Analyze This: A chapter ends, but the story's far from finished

This step may be judged as necessary in future victory.

nasrallah kuntar 224 88  (photo credit: AP)
nasrallah kuntar 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Speaking from the public platform of her son Ehud's funeral on Thursday, Miki Goldwasser tried to offer up some reassuring words for the nation. "I hope we can come to see the Second Lebanon War as a victory," she said. "We have found this nation to be a wonderful nation. We have found bereaved families with superior mental fortitude; we have found generosity. We have found the spirit of volunteering, the meaning of the word friendship. This is an amazing nation." Goldwasser can of course be understood for having her own distinctly personal perspective on this matter. Finally knowing the fate of their two sons, and having their remains returned for proper burial in their native soil, has allowed both the Goldwassers and the family of Eldad Regev a sense of closure to the events that began with their abduction two years ago. Extending that viewpoint to encompass all of Israeli society, though, is a trickier matter. This deal was hotly opposed even before it become irrefutable this week that from the very start, Israel was negotiating to free live terrorists - including the despicable Samir Kuntar - for two deceased soldiers. The final evidence of this, unveiled two days ago, is likely to only intensify the belief of those who viewed the swap as just one more in a series of mistakes made by the government in the battle against Hizbullah. But even many of those who supported the exchange for a variety of reasons are unlikely to accept at face value Miki Goldwasser's contention that the Second Lebanon War was a "victory" - a claim not convincingly reinforced by her notion that fighting the costly conflict was necessary largely to prove that our society is not lacking in such values as friendship, generosity and a spirit of volunteerism. Ironically, one of the primary reasons the war really was fought - obtaining the soldiers' return - can be surely be included as one of its undeniable failures. Israel in the summer of 2006 clearly fell short of its goal to pressure either Hizbullah or Lebanon to return the hostages, and the deal made this week would likely have been carried out on similar terms even if Israel had not reacted with a full-scale military operation. But this country did not go to war simply to retrieve Goldwasser and Regev. Its stated aims also included altering the security status quo that had existed in southern Lebanon up to that time, in such a way that a military operation of the type Hizbullah carried out to grab the two IDF soldiers could not be so easily repeated. It is in this regard where judgment on whether the war represented victory or defeat for Israel gets murkier. On the one hand, Hizbullah's forces and arsenal suffered significant losses; regular Lebanese army troops and a beefed-up UNIFIL have replaced the fighters who once brazenly sat directly on the northern border, and Security Council Resolution 1701 provides an official diplomatic framework for containing the radical Islamic militia's more aggressive aims. On the other hand, Hizbullah has reportedly replenished its arms and ranks to pre-war levels; openly challenged the Lebanese government and won political concessions from it in the past few months; and thwarted effective enforcement of some of 1701's key provisions, including ending arms smuggling to Hizbullah from Syria and Iran. It's certainly difficult given those circumstances to mark the war as any kind of victory for Israel on any level. Yet it is still not clear what long-term role the conflict played in terms of influencing the internal political dynamics of Lebanon, which ultimately will probably play a greater role in determining Hizbullah's fate than any direct Israeli action. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also declared the war a victory for his side this week, and as regards the resolution of the prisoner exchange, he surely stands on firmer ground than Miki Goldwasser. After all, the declared goal of the Hizbullah attack that first sparked the war was to grab Israeli soldiers who could be used as leverage to obtain the release of the remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli hands, in particular Kuntar. That mission has now been accomplished. Still, in his speech at the Beirut rally welcoming Kuntar and the other returning prisoners Wednesday night, Nasrallah seemed a little over-eager to reassure Lebanon that triumph had been achieved two years ago. "The period of defeat is over and the time of victory has arrived… If we had been defeated in July 2006, Samir and the martyrs would not have been returned today," he declared, sounding a touch defensive. That may be because it is equally unavoidable to wonder whether the price Lebanon paid in the conflict that followed Hizbullah's initial cross-border attack, the costly suffering it ended up causing that nation, could possibly be justified by returning just five prisoners. In Lebanon today, it is only some of the militia's outright political opponents who dare openly raise that point, even while joining in the celebrations over Kuntar's return. But the fact that after making his typically boastful remarks, a nervous Nasrallah had to retreat from the rally's open stage and conclude his speech via a video link-up from the bunker hiding-place in which he has spent most of the past two years also belies his claims of clear-cut victory. So what did this week's events contribute to the discussion over which side, if either, won the Second Lebanon War? With all due respect to the Goldwasser and Regev families, who have gained some deserved closure, this particular chapter ends with a clear advantage to Hizbullah. But it is equally true that the book has yet to be closed on this particular conflict, and the day may come when it will at least be judged as having been a necessary step in the eventual final victory over the likes of Nasrallah and Kuntar.