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Like a doctor performing a delicate operation, Israel - in the midst of a second week of fighting in the North - is now faced with a difficult decision: how to ensure the surgery succeeds without killing the patient.
And the patient in this case is Lebanon, not Hizbullah. Hizbullah is the cancer; a cancer that threatens not only Lebanon but also Israel. Yet in extracting this cancer, the question becomes at what point is more harm than good being done to the body.
Destroying Hizbullah will obviously not only be good for Israel but will also give Lebanon a new lease on life, and will be an important setback for world Jihad - as long as Lebanon is not destroyed in the process.
Or, as one Western diplomatic official supportive of Israel's actions against Hizbullah said this week, what is the point beyond which pounding of the Lebanese infrastructure that serves Hizbullah - the airports, ports, roads, bridges - becomes counterproductive and will impact on the Lebanese government's ability to do what everyone says they want to see it do: regain control of the country and take it back from Iran's proxy.
Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke this week of a "day after." And on that "day after" Israel doesn't want to be sitting in Lebanon, but wants to see Fuad Saniora's government able to function and control the situation.
Obviously the Lebanese government, at least in the beginning, won't be able to do it alone, which is why there has been much talk this week of an external force - UN, multinational, French - entering southern Lebanon to help the Lebanese government do that job. But the hope is that this would only be for the interim, and eventually Lebanon would be able to do something that sounds so natural - control Lebanon.
One of the critical differences between the way Israel is waging the current campaign and the way it fought the war in Lebanon in the 1980s is that this time it has clearly defined its goals. Those goals are securing the release of the captive IDF soldiers and full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for Lebanon to dismantle the country's militias, move its troops south and extend its sovereignty over the whole country.
Not only has Israel defined its goals, but - in stark contrast to the past - it has successfully managed to present them not only as Israeli aims, but rather the aims of the whole world. It has harnessed the world to these goals.
Listen to what Olmert said in his Knesset speech Monday evening: "And in Lebanon, we will insist on compliance with the terms stipulated long ago by the international community, as unequivocally expressed only yesterday in the resolution of the eight leading countries of the world (the G-8), the return of the hostages, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev; a complete cease-fire, deployment of the Lebanese army in all of southern Lebanon, expulsion of Hizbullah from the area, and fulfillment of United Nations Resolution 1559."
Framing Israel's goals as global ones is reminiscent of the campaign to delegitimize Hamas at the beginning of the year. After Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections in January, Israel was successful in getting the world to accept three principles: that Hamas must recognize Israel, forswear violence, and accept previous agreement before gaining international legitimacy. Again, the idea was to frame the goals not only as Israel's, but rather as those of the entire world. Then one could quibble about how best to implement them.
However, while framing of goals has been important in gaining international legitimacy for the campaign in Lebanon, there is much more at work here. The world has changed enormously since Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, an operation that was perceived internationally as a localized Israeli-Arab problem.
The current conflict is being seen more in the global context of the war on terrorism. Even though Hizbullah, for various reasons, has not been placed on Europe's list of terrorist organization (and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said this week there were no plans to do so in the foreseeable future), the organization is widely perceived as a franchise of Global Jihad.
"Why is this Arab-Israeli war different from all other Arab-Israeli wars?" influential neoconservative editor William Kristol asked this week in his Weekly Standard. "Because it's not an Arab-Israeli war." Rather, he wrote, this was part of an Islamist-Israeli war, which is just the opening gambit in radical Islam's attack on liberal democratic civilization. Indeed, he pointed out, Hizbullah's master the Iranians are not even Arabs, but rather Persians.
This type of thinking explains one reason why the US, and to a large degree even Europe, have given Israel such a surprisingly long period of time to pummel Hizbullah before stepping in and imposing a cease-fire.
But there is more. If the US, with European support, could wage war against Afghanistan because the Taliban gave al-Qaida free rein there for so long, then it would be difficult - and indeed it has been difficult - for the world to apply a grossly different standard to Israel.
The US position after the 9/11 attacks was that the Taliban could be held responsible - and Afghanistan was a legitimate target - not because it carried out the attacks on New York and Washington, or because al-Qaida served as its agent, but rather because the Taliban let al-Qaida operate freely form its territory for so many years. In this view, Afghanistan had an obligation and the ability to prevent al-Qaida terrorism, and since it didn't do so, it was a legitimate target.
Israel is, in effect, operating on this same principle in Lebanon, and this helps explain why US President George W. Bush is giving Israel as much time as he has to carry on with the military offensive. The Lebanese government did not carry out the deadly border attack that triggered Israel's current military operation, and Lebanese army forces are not firing rockets on Israeli cities and towns, but the Lebanese government - like the Taliban - has not implemented its responsibility as a sovereign state to keep the terrorists from running rampant.
But still, as Israel gears up for another week of war, the question of when the IDF has reached a point of diminishing returns - of when its actions will cause more diplomatic damage than military gain - will frame both the international debate and the domestic discussion over what to do next.
Already there is concern inside the Foreign Ministry that the world's understanding for the IDF actions will shrink considerably as a result of the pictures coming out of Lebanon, and that this will only worsen as Israel urges hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to flee north so Israel can target Hizbullah strongholds and ammunition dumps in the south. These pictures will raise the question, both internally and internationally, of whether the time has not come to scale down the offensive.
The international community largely agrees with Israel that Hizbullah needs to be torn down to a manageable size. But the question that will arise now, and will likely be at the center of discussions with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she is expected to arrive this week, is how to define that size. How weak does Hizbullah need to be before the Lebanese government, with sufficient international backing, will be able to go south from Beirut and implement its sovereignty?
This debate is also just starting to play itself out internally as well. There were signs inside the government this week of some daylight between Olmert and Livni about how much emphasis should be placed on pounding Hizbullah, and how much on starting to work on the diplomatic track.
Olmert, according to government sources, is almost entirely focused on the military aspect, wanting to deliver Hizbullah a death blow. Livni, quite naturally since she holds conversations each day with foreign leaders and hears their concerns, wants to place a strong emphasis on a diplomatic process alongside the military track,.
Just like the international legitimacy that Israel has enjoyed for this campaign, but which it is safe to say will not continue forever, so the internal legitimacy also reflects a significant difference from the previous war in Lebanon.
Unlike 1982, which was not perceived as an existential battle, this operation is indeed viewed as such a war. Polls at midweek showed more than 80 percent of the country supporting the operation, and wanting to see it continue.
This is widely seen inside Israel as a battle against an enemy that wants to destroy the country. But as Israel continues to pound Hizbullah, there will be those in the coming days who will say that Hizbullah's capabilities have been damaged to the point that it no longer poses an existential threat, and as such it is time to sit down and talk - if not with Hizbullah, then with the Lebanese government through a third party.
Both internally and internationally, the coming days will be marked by a debate over one critical question: When is it the right time to stop?
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