The day after the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah went into effect, I paid a visit to Yana Knopova, coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace. Knopova lives in Haifa, where some of the rockets fired by Hezbollah during the fighting fell, and was among the tiny minority of Israelis who opposed the war from the start, arguing that it would achieve nothing save to make Israel more hated throughout the region and would cost many innocent lives. By the time we met, Israelis across the political spectrum were criticizing the war, the two soldiers whose kidnapping had sparked the conflict were still in Hezbollah’s custody and columnists on the left and right were calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down. Knopova felt vindicated. “I feel in this war we have succeeded,” she said. “The things we were saying at the beginning, now everybody is saying them.”
But the sense of vindication may prove short-lived. Although it remains to be seen whether the cease-fire will last and what its long-term consequences will be, it looks increasingly as though the war’s political beneficiaries in Israel will be on the right, among the people least willing to accept one of the central lessons it has underscored: that there are limits to military power. The bombing campaign that some in Washington evidently hoped would serve as a model for an eventual US attack on Iran, as Seymour Hersh recently reported in The New Yorker, instead brought to mind America’s experience in Iraq, with Israeli troops suffering unexpectedly heavy losses and getting bogged down in a quagmire that could have lasted months.
Yet in spite of this, many Israelis seem to continue to believe Hezbollah could have been defeated militarily. The problem was not the war itself, one hears people complain, but the way it was fought, in particular the fact that government officials dithered before deploying ground troops and didn’t allow the Israel Defense Forces to hammer the enemy hard enough. The military mismanagement–Israeli troops lacking basic supplies like food and water, orders being altered in mid-operation–was indeed considerable. There is a widespread fear in Israel, not without reason, that the country’s vaunted deterrent capacity has been irreparably harmed. But the idea that a full-scale ground assault would have made things different is a fantasy. Israel has, after all, tried such a thing before, when it invaded Lebanon in 1982. Then, too, the goal was to wipe out a hostile “state within a state” (the PLO). The result was eighteen years of military occupation and the emergence of a Shiite resistance movement (Hezbollah) backed by Iran that eventually kicked the intruders out.
A second reason the war’s legacy may strengthen the hand of Israeli hard-liners rests in the cloud it has placed over the slogan long championed by the Israeli left: “land for peace.” This is Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s gift to the Israeli right: to heighten the already widespread suspicion among Israelis that withdrawing from occupied territory (as Israel did in Lebanon six years ago) will only embolden the country’s enemies, particularly the growing array of Islamist forces who do not recognize its right to exist. Fears on this score are not confined to Likud supporters. In Tel Aviv one morning, I had breakfast with a woman who has taken her sons to antiwar demonstrations and who favors an immediate end to the occupation. She told me she feels less and less certain that doing so will bring lasting peace, since a conflict that once seemed to be about land is increasingly being framed by the region’s opposition movements in apocalyptic religious terms.