In the three weeks since Hizbullah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others, this society, especially its decision-makers and opinion-makers, has gone a little hysterical. One Hizbullah incursion, albeit a terrible one, and all of a sudden we're in a full-blown war that's supposedly as crucial as the Six Day War and World War II put together. To hear just about any of the politicians, generals or media commentators, not only is Israel's survival at stake in the fighting, so is the survival of the free world. If Israel doesn't crush Hizbullah for good, if it doesn't drive the guerrillas out of southern Lebanon forever, if it doesn't settle that decades-old problem up there once and for all, not only will Hizbullah bomb us out of existence, Iran will have clear sailing to become the nuclear-powered Nazi Germany of our time. It's no coincidence that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to echo Winston Churchill by bracing Israelis for more "pain, tears and blood." The stage has been set for another Churchill. The Israeli-Hizbullah war is seen as no less fateful than the Allies-Axis war was in its day. This is the Big One, all over again. WHAT BEGAN, reasonably, as a retaliation of no choice quickly ballooned into a grandiose, George W. Bush-style war of no choice. With one cross-border attack by Hizbullah, what was possible for six years - to live fairly comfortably, if not altogether pastorally, with Hizbullah and its arsenal on the other side of the border - is unthinkable from now on. One shocking assault on our troops, and instantly there is no such thing in the world as deterrence anymore. We now believe that those six years of relative peace and quiet on the northern border were nothing but a fool's paradise. We're sorry we ever tolerated such a deceptive calm like we did, hitting Hizbullah with merely "proportional" force. We should have gone to war, full-scale, against them as soon as they raised their heads. Six years of near-normalcy - what a waste. This is the sort of thinking that's prolonged this war beyond its reasonable limit. The result is that Operation Change of Direction is now doing Israel much more harm than good. I wouldn't say we're being defeated, but I would say we're in the process of snatching a tie - at best - from the jaws of victory. IN RETROSPECT, the government should have called off the fighting after four or five days, a week at most, and accepted Hizbullah's standing offer of a cease-fire. By then we'd made our point by blasting their strongholds and driving their leaders underground, we'd caused grievous suffering to Lebanon and the Lebanese - and Hizbullah was getting the blame. Not only from the West, but from their own countrymen and the leaders of the Arab world. It was unprecedented; Israel had never enjoyed such international support for a war. If the government had agreed to an early cease-fire, Hizbullah would have come under enormous pressure, above all from the Lebanese leadership and public, not to attack Israel again. Syria and Iran would have been on the defensive, too. The justice of Israel's cause would have been written in bold. BUT NOW? Since those first few days of Camelot, Israel has killed a few hundred Hizbullah fighters and otherwise damaged their war machine, yet it's now understood that Hizbullah is too strong for the IDF alone to neutralize permanently. Meanwhile, Hizbullah's political standing has risen from the lowest ever to the highest ever. After a tragically short-lived turn as the goat of the Arab-Muslim world, Hassan Nasrallah has been reborn as its new Saladin. For all the Hizbullah guerrillas the IDF has killed in the last couple of weeks, I wonder how many new recruits have begun training. Our nemesis in southern Lebanon will still be running things there once this war ends. It'll still be a threat, able to start recouping its military losses with help from Syria and Iran. Even if the IDF pushes it out of southern Lebanon, who is going to take over on the ground and keep it from coming back to reclaim its "state within a state"? Not the Lebanese army; it's heavily Shi'ite, and the Lebanese have had enough of civil war. Not an international force, either; no nation is willing to stick its head into that beehive. Finally, not the IDF - I hope - because the IDF tried that for 18 years, and it didn't work. YET THE WAR, whenever it ends, won't be a total loss by any means. After the cease-fire, Hizbullah and its countrymen will have learned a painful lesson about the price of aggression against Israel. I think Nasrallah, if he's still alive, will feel constrained not to put his country through such hell again for the sake of killing a few Zionists, at least not soon. Israel will have regained a good measure of its deterrent power along its northern border. I just think we could have regained even more deterrent power if we'd stopped fighting after the first week, because Nasrallah and his men would have found themselves in the dog-house, nationally, regionally and internationally. By fighting on, we've squandered the enormous political goodwill that initially came our way, we've half-destroyed a neighboring country, we've killed hundreds more innocent Lebanese, and allowed about 20 more Israeli soldiers and civilians to lose their lives. And though the war should have a deterrent effect on Hizbullah, it has also started to have a deterrent effect on Israel itself. Let me explain: While I think Israel can still deter Hizbullah, it cannot and never could do so flawlessly. At some point in the post-cease-fire future, Hizbullah will likely try its hand against Israel again. And how will we retaliate then? How much harder can we hit Lebanon than we're doing now? Above all, how much more violent death, injury, fear, dislocation, economic ruin, uncertainty and suffocating misery will the government be able to ask the million-plus Israelis of the North to take? How many more rounds of this can they stand? How much "breathing room" will they be able to give the IDF next time? If and when Hizbullah strikes again, it will take a lot more than hugs and flattery to sustain the people of the North. Any ideas? We've stretched the home front too far. We've stretched this entire war too far. There's a popular, cynical Israeli saying: "Whatever can't be done with force can be done with more force." Time to retire that one. Time for a real change of direction.