cabinet and appoint a new defense minister who can reassert Israel’s military preeminence for the sake of peace. An Israel that is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as weak, will simply invite more serious military challenges because Israel’s real enemies like Iran are relentless, and now they smell blood. <!————————————————————————– CONTINUE NEXT PAGE ———————————————————————->