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The Short War

The comparisons are as banal as they are unavoidable. Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, began his term with a boom--a war in Lebanon in 2006--and is now leaving with a bang--the 2008 war in Gaza. Today, however, Olmert is more experienced, more somber, less cocky. He now plays the role of the responsible adult. The goals he set for the war are limited: “The operation is meant to improve the security reality of southern residents in a thorough manner,” he said yesterday. Not even “security”--just the very modest “improve” in the security.

Everything Israel does now should be read accordingly: The threat of a long campaign (“could take time”), the ridiculous statements by Palestinian Authority officials (“we are fully prepared to return to the Gaza Strip”), the mobilization of tanks and infantry troops. Israel is touting the big stick in the hope that someone, anyone, will save it from the need to use it.

The Lebanon war of 2006 was a test of world patience, and it took a full month for the international community to say “Enough” in a manner that Israel could no longer ignore. In the case of Israel, such international impact only happens when the U.S. is joining the chorus.

In mid-July 2006, writing a feature called “The Dictionary of War Clichés,” I started with this:

As long as it takes: Usually means as long as the U.S. administration allows it to happen. In the current crisis the Americans are sensing there's a genuine opportunity to weaken Hezbollah. They will feel obligated to intervene sooner rather than later in one of two cases: Heavier price in human life on the Lebanese side; or growing outcry from important allies in the international community.

And indeed, in 2006, President Bush was as patient as he was later disappointed by Israel’s inability to finish off Hezbollah. This hasn’t changed much, if one still believes American rhetoric. The State Department’s reaction yesterday seemed to be a repetition of the one we heard two years ago, but with Hamas replacing Hezbollah and Gaza standing in for Lebanon: the war is Hamas’s fault, Hamas should stop shelling Israel with rockets, Hamas is a terror organization, the people of Gaza are suffering because of Hamas.

But Bush is also wiser and more sober today than he was in 2006--back when he saw Olmert making promises (to uproot Hezbollah) that he couldn’t keep. And there’s a big difference between the American “as long as it takes” of 2006 and the one of 2008. What Bush is doing now is merely playing the game Israel is trying to play: showing toughness in the hope that such toughness will shorten the war.

And yes, eliminating Hamas’s rule in Gaza is still a (justifiably) desirable final outcome for both Israel, the U.S., and, for that matter, the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority. But this will be a long-term goal--“long term” in the sense that no one yet knows when and if ever it will be achieved. What is relatively clear is that Israel doesn’t aim to achieve it now. The 2008 Gaza war is the war of the possible. When Hamas is ready to strike a deal that will end both the operation and “improve the security reality of” Israel’s “southern residents,” the war will be over.

For this to happen, the international community will have to play a role. Israel does not speak directly to Hamas, but others do. And since the world would not again tolerate a month-long war--the consequences of the Lebanon war did not justify the patience shown in 2006--one can expect some of its members to act promptly. Even as early as yesterday, some cracks in the support for “Israel’s right to self-defense” have started to show. European leaders seemed hardly enthusiastic about the new round of violence in the Middle East. They were quick to respond, but they didn’t blame Hamas alone, rather asking “both sides” to halt their fire. Morally speaking, it was a disappointing, somewhat disgusting, reaction. But practically speaking, that’s something one has to do if one wants to play a role in mediating between the warring parties. And Israel seems to want the international community to move fast this time--much faster than it did in 2006.

Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist. He blogs daily for The Jerusalem Post.

By Shmuel Rosner