THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jeff Jacoby

Has Israel learned its lesson?

By Jeff Jacoby
January 1, 2009
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ISRAEL'S 2006 war against Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist army based in Lebanon, was a disaster - an ill-planned operation that did more damage to Israel's military reputation than to Hezbollah's resolve and influence. Now, as it fights Hamas in Gaza, Israel seems determined not to repeat the mistakes of two years ago.

This time, Israeli prewar preparations were much more meticulous. Months were devoted to gathering detailed information on scores of Hamas targets, including training camps and offices, rocket launchers, underground bunkers, weapons-making sites, tunnels from Egypt, and the homes of terrorist commanders. Israel's military and political operations appear better coordinated than in 2006, and Israeli diplomats are making use of online weapons - a dedicated YouTube channel, for example - to get its message out.

But it remains an open question whether Israel's leaders have learned the most critical lesson of all: that genocidal jihadists and other mortal foes cannot be wheedled, negotiated, bribed, or ignored into quietude. In a war with enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas and the PLO - enemies explicitly committed to Israel's destruction - goodwill gestures beget no goodwill, and peace processes do not lead to peace.

The proximate cause of the fighting in Gaza was the sharp increase in rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians after Hamas refused to extend its tenuous cease-fire with Israel past Dec. 19. But the deeper cause was the transformation of Gaza into an Iranian proxy and terrorist hub following Israel's reckless "disengagement" in 2005. Israelis convinced themselves that ethnically cleansing Gaza of its Jews and handing over the territory to the Palestinians would reduce violence and make Israel safer. It did just the opposite.

In 2000, Israelis had similarly believed that a unilateral retreat from southern Lebanon would deprive Hezbollah of any pretext for continuing its war against the Jewish state. But far from extinguishing Hezbollah's jihadist dreams, it inflamed them.

The hard truth is that no matter how much Israelis crave peace, they cannot achieve it through concessions and compromises and "road maps" - not when their enemies view such overtures and agreements as signs of weakness, and as proof that terrorism works. For 60 years, Israel has had to contend with the hostility of its neighbors and the heavy costs of war; its yearning for peace is understandable. But there will be no peace without victory, and no victory without fighting for it.

For a long time now, Israel's leaders have resisted this fact - "We are tired of fighting," Ehud Olmert infamously declared in 2005. For 15 years, beginning with the sham of the Oslo peace process in 1993, Jerusalem has tried to appease its way to tranquility. It allowed Yasser Arafat and his PLO killers to take control of the West Bank and Gaza. It embraced the goal of Palestinian statehood. It responded to terrorism with ever-deeper concessions. It abandoned Lebanon and Gaza. It reiterated, over and over, the false mantra that "you make peace with your enemies." And from the ongoing captivity of Gilad Shalit to the rockets slamming into Israeli cities to the dysfunction and radicalization of Palestinian society, the results have been disastrous.

There are heartening indications this week of a more realistic and unsentimental approach. Defense Minister Ehud Barak described the offensive against Hamas as a "war to the bitter end" and told an American interviewer, "For us to be asked to have a cease-fire with Hamas is like asking you to have a cease-fire with Al-Qaeda." Both leading contenders in the upcoming Israeli election, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and head of Kadima, promise to make it a priority "to topple the Hamas regime" if elected prime minister. Israel's UN ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, has said that the operation in Gaza will last "as long as it takes to dismantle Hamas completely."

Whether this strong rhetoric will be backed up by strong action in the long run remains to be seen. Yesterday, the Israeli cabinet rejected a French proposal for a 48-hour truce. Perhaps, at long last, the lesson has been learned: With an enemy like Hamas, which boasts that it "loves death" and "drinks blood," truces and deals are illusory. If Israel seeks lasting peace, it must first win a lasting victory.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

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