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Wednesday is day 29 of the second Lebanon war. In the first phase of the war, our military and civilian leadership seemed to believe that Hizbullah could quickly be defeated almost completely by air power. In the second phase, ground operations were extended first to a narrow strip along the border, and then to the roughly 10-km.-wide security zone Israel had left in 2000.
By six days ago, it was evidently clear to Defense Minister Amir Peretz that these first two phases were not degrading Hizbullah sufficiently, and he ordered plans for a third phase: pushing north on the ground to a line roughly defined by the Litani River.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the reason this operation had not previously been approved was that the IDF had not presented it to him. It may be the case that the IDF in recent days both sensed that Peretz and Olmert were waiting to see if the UN Security Council acted and also was not interested in taking control of more territory.
On Monday, a high-ranking Military Intelligence officer told The Jerusalem Post's Yaakov Katz that Hizbullah still retained the "diplomatic power" to thwart the deployment of Lebanese or foreign forces in southern Lebanon. Hizbullah, he noted, still maintained command and control capabilities, and its logistical centers have managed to continue to smuggle weaponry in from Syria. "Hizbullah has not been sufficiently weakened... there may be no choice but to expand the ground operation to the Litani River to achieve that goal," he said.
All this raises the urgent question, what has Israel been waiting for?
If the Lebanese had not been so foolhardy as to reject the proposed Security Council resolution, the option of a wider land offensive would have been closed. But they did, and so Israel has been given a second chance to avoid defeat.
None of this is to say that the decision to send in many more thousands of ground troops and move deeper into a land we desperately want nothing to do with is an easy one. No one, except perhaps Hizbullah, wants Israel to be stuck in Lebanon again. We can expect that more ground forces will probably mean more casualties among our soldiers, even if such an operation succeeds in significantly reducing the barrages of short-range missiles that are terrorizing the north.
On balance, however, the price Israel will have to pay to degrade Hizbullah further will be considerably lower than the one it will pay in the future if it ends this war now. As things stand at present, Hizbullah is politically triumphant and militarily capable of living to fight another day, with its strategy of indiscriminate rocket fire into Israel, from behind the human shield of Lebanon's citizenry, largely unanswered.
The prospect that in the end Israel will be handing over this territory to an ineffective international force may heighten fears of the IDF's getting stuck in Lebanon, but it even more strengthens the case that Israel dare not rely on anyone but itself to defeat Hizbullah.
It is in the supreme interest of the free nations of the world to ensure that Hizbullah is completely disarmed and never allowed to be rebuilt again. That said, it is a fantasy to believe that any international force that ultimately deploys will, regardless of its mandate, go house to house and root out whatever remains of a force that Israel does not succeed in eliminating. The most that can be expected of such a force is that it, together with the Lebanese army, will make it more difficult for Hizbullah to rebuild and, by reporting such efforts, keep the pressure on Lebanon to complete Hizbullah's disarmament, as required by UN Resolution 1559.
Now Lebanon has promised to send its forces south to the border, as Israel and the international community have long demanded. Olmert yesterday called this proposal "interesting." What seems most interesting about it, however, is that Hizbullah is supporting it.
Hizbullah knows that what matters is not promises made now about the south, but whether it is will be a heavyweight political player and a military force in Lebanon after the war. This is the real measure of victory or defeat. Israel must do what it takes to win, and Israel is not there yet.
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