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Win, Lose, Or Draw

I would have felt better--as I guess everyone in the army would have--if the war had been more decisive. There is a palpable sense in the Israeli public, of a mission not completed, of a job left undone, and that leaves a bitter taste.

From a media perspective, I feel we did what we could have done. A spokesperson cannot alter reality: if you have 30,000 angry reservists at the end of the war, if you didn't knock out your enemy, the Hezbollah--it's really hard to say--no matter how good a spokesperson you are--that you won. Indeed, this was a war with no victors. Hence the bitter aftertaste and the public debate about the war which continues to consume the country.

There are several basic things that can be said. Clearly, Israel did not win--neither in its own eyes, nor in the eyes Arab world, Lebanon or the Hezbollah. No Israeli will claim that Israel won. Moreover, many of the stated goals of the operation--the return of the abducted soldiers, the disarming of Hezbollah--were not met at the war's end. The diplomatic arrangements which justified the cease fire--namely, the commitment of the international community to implement the UN resolution fully and the the efficacy of the UNIFIL force in Lebanon--seemed to continually erode. The question most Israelis asked are: what have we really achieved? Hezbollah will rebuild itself; Lebanon--with Iranian money via Hezbollah and nearly one billion dollars in aid pledged by the international community--will rebuild itself; and it will be only a matter of time before Israel will find itself back to square one with Hezbollah.

But for all Israel's self-deprecation, neither did Hezbollah win. Their temporary bravado notwithstanding, Hezbollah is a crushed organization. From within, their deadly war arsenal is depleted or destroyed, many of its fighters killed, and its leadership are marked men by Israel: "they will not go unavenged," Olmert told the Knesset, ceasefire or no; or as a senior IDF officer said of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah: "he is a dead man."

For Hezbollah's patron, Iran, the war was premature. Iran groomed Hezbollah as its proxy army along Israel's northern border, which would threaten Israel and serve as a deterrent. Now that deterrent is gone; Hezbollah showed its hand way too early in the game, from an Iranian perspective. Today every Israeli on the street knows what Hezbollah's capabilities are, its weapons arsenal, how far it can fire its missile, and the Israeli public--ironically, ahead of the government and military--is already prepared for another round with Hezbollah, if necessary.

And finally, the Lebanese people. Even among Hezbollah's strong supporters among the Shiite community in Lebanon, though they are proud of Hezbollah's fight against the mighty Israeli army, as they return to their homes in Southern Lebanon--or, more correctly, the ruins of their homes--may ask themselves: was it worth it? They may join other Lebanese--who have already asked openly--for whose good was this whole war? It certainly was not for the good of Lebanon. This greatly undermines Nasrallah's argument to the Lebanese that he was the defender of Lebanon against Israel. The popular disaffection with the results of the war may impair Hezbollah's room for maneuver in Lebanon in the years to come. And if, in the months and years to come, Lebanon--with the help of the international community--will firmly assert its authority over southern Lebanon, the war could mark the beginning of the end of Hezbollah as a terrorist army within a state.

Most comforting for the Israelis, is Nasrallah's admission that had he known the way the war would have turned out, he never would have fought it. Still, while it sustained a blow, the war brought great esteem for Hezbollah, the Muslim world over. The Arab street sees Hezbollah as a war hero, the first group in decades that succeeded in doing sustainable damage to the mighty Israeli Army. Moreover, it is an extreme Islamic movement which seems, in the Arab perception, to be the only force capable of taking on Israel. Also very worrisome, the war emboldened Syria's unstable leader, Bashar Assad, and the years of quiet that Israel enjoyed on the Golan Heights along its border with Syria, may come to an end. But, in the final assessment, how much this was a relative victory or a relative defeat for Israel, and for Hezbollah, will become clear only over time.