Michael B. Oren: Israel could lose the war but win the peace

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem, and the author of "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present," forthcoming from Norton next year.]

Israel, it is often observed, wins wars but loses the subsequent diplomatic contests.

Though it has emerged victorious from at least five wars and two intifadas, Israel has been unable to transform those triumphs into peace and security -- its paramount diplomatic goal. Now for the first time, in Lebanon, Israel stands to fall short of achieving a decisive military outcome. Paradoxically, though, the current conflict may present the first case in which the absence of a total Israeli success on the battlefield results in a breakthrough for Israeli diplomacy. More propitiously, this war affords the world an unprecedented opportunity to establish a new paradigm for combating Islamic extremism.

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In its 1948 War of Independence, Israel defeated six Arab armies and yet at the end of the fighting merely achieved armistice agreements that denied it recognition and perpetuated the state of war.

In 1956, the Israel Defense Forces vanquished Egypt's Soviet-supplied army, but was then forced to evacuate Sinai and Gaza.

Israel's unqualified victory in the 1967 Six Day War produced United Nations Resolution 242, which, contrary to conventional belief, does not explicitly require Arab rulers to recognize the Jewish state even in return for territory.

Israeli forces rebounded from initial setbacks in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to rout the Egyptian and Syrian armies only to receive U.N. Resolution 338, a reiteration of 242. When, in 1982, Israel drove the PLO out of Lebanon, the Reagan administration responded with a plan for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel quelled two Palestinian insurgencies but ended up retreating from Gaza and acceding to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israel's inability to make military capital yield diplomatic dividends reflected the international community's reluctance to jeopardize its relationship with the Arab world and imperil its access to oil. Indeed, much of the world felt compelled to compensate the Arabs for their every defeat by qualifying, if not vitiating, Israel's diplomatic gains. This did not, however, prevent Western governments from tacitly applauding Israel for protecting moderate Middle Eastern regimes from Nasserists, Baathists and Islamists.

In pure military terms, Israel cannot win the current war in Lebanon. Even if its forces reach the Litani river and eject Hezbollah from all of southern Lebanon, rockets will continue to be fired at Israel from north of the river. Israel, which has proven incapable of eliminating the Qassam missile threat from Gaza, will not be able to destroy all of the medium- and long-range launchers in the vastly larger and more mountainous Lebanon. Victory can only be achieved by decimating the entire country, which Israel is morally and politically unable to do. But failure to defeat Hezbollah conclusively will guarantee that Lebanon becomes an armed outpost of Iran, threatening moderate regimes throughout the region -- a catastrophic consequence for the world.

Clearly, the United States and its allies can no longer rely on Israel alone to check the Iranian threat. Realizing that, the Security Council is poised to adopt a resolution laying the groundwork for the U.N.'s first-ever armed intervention in the Middle East. In contrast to the toothless peacekeeping missions that have impotently watched -- and sometimes inflamed -- Arab-Israeli borders, the proposed mandated force can expel all terrorist elements from the area between the border and the Litani, and enforce "an international embargo on the sale and supply of arms" to Hezbollah.

At the same time, Israel will receive the "unconditional release" of its kidnapped soldiers while, under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, reserving the right to "self-defense if an armed attack occurs." An incomplete military victory promises to produce an unprecedented diplomatic achievement for Israel and a new multinational machinery for confronting terror....
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