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THE CRISIS TODAY - An Insider's Briefing (Tuesday, July 25, 2006)

Israeli Security Expert Yossi Alpher offers a daily briefing during the elevated crisis in Israel...

Today's Briefing - Tuesday, July 25

"How Did This War Start" by Yossi Alpher

Two weeks into the war in Lebanon and even longer into the war in Gaza, and with no end in sight, it behooves us to think back and inquire how all this began. That inquiry will eventually fill books and anniversary newspaper supplements. It was Moshe Dayan who stated, shortly before the 1973 Yom Kippur War that so surprised him, "all the wars began in such a way that afterwards we needed very basic research efforts to explain and understand why they began in the first place". All we can do at this juncture is note the broad dimensions, the themes, of the outbreak of this war.

The basic dimension is the parallel invasion, on two fronts, of sovereign Israeli territory by enemy guerillas emerging from essentially anarchic neighboring territory, violating internationally recognized borders from which Israel had withdrawn unilaterally, killing Israeli soldiers and capturing others. Israel's reaction to the first instance, in Gaza, set the pattern for its reaction to the second. There were background threats that help explain both reactions: the months of Qassam rocket shellings from Gaza, the years of an extended arms buildup across the border in Lebanon.

Another theme is the resolve on the part of the Olmert government not to "deal" with terrorists any more regarding the ransom of captured Israelis. Was this decision made on the spot by Olmert, Peretz and Livni, or had it been discussed prior to the first abduction? Surely it was reinforced by the fact that the abductions took place in Israel rather than, as so often in the past, in occupied territory. Logically, if Israel did not intend to bargain for its soldiers, it would have to react in some other way. Against a state actor it could have had recourse to the international community, the United Nations, friendlier neighbors. But against a non-state actor that either ignores the UN (Hezbollah) or is boycotted by it (Hamas), a different and more powerful reaction was in order.

A third factor is the nature of the enemy: Militant Islamists, the only actors on Israel's borders that are still declaratively intent on destroying Israel and who themselves refuse to talk to Israel, backed to one extent or another by radical Syria and Islamist Iran. Israel's reaction was understood as taking place on the front lines of a broader global confrontation. Here again, the violation of Israeli sovereignty and abduction of Israelis by regional actors not identified as Islamist might have caused Israeli decision-makers to explore alternative avenues for freeing them.

Yet another issue is the extent to which the cumulative and critical operational failures on the part of the IDF--failure to stop the Qassams from Gaza, never reacting to the Hezbollah buildup in South Lebanon, then the two abductions--caused both the IDF and the government to seek to compensate by reacting so strongly, beyond merely "restoring deterrence". On the other hand, the Lebanese border abduction scenario had been the focus of an IDF exercise shortly before July 12. In this sense, Israel's response was "by the book" and was not inflated by damaged military egos.

Finally, there is the unilateral disengagement factor. Ehud Olmert believes that additional Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories is absolutely vital for Israel's long-term viability. The incursions and provocations in question would undoubtedly be seen by many as calling into question the wisdom of unilateral withdrawals, past and future. This, too, meant a very decisive response if West Bank "convergence" was to be salvaged.

In Gaza, Israel gave the abductors and the Hamas government a two day ultimatum before acting. But once the pattern of response and broad international support was set by the Gaza incident, there appears to have been almost no time for reflection regarding the response to Hezbollah. Between the abduction on the morning of July 12 and the launching of Israel's attack against Lebanon that same day, barely two hours elapsed.

So startling is the pattern of decision-making in the case of Lebanon, that it breeds conspiracy theories. Serious people are suggesting that Israel planned all along to strike at Hezbollah and was merely waiting for the opportunity. Others have rearranged the facts to suggest that the soldiers were actually abducted inside Lebanese territory, meaning Israel did not have a valid casus belli.

There are times in history when a leader--even a relatively new and untried leader like Olmert--knows instinctively what sort of response, however massive, is required. The elder George Bush knew in 1991; Margaret Thatcher knew immediately when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982. Olmert would presumably argue that this is just such an instance.

Time, and a lot of ex-post-facto inquiry, will tell.

The Crisis Today-An Insider's Briefing is a new daily, internet publication of Americans for Peace Now. A new edition of The Crisis Today will be posted every weekday morning by 9:00 a.m. for as long as the current crisis continues.

The Crisis Today is written by Yossi Alpher, whose views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Link to APN's Crisis Resource Page

Links to previous Briefings:

July 24, 2006
July 21, 2006
July 20, 2006
July 19, 2006
July 18, 2006