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Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made good on his promise to "surprise" Israel as the war in the North intensified over the weekend.
The Israeli Navy has become accustomed to absolute freedom of action in the Mediterranean. But on Friday the Hanit missile ship, fitted with what was supposed to be a peerless defense system, was hit, and four sailors killed, by a sophisticated Iranian-made missile that Israeli intelligence didn't know Hizbullah had.
The attack was facilitated in part by the Lebanese Army, which apparently gave Hizbullah precise information relating to the Hanit - the same Lebanese Army that Israel, in its stated aims for this conflict, has said it insists on seeing deployed in the south as a barrier to a continued Hizbullah threat. With a protective force like that, one might ask, who needs enemies?
With the notable exception of Arab Knesset members and their supporters, the Israeli public is strikingly united in its support for the Israeli military offensive in Lebanon - even as rockets rain down in their hundreds, ever deeper into Israel. Indeed, the barrages of rockets have made all-too plain the extent of the Hizbullah threat and the imperative to disable it.
Patriotic support in the early days of a war, moreover one prompted by an unprovoked attack inside the sovereign border, is expected, of course. But such consensus is vulnerable - to heavy civilian losses should the "miracles" that have kept the death toll here so relatively low run out, and to a rising military death toll, especially if the unwanted option of sending ground forces across the border is deemed unavoidable.
This raises the key question of how effective Israel's air power proves to be. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post way back in ancient history two weeks ago, Israel's air force chief Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy noted the immense growth in the IAF's role in the war on terror, speaking, in the Palestinian context, of the IAF having carried out as many missions in the past nine months as over the previous five years.
The IAF is now charged with reducing to zero Hizbullah's ability to fire its thousands of Katyushas and estimated dozens of more potent, longer-range missiles, into Israel - and doing so fast, while the international window for operations remains ajar, and without the kind of catastrophic mishap that would slam that window shut in an instant.
The more effective the IAF proves, the less likely a resort to heavy ground operations. Given the limitations of air power in completely halting Kassam fire from Gaza, and in the light of UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman's assertion that some Lebanese families adopt Katyushas and launchers at home like beloved children, the task is complex indeed.
Many outside commentators have loudly wondered over the weekend whether a government led by military veterans such as Ariel Sharon or Yitzhak Rabin would have responded to Hizbullah's cross-border onslaught last Wednesday in the way that Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz have. The answer is almost certainly yes.
A more challenging question is whether Nasrallah would have dared authorize the attack had a Sharon or Rabin been in power. If it turns out that Nasrallah has overplayed his hand by misjudging the current government's readiness to respond, it might be that Israel ultimately finds much to be relieved about in the timing of this conflict. For imagine a similar confrontation a little later on, with Hizbullah stronger, and Iran further down the road to a nuclear capability.
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