Editor's Notes: Vital lessons from a 'premature' war

The conflict gave Israel the chance to learn from its own arrogance and complacency, and defend itself better against a still greater threat.

In the very first days of the war with Hizbullah, Israel's top political and military echelons simply could not contain their delight. Displaying quite horrifying misplaced confidence, ministers crowed in private briefings that Sheikh Nasrallah's fighting force would be broken in a week. It was already 20 percent, no 30%, no 40% demolished, the generals chimed in, insisting furthermore that the job could be done overwhelmingly from the air; there was no need to risk a bloody ground war. The Lebanese public was being alienated not by Israel but by Nasrallah and his destructive Iranian proxy army, they all chorused. The fighting, furthermore, would not end without the unconditional release of the two kidnapped soldiers. And moderate Arab states were signaling a shift in attitude to Islamic extremism, finally, that was being seized upon by the watching Western world and that boded well for the existential challenge posed by Teheran. The variety and gravity of such misconceptions point to a level of arrogance and complacency probably unparalleled since the false pride bred by 1967's military achievements was punished so bitterly by the surprise of the 1973 war. And with the very same superficiality that created the problem in the first place, there has now been a rush to judgment in the few days since the cease-fire took effect, for all the world as though the rolling of a few key political and military heads is all that is required to put Israel back on the road to security and prosperity. The malaise, unfortunately, is more profound - running deep into a society that understandably wants to forget the grueling challenges of simple survival in so hostile a region, served by a media all too willing to further such willful amnesia, and overseen by a leadership structure debilitated by exaggerated ambition, petty rivalries and outright corruption. Such malaise facilitated the rose-spectacled assessments in recent years to the effect that modern Israel's strategic position had never been better. It enabled the relentless defense cutbacks that left the IDF ill-equipped and under-trained for even this mini-war. But if the malaise was acutely evident in those absurdly overconfident predictions about how well the war was going and what a lesson we were teaching Nasrallah, there probably was one thing the foolishly upbeat Israeli leaders got right - their assertion that Hassan Nasrallah had miscalculated, and wrongly anticipated that Israel would capitulate pathetically to the latest border abduction of its soldiers. He had expected that we would make a lot of threats, maybe even mass a lot of troops, but that we would ultimately do nothing but release a lot of prisoners, it was said. He had never dreamed that we would use the July 12 kidnapping as the trigger for war on Hizbullah. If so, then Nasrallah's Iranian masters have nonetheless bought themselves another few weeks of undisturbed nuclear development, and they've learned a good deal, too, about Israel's preparedness for conflict and abilities to wage war. But Israel, if it is wise, can learn some of the lessons of this "premature" war; it had better. FOR MORE than a month, despite the best efforts of a constrained IDF, the north of Israel absorbed day after day of relentless rocket attack. The Israel Defense Forces was unable to fulfill the obligation in its very name - defending the people of Israel. Whether the reluctance to more rapidly green light a significant ground offensive emanated mainly from the IDF General Staff or the government or came from both, and whether borne of a fear of the likely death toll, concern over the international response, faith in the potency of a diplomatic solution or other factors besides, it has been seized upon by Israel's existential enemies as strategic vindication. Indiscriminate, unsophisticated rocket fire, relatively short-range and from a single front, shut down a sizable proportion of the country, and Israel displayed no compelling capacity to so much as slow it. Indeed, such military efforts as Israel managed often boomeranged: the Hizbullah strategy of taking Lebanon's citizenry hostage - human shields to hide and fire from behind, and to absorb Israel's attempted thwarting response - saw much of world public opinion persuaded that Israel should be denied the right to defend itself. Even so relatively staunch an ally as the United Kingdom wound up debating the moralities of having US arms dispatched our way via its airports. Gravitating to the apocalyptic certainties offered by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only lesson Israel's enemies can possibly have been learning is that, after decades of defeat and frustration, they have found the means to effect the demise of the Jewish state. They need only acquire greater rocket and missile capabilities, ideally on more than one front, and the Zionists, bloodied by Kassams in the south and battered by the Katyushas in the north this time, will next time have nowhere to flee to. Plainly, Israel now needs to re-emphasize its investment in offensive and defensive military technologies. It needs to work toward an anti-missile defense system, possibly along the lines of the frozen Nautilus. It needs to internalize the limitations of air power and allocate funding for neglected aspects of the IDF, starkly including the training and equipping of its vital reserve forces. Israel's long-term security does not rest solely on its ability to protect itself on the battlefield, however. It depends also on our ability to articulate to the international community why the military measures we take are essential, justified and worthy of support, and it hinges, too, on the consequent alliances and partnerships we forge diplomatically to ensure concerted international action against shared enemies of freedom. In part because of Israeli failures, and in part because of international foolishness, hypocrisy, misconceptions of self-interest and more, all of these sovereign foundations are shaking now. In contrast to the complexities so effectively exploited by the Palestinians in wooing international support for their "resistance," it should have been easy for the watching world to distinguish between aggressor and victim in this Hizbullah-Israel conflict. Evidently, it was not. The fact that the UN has itself confirmed that Israel has no territorial dispute with Lebanon, the fact that Israel for six years respected Lebanon's sovereign border and thus initiated no action to thwart Hizbullah's arms buildup, the fact that it was Syria and Iran that were essentially hijacking Lebanese sovereignty to arm and train Hizbullah; the fact that the fighting began with a concerted rocket and artillery attack on northern Israel and a cross-border incursion into Israel - none of this resonated to Israel's decisive PR or diplomatic advantage. Yet a few well-articulated addresses by one of the few Israeli heroes of this war, Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, hinted at what might be achieved if Israel moved from crisis (mis)management to wider planning and coordination - if Israel, that is, would only formulate diplomatic and PR strategies to advance its concerns on the world stage month by careful month. By his own insistent testimony, Ahmadinejad is hell-bent on destroying Israel; this conflict in Lebanon was an opening round. But he makes no secret either of his wider goal of hegemony in the Islamic world and a confrontation with the West. And he is a long, long way down the path to the nuclear capability that would elevate the challenge he poses to untenable levels. This is Israel's existential danger. It must also be a focus for concerted international attention. A conflict that Iran and Hizbullah may not have anticipated exploding this summer has given Israel the opportunity not only to learn from its own arrogance and complacency and thus defend itself better, but also to credibly argue to the rest of the world the need for coordinated action to counter a still more potent threat from a nuclear Iran. Amid all the dismay, the despair, at the lives lost, damage done, and goals unrealized over the past few weeks, this conflict can yet be resolved to Israel's decisive benefit - if its lessons are internalized here militarily and if it is presented as part of a compelling case to the West to thwart Iran's grand ambitions. Did Israel win, tie or lose this battle with Iran and its proxy army? The question has already been superseded. Israel must not lose the war.