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As a fragile cease-fire goes into effect in Gaza, it is far too early to make any final assessment of Operation Cast Lead. But certain conclusions can already be drawn.
Even in Henry Kissinger's terms - a guerrilla army that does not lose wins - Hamas cannot plausibly claim victory, as Hizbullah could at the end of the Second Lebanon War. It cannot point to one positive result from having dared Israel to attack. At the end of its fighting, Hamas's leaders were cowering underground, its fighters had fled and it was being blamed by Gazans for having visited upon them massive destruction.
The ultimate evaluation of Operation Cast Lead, however, will depend on whether it merely achieves a brief interlude of quiet, during which Hamas rebuilds its tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor and rearms, as Hizbullah did after the Second Lebanon War. And that will depend in turn on whether Egypt acts decisively to interdict weapons smuggling. Egypt has little incentive to become Israel's policeman, unless faced with a dramatic cut in American aid, and that is not likely to happen.
If the Europeans really care a fig about the civilian population of Gaza, they should do everything in their power to ensure Hamas does not resume smuggling and provoke another round of fighting. Certainly Europe has every incentive to prevent Iran's proxy from regrouping. But without Egyptian cooperation, all the European offers of technical help in preventing renewed arms smuggling are worthless. And on that score, Egypt's refusal to countenance any foreign troops on its soil does not bode well.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who whipped the IDF back into shape, and OC Southern Command Major-Gen. Yoav Galant, who mapped out the military campaign, have emerged as the heroes of the war. But the nation also owes a collective debt of gratitude and an apology to the national religious community.
No group in Israeli society is more demonized than the national religious community. West Bank settlers are repeatedly treated in the media as the greatest, if not sole, obstacle to peace. They are portrayed as inhuman thugs, whose greatest joy in life is destroying Palestinian olive trees and who would gladly sup on Palestinian children.
Yet without the national religious community, including many soldiers from the settler community, the IDF could not have removed the stain of Lebanon. The national religious community constitutes little more than 10 percent of the population, yet is contributing up to half the combat officers. It constituted a similar percentage of the casualties. Despite the high percentage of national religious soldiers and officers taking part in the fighting, there was not a hint from Gaza of ground troops showing less than the highest degree of care in avoiding Palestinian civilian casualties.
Over the last three weeks, the stories of young men from the national religious community inspired the entire nation: Dvir Emmanueloff, the first soldier to fall in battle, who left his officer training course to rejoin his combat unit. Aharon Karov, a paratroop officer from Karnei Shomron, who was critically wounded less than two days after his wedding; Yonatan Netanel, an officer from Kedumim, who left behind a wife of less than a year and a four-month-old baby daughter. At the shiva house, Yonatan's mother Malka beseeched President Shimon Peres to do everything he could for another Yonatan ben Malka, Jonathan Pollard.
The national religious community could have drawn back from army service in bitterness over the treatment to which it has been subjected. Many of those fighting in Gaza no doubt felt they were only there because of the 2005 withdrawal, which they bitterly opposed. And some of them no doubt grew up in the Gaza communities destroyed by the IDF three years ago.
But the high value placed on army service in national religious ideology prevented any withdrawal from the IDF. Once the kibbutzim contributed a disproportionate percentage of combat officers. But today the value of army service burns most brightly in the national religious community. The example of the national religious community suggests that only an ideology of service that draws on Jewish tradition can sustain itself over generations and provide the necessary fervor. Israeli identity alone will not suffice.
THE PRIME minister and the rest of the political echelon also performed far better than in Lebanon. The initial ground action was well conceived. And the government did not immediately buckle under the pressure of Security Council Resolution 1860, which would have left it without any concrete achievements.
Yet once again the government was unable to settle upon clear goals or present anything approaching a unified front to the public or to foreign governments. After Jenin and the Second Lebanon War, the anti-Israel hysteria in Europe and the pressure for an early cease-fire were easily predicted. So the government's lack of a clear endgame is hard to explain.
The back and forth sniping between the prime minister and defense minister about the goals of the campaign not only confused the public at home and heartened our enemies, it also endangered the soldiers in the field by robbing them of their momentum and leaving them stationary and vulnerable, while the politicians argued. In part, that sniping reflects one of the defects of our political system, in which top ministers come from different parties and each one advances his or her own policy agenda.
But those public debates also called into question the worthiness of our leaders to make life-and-death decisions. They lack the quality of disinterestedness of the members of the Sanhedrin who once sent Jewish soldiers into battle. The diplomatic flap over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's last-minute call to President George W. Bush prior to the Security Council vote on 1860 is a case in point. Both the White House and the State Department responded that the prime minister had made up the story from whole cloth.
Even if every word of Olmert's story were true, why would he have gone public with it. What possible gain was there in telling the world, "I made Rice sizzle?" Olmert's political career is over, so there was not even any political gain to be had in describing how he had President Bush called down off the podium during a speech. Could he have failed to realize that the story would infuriate and embarrass not only Rice, but Bush? Did he imagine that the United States, with its unitary cabinet, is like Israel, in which each minister rejoices in the discomfiture of his fellows. Nor was the stupidity costless - not at a time when Olmert still had one big favor to ask of Bush: a pardon for Jonathan Pollard.
In no other country are citizens so likely to be called upon to entrust their children's lives to the good judgment of their leaders. Once Israelis knew that their leaders, whatever their personal foibles and weaknesses, at least had the interests of the nation at heart.
It is doubtful, however, that many Israelis believe that Operation Cast Lead was conducted without the intrusion of political calculations, or even that our leaders are capable of putting aside all personal considerations when making decisions of life and death.