Analysis: Racing the clock to avoid defeat

International support is notoriously fickle, and the Americans are growing restless.

anshel pfeffer 298.88 (photo credit: )
anshel pfeffer 298.88
(photo credit: )
It's not the soldiers. Anyone who has despaired of the Israeli education system should spend a few hours with the 19- and 20-year-old men on the northern border. They're articulate, intelligent and have a sense of purpose and professionalism that if anything makes them better than previous IDF generations. It's not the intelligence, either. If anything surprised Hizbullah, it was the accuracy of the air force strikes on their positions. No intelligence is perfect, but Israel had a pretty good picture of Hizbullah's fortifications complex and its overall strategy. It's not the confidence and morale on the home front. Just as it stood up to the prolonged Palestinian terrorist offensive, the Israeli public has remained stoically confident in the face of indiscriminate and numerous Katyusha attacks. It's not even the international pressure. If in past wars, Israel could say that total victory was snatched by diplomatic machinations, this time there was almost carte blanche support from the world's only superpower, which has a vested interest in our military success. Even the disaster at Kafr Kana on Sunday didn't drastically change the picture. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't cave in to the international outcry and left a relieved Jerusalem on Monday morning with a temporary suspension of air strikes but no demand for an immediate cease-fire. So why is Hizbullah still capable of firing over a hundred rockets daily into Israeli towns (Monday's hiatus is regrettably temporary)? Why are Golani and the Paratroopers brigades still skirmishing with small groups of guerrillas in villages two kilometers away from the border? Why have the politicians and generals gradually downgraded the objectives of this operation to the questionable achievement of a multi-national force that might or might not do the job for us in the murky future? How have we lost the unaccustomed overseas support so quickly? Why are American supporters despairing of our lack of success on the battlefield? And why are more and more Israelis suddenly waking up to the fact that we might not win this war? There are of course specific answers to all these questions. Over six years and with Syrian and Iranian assistance and guidance, Hizbullah managed to stockpile a quantity and range of missiles rivaling that of most armies around the world. It prepared well against just the kind of operation taking place now, distributing weapons, ammunition and building fortifications in 170 strongholds in southern Lebanon and establishing hundreds of fixed and mobile missile launching sites. Hizbullah has no compunctions about fighting to the very last Lebanese and no degree of bombardment is going to motivate the ineffectual Lebanese government to dislodge the organization that has usurped its sovereignty. All this leads up to the unavoidable conclusion that the air campaign, the thousands of missions flown against targets throughout Lebanon, might have caused extensive damage to Hizbullah, but in many cases, it was like using a 10-kilo sledgehammer to squash a scorpion that has already scurried underground. The tank and infantry battalions operating on the ground have fought with conspicuous bravery, but the scale of the job is just too large for the IDF's regular units. To clear all the Hizbullah positions up to the Litani River, they would have to stay there until Rosh Hashana. To finish off the job in a reasonable time frame, more than the three reserve divisions called up will have to be thrown in to the fight and the operation will go on long after this weekend, the time limit that commanders are beginning to discuss. But international support is notoriously fickle, and the Americans are growing restless. The ground offensive which seemed to be going at an almost leisurely pace over the past two weeks is suddenly turning into a race against time to avoid a moral victory for Hizbullah. The Monday night security cabinet meeting was supposed to decide on an immediate widening of the operation. The forces were already standing by, but it might be too late. If Israel is forced to accept a cease-fire by week's end, they won't have enough time to do the job. The generals and the politicians will begin accusing each other of not calling up the reservists and using them early enough. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke on Monday evening of "long days of warfare still facing us." Perhaps he heard from Rice something different concerning the time Israel still has at its disposal than what she said at her press conference before leaving Jerusalem. The 1982 Lebanon trauma and the natural reticence of the government to send soldiers on a mission from which obviously dozens of them will not return stayed the cabinet members' hands from voting for a wider ground offensive, even after the IDF began demanding it last Thursday. Now most of the ministers have realized that despite the sacrifice, it's unavoidable. But is there enough time?