Column One: The Netzarim-Tel Aviv Express

Today's war between Israel and Hamas is a remarkable case study in how leaders in democracies learn.

Today's war between Israel and Hamas is a remarkable case study in how leaders in democracies learn. In a nutshell, it shows that leaders only learn when we, the people, force them. As Israel battles Hamas in Gaza, all Israelis - and first and foremost our leaders - are thinking about the war with Hizbullah in the summer of 2006. That war, which was widely recognized as a military failure, forced then-IDF chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz and then-defense minister Amir Peretz from office. The public's refusal to forgive the IDF's operational failures in Lebanon also forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to finally resign from office last summer. While it is true that the proximate cause of Olmert's resignation were the criminal probes being conducted against him, had Olmert not lost the public's support and trust after the 2006 war, gifted politician that he is, he probably would have weathered the corruption scandals. With the ghost of Second Lebanon War hanging over them, both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi know full well that if they fail now, their heads will roll like their predecessors' did. And with this sure knowledge guiding them, they prepared meticulously for this campaign. From intelligence, to media relations, from logistics, to command and control, operational readiness, reserve forces mobilization and doctrinal clarity, they have clearly departed from the 2006 model of incompetence and arrogance. For the past two weeks, Barak and Ashkenazi have led the IDF on a course that - while more conservative and slow than most would like - is clearly better considered than the war that Halutz, Peretz and Olmert commanded two and a half years ago. And for this the country should respect them. UNFORTUNATELY, THE public is not as well served by its government when it comes to the diplomatic endgame for this war. And here, too, the war in Lebanon explains the difference. The IDF's failure to defeat Hizbullah was self-evident. Hizbullah, after all, continued to shoot rockets at Israel until the moment the cease-fire went into force. The public could see for itself that those responsible for the IDF's failure had to go. But while the public could see that the IDF had failed it, they were easily misled about the government's diplomatic performance. With the help of the media, which opposed early elections that would unseat the Left, the government presented UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which set the conditions of the cease-fire with Hizbullah, as a diplomatic triumph. Resolution 1701's architect, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was celebrated as a genius who brought Israel its only real success in the war. Unfortunately, this characterization of 1701 was completely false. It was a massive failure for Israel. And it wasn't a case of Israel being railroaded by the Security Council into accepting a resolution against its will. Livni initiated and pushed for the adoption of 1701. The resolution favors Hizbullah over Israel. The expanded UNIFIL force, which Israel insisted be deployed along the border, has shielded Hizbullah from Israel for the past two and a half years. Under the watchful eye of UNIFIL's European commanders, Hizbullah has tripled its missile arsenal, reasserted control over south Lebanon and taken over the Lebanese government. UNIFIL's boundless willingness to shield Hizbullah was exposed most recently on Thursday morning. After Hizbullah's Palestinian underlings attacked northern Israel with Katyusha rockets, UNIFIL commanders called for all sides to exercise "maximum restraint." The absurdity of the directive, after one side launched an unprovoked attack on the other, showed how horrible Resolution 1701 truly is for Israel. By advocating and then applauding this resolution, Israel authorized UNIFIL to act as the arbiter of its own right to defend itself. The public developed an inkling of the dimensions of Israel's diplomatic failure in the Second Lebanon War last summer. After Olmert formally resigned, Barak realized that Livni was his chief political rival in their quests to lead the Left. To weaken her, Barak began explaining why 1701 is a total bust. Whereas the media had ignored similar charges from the Right for two years, Barak couldn't be ignored. But even as Barak's criticisms began chipping away at Livni's reputation as Mrs. Competent, they never were enough to force her to either acknowledge or pay a price for her incompetence. Indeed, in spite of her unmasking, the media firmly supported Livni in her bid to win the Kadima leadership primary in September and continues to support her in her bid to succeed Olmert as prime minister. In this context, it is not at all surprising that while the government and the IDF go to great lengths to distinguish the military campaign in Gaza from the campaign in Lebanon, until a few days ago, the government's clearly stated diplomatic aim was to achieve the same sort of cease-fire with Hamas - replete with a Gaza-based international peacekeeping force - that it achieved in Lebanon with Hizbullah. Interestingly, today it is not personal experience but rather political rivalry that is opening up the possibility that Israel won't reenact Lebanon's diplomatic failure in Gaza. Today, Livni and Barak both see their conduct of this war as a means of shoring up their political standing against one another ahead of the February 10 elections. Their rivalry has led them to advocate contradictory goals for the diplomatic campaign. After spending the last two and a half years presenting 1701 as a triumph, Livni has suddenly disavowed its central pillars. Today she opposes "reaching an agreement with a terrorist organization." Similarly, she argues that the deployment of international forces along the border is antithetical to the national interest. Barak has conducted a similar about-face. After castigating 1701 as a "failure," Barak now seeks to reenact it in Gaza. He supports international monitors along the border with Egypt. And he has no problem reaching an accord with Hamas. The media have made much of the disparity between the disciplined military campaign and the confused diplomatic campaign. But they have not mentioned the cause of this disparity. Again, the IDF is performing competently today because its commanders remember what happened to their predecessors. The government is incompetently handling the cease-fire negotiations because its members are certain that there will be no political price to pay for their failure. ONE OF the troubling aspects shared by both the IDF campaign and the diplomatic offensive is that both ignore the principal cause of the war. As a consequence, Israel has ruled out the possibility of actually winning a true victory in its current fight with Hamas. Here, too, our leaders ignore the true cause of the war because they know that they will pay no price for doing so. Israel is not fighting Hamas today because it agreed to a six-month cease-fire with the terrorist regime in Gaza last June. And it is not fighting today because Hamas decided that it wants control over Gaza's international borders. Israel is fighting a war with Hamas today because Israel withdrew from Gaza three and a half years ago. If Israel had not withdrawn its military forces from Gaza and forcibly expelled 8,000 Israeli citizens from their homes and farms in September 2005, it would not be fighting this war today. If Israel had not withdrawn, if it had retained its forces in Gaza and retained its communities - on whose ruins the IDF now fights - in Gaza, Hamas would probably never have taken over. And even if Hamas had taken over, it would never have been able to threaten a million Israelis with missiles and rockets and mortars. When then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and his lackeys Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni began advocating the withdrawal plan in 2003, they promised that by expelling Gaza's Jews and leaving their ruined villages to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, Israel would advance the cause of peace. They promised that no one would hold us responsible for the welfare of Gaza's population anymore. We could simply disengage. And if we were ever attacked from Gaza after we left, the entire world would rally to our side. No one would oppose our right to defend ourselves after we rendered Gaza Judenrein. The many who opposed this withdrawal scheme warned that leaving Gaza would accomplish nothing that Sharon, Olmert and Livni promised. The Palestinians would become more radical, not more moderate, after seeing Israel destroy its own towns and farms. They warned that Hamas would take over, since by expelling the Jews and leaving, Israel would show that it was collapsing. And why bother negotiating with a nation that was disintegrating? Not only would the world continue to hold us responsible for supplying Gaza with food, electricity, medical care and employment opportunities, opponents of withdrawal warned that the international community would also oppose all future steps Israel took to defend itself against Gazan aggression even more strenuously. After all, by vacating Gaza, Israel was telling the world that as far as we were concerned, we had no right to be there. And in the time that has passed since Israel "disengaged" from Gaza, the withdrawal's opponents have been proven right, and its supporters have been proven wrong on every single issue. And yet, unlike the public's outcry after the Second Lebanon War, there has been no public call for an accounting by Olmert, Livni or any of the withdrawal's supporters. No one has paid a political price for getting this wrong. With the IDF now forced to reconquer the ruins of Netzarim to defend Gedera, Ashdod and Beersheba, there has been no public demand for a commission of inquiry into the decision-making processes that led the Sharon-Olmert-Livni government to withdraw from Gaza. Indeed, Olmert, Livni and their colleagues have been promoted for their championing of Israel's single greatest strategic error since 1993. TODAY THE IDF owes its operational competence to the public's humiliation and sacking of Halutz, Peretz and Olmert. On the other hand, Israel's diplomatic incompetence, and our leadership's continued refusal to accept that Sharon was right when he said, "As goes Netzarim so goes Tel Aviv," is rendering a true victory over Hamas impossible. If we are ever to get on the right path in Gaza, as well as in Judea and Samaria and beyond, our first order of business as the public must be to force the politicians who brought us to this point to pay a price at the ballot box for their blind and dangerous incompetence. It is only by humiliating them in elections that we can be sure that their successors will be too frightened to repeat their mistakes.