Strategic interactions are of two main types. They either resemble a "game," with each side making moves according to tacitly agreed evolving rules, or constitute a life-or-death "kill or be killed" conflict. Thus, the cold war evolved rapidly into a "game," with the exception of the Cuba missile crisis, when extreme American measures were necessary to reestablish relatively stable rules of interaction. In contrast, the confrontation with Hitler was of the life-or-death type. The Western misreading of Hitler as a rule-following player - or at least as amenable to becoming such a player after "reasonable demands" were satisfied - resulted in very high costs. These costs could have been avoided with relatively limited damage to all sides had the true nature of the confrontation been recognized earlier. To craft an effective strategy, three difficult questions must first of all be correctly answered:
â€¢ Is a situation more of a game, or more of a life-or-death collision?
â€¢ Can a life-or-death conflict be transformed into more of a game?
â€¢ Is a game-like interaction in danger of decaying into a life-or-death struggle?
THESE QUESTIONS are often not easy to answer. Reality does not speak for itself but has to be read, with understanding depending largely on assumptions, hopes and fears.
Errors are especially likely when situations are inherently ambiguous and changing rapidly, as likely in our epoch of rapid transformations. Yet the high costs of misreading make a maximum effort to achieve deep understanding of strategic interactions imperative.
Contemporary Western values, culture, economies, and politics are dense with factors that distort reality, making this critical task more difficult. Among these are the ill-founded beliefs that human beings are sure to prefer liberal democracy given a real choice, and that material interests necessarily reduce fanaticism.
Other Western handicaps are the lack of readiness to kill and be killed, even when doing so will likely to save many lives in the future; an unwarranted trust in partly outdated rules of international law; striving for so wide a consensus as to make effective action impossible; and worrying about energy sources and markets.
Some learning from mistakes does take place, especially in the US and England, though it happens the hard way - being hit by terrorism and facing obviously "evil" states. Still, the dominant trend, especially in Europe, is to cling to optimistic images of reality approximating the game model, despite stubborn facts to the contrary.
APPLIED TO the Lebanese crisis, the "game" way of perceiving the conflict has been adopted by most of the West, the United Nations and some other countries. This perception requires Israel to look at the initial Hizbullah attack as a limited local incident and react with some "proportional" measure, such as a limited counterattack followed by an agreement to exchange prisoners.
When Israel instead adopts a systemic view of the incident as a increasingly sinister life-or-death conflict and reacts with large-scale countermeasures, so as to significantly reduce the overall threat, it is condemned as "overreacting," and "using disproportionate force." An immediate cease-fire is demanded, never mind the long-term consequences.
ISRAEL, however, cannot permit itself such a short-sighted path of action. Hizbullah and Hamas, as supported by Syria and Iran, are life-or-death enemies likely, with time, to become more dangerous rather than to lose their fanatical nature. Therefore, Israeli counteraction must achieve the destructive capacity necessary to drastically reduce the growing threat; and to motivate bystanders to act against the fanatics and deter their supporters.
In particular, in view of the declared nature of the present Iranian regime as a total enemy and its growing power, including emerging nuclear capabilities, Israel must build (to be more exact, rebuild) credible deterrence, based in part on "rationality irrationality." This requires a partial image of willingness and capacity to react unpredictably and with extreme violence to life-and-death dangers, even at high costs to itself.
Harsh measures against Hizbullah and Hamas are a way to build such an image, in addition to being justified in themselves - all the more so as Hizbullah's initial attack was probably designed to test Israeli determination.
IN MORAL terms, Israel confronts the tragic choice of either engaging now in a large-scale action, despite significant human costs, or wait until a much more costly war becomes unavoidable.
The lesser of the evils is clear, but it imposes a heavy burden on Israel - namely to persist and escalate its attacks despite all costs till a critical mass of incapacitation and deterrence is achieved, with Syria and Iran too learning that Israel will not hesitate to bite off the head of a poisonous snake, to use Nietzsche's striking metaphor, before it can cause grievous harm.
Paradoxically, effective large-scale action against Hizbullah and Hamas and effective deterrence of Syria and Iran are also essential for moving toward peace. It is a chimera to assume that a more-or-less stable peace in the Middle East can be mainly based within the next 30 to 50 years on democratization, economic interests, mutual trust and good feeling.
INSTEAD, THE essential prerequisites for peace are a combination of Israeli readiness for painful compromises - as demonstrated by all recent governments - frustrating the capacity of fanatic anti-peace groups, and radical deterrence of life-or-death enemies. The present wars in the north and south are thus also necessary for trying to move ahead toward peace with the Palestinians without endangering Israel.
If Western misreadings of reality, shortsightedness and counterproductive preoccupation with humanitarian concerns narrowly defined - however honorable and shared by Israel - should force Israel to fall short of the necessary critical mass of achievements, the future cost to Israel will be high.
And the West is sure, with time, to pay an even more painful price.
The writer, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and recipient of the Israel Prize 2005, is founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. This article expresses his personal views.