With 86 per cent of Israelis backing the military operation in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz enjoy public support they could only have imagined three short weeks ago. But this could change quickly if they overstep what the public sees as the limits of the "just war" against Hezbollah. They need only remember what happened to Ariel Sharon when he waded into "the Lebanese swamp" in 1982.
Last week's public anger (and the Israel Defence Forces' embarrassment) at a second, surprise abduction of soldiers in 2½ weeks quickly gave way to a solid wall of support across the political spectrum for a firm response to Hezbollah's unprovoked attack and thousands of missiles aimed at the country's northern population centres. As in Gaza, retaliation against the abductions was used to further a larger goal - using military force to change an unacceptable reality that left Israel's home front exposed.
Since Ehud Barak's highly popular withdrawal from southern Lebanon six years ago, Israelis have watched Hezbollah build up a battery of missiles that rendered the IDF powerless to respond, for fear of heavy damage to civilians and infrastructure. In strategic terms, this created an intolerable imbalance that allowed Hezbollah to attack at will, with impunity. Ironically, Mr. Sharon, whom Israelis implicitly trusted on security, bore such deep scars from the earlier Lebanon invasion that he couldn't re-engage there to deal with the threat. (That's also why, in 2004, he negotiated a controversial prisoner exchange with Hezbollah to release an Israeli civilian hostage.)
Circumstances have now granted Mr. Olmert the opportunity to establish a new, long-overdue status quo on the Lebanese border.
In what many Israelis compare to John Kennedy's response to the 1962 Cuban missile threat, Mr. Olmert is supported by left and right precisely because of the clarity regarding his country's status in Lebanon. It's not an occupier, and it doesn't have any outstanding disputes with the Lebanese government. Further, the United Nations has recognized its international border. In a way, Israel's testing those who argue that Muslim hostility toward it stems from occupation of Palestinian land.
The challenge to the international community is clear: Not this time, says Israel, and if you recognize our borders, recognize also our right to self-defence.
Mr. Olmert might want to ponder the flip side of this message. The degree of international and regional support for the Lebanon operation highlights the difference between retaliation for attacks on Israel across an internationally recognized border versus those from disputed areas that Israel still occupies. It would therefore be a mistake for the Prime Minister to exploit the moment to deepen Israel's operation in Gaza, now overshadowed by the northern front.
The very clarity of Lebanon is missing in Gaza. Last year's pullout from Gaza is meaningful only if it leads to larger-scale withdrawal from the West Bank, co-ordinated with the Palestinian Authority and the international community, that will end the occupation and transfer authority to a responsible body.
It's also a mistake to assume indefinite public support in Lebanon. In 1996, the outcry after stray Israeli shells killed scores of Lebanese civilians near the town of Kfar Qana forced Shimon Peres to abort his Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah. So far, the Israeli media are barely covering Lebanon's devastation, and Israelis too casually excuse the civilian casualty toll as an inevitable byproduct of Hezbollah's tactics. But the growing numbers of dead, wounded and fleeing civilians may fast become a tipping point.
As well, although in a minority, respected figures such as former military intelligence chief Uri Saguy and former National Security Council head Giora Eiland question the focus on "destroying Hezbollah" militarily. They wonder whether there isn't a missed opportunity for an understanding with Syria. Weakening Hezbollah can buy Israel an admittedly important reprieve on its northern border, but a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights and Lebanon could change the regional balance of power.
The biggest mistake Mr. Olmert could make would be to heed those calling for the use of ground troops to complete the mission. Last week, the one tank sent in to pursue the abducted soldiers quickly blew up on a mine - a symbolic reminder of Lebanon's unconquerable physical and political terrain. Instead, it's time for Israel to think about its exit strategy and for the international community to weigh in with determined political, military and financial clout. "Successful" wars are judged not by popular support but by realistic diplomatic and political goals.
It's time for Israel to think about its exit strategy
Par Shira Herzog