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Getting Over the Lebanon Syndrome

Why Israeli parents are willing to send their children into Gaza.

Tel Aviv, Israel

With mixed feelings and fingers crossed, Israelis watched their sons and daughters enter the Gaza Strip for a ground operation Saturday evening. For many of them, it was personal--Israel is a small country, a tight-knit society, and almost everyone knows someone now in the line of fire. But for almost all of them, it was also a moment of shared national sobriety and seriousness. “We must win this” was the common phrase one could hear from people on the street, from mothers to wounded soldiers on the radio, from the occasional military commander. “We must win this.”

“This”--namely the war in Gaza. But it is also “this time,” or “this one.” It is shorthand for saying, “We can’t have another failure like the one we had in Lebanon two years ago.” It is the cautious way of expressing the hope that “our leaders have learned their lesson” and that “our military can still defeat our enemies in this tough neighborhood.” Up until Saturday, it was relatively easy: Airplanes were flying over the Gaza skies, and Israeli soldiers were not in real danger. In public opinion polls, Israelis said that, as far as they are concerned, this can continue, but expressed no desire for a ground operation--one in which soldiers will be wounded, maimed, killed. In a ground battle, Israel will have to prove to its enemies, once more, that it hasn’t softened to the point of being defeatable.

Most of the soldiers now fighting Hamas terrorists in Gaza were three or four years old when the U.S. launched the First Gulf War. Most of them have no memories of this war, but their parents remember. They remember these toddlers being rushed to shelters, wearing the special child-friendly version of gas masks. They remember an Israel that doesn’t respond to the daily barrage of missiles sent from Iraq onto Tel Aviv and Haifa. A wise decision at the time--the U.S. had asked Israel not to make trouble for the delicate international coalition in which Arab countries were also members--but one that added to the erosion of Israel’s deterrence power. Thus, while the U.S. was slowly getting over its Vietnam Syndrome and getting its military groove back--for better or worse, Iraq was the prelude to the Balkan intervention, which was the prelude to both Afghanistan and the second Iraq war--Israel was losing points. The once-mighty regional force was being bombed without reciprocation.

Of course, that was many years ago, and, in the time that has passed, more tests, more battles, had to be fought: the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon--popular in Israel, but perceived as yet another sign of weakness by its enemies; the second Intifada--and the decisive Israeli response in the Defensive Shield operation that did something to restore Israel’s image; the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza--again, perceived as an Israeli show of weakness; and worst of all, the second Lebanon war, two years ago. The Israeli government is still officially claiming that it was not a total failure, but Israelis know better. The Winograd Commission, established to study the war and make recommendations, told them a story they didn’t like to hear. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as politically savvy and managerially capable as he is, could never recover his image nor regain the confidence of Israelis. His resignation late last year was presumably over corruption, but it was really about the loss of the Lebanon war. He was too weak politically to resist.

And now, Olmert’s last mission is repairing the damage he had done two years ago. This war in Gaza needs to make Israelis more confident--to know that they can trust the military to go into battle and leave it victorious. It also needs to make Israel’s enemies less cocky--to know that Israel is not the spoiled society, incapable of sacrifice, that they envision. Consider two new position papers published this week by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies: One, by Stuart Cohen, asks, “What are the chances that Operation Cast Lead can indeed help the IDF to regain the sort of public acclaim that it once enjoyed?” Another one, by Max Singer, says, “It doesn’t matter whether the job is easier or harder; it has to be done. Therefore Israel must do it. Otherwise, Israel can’t survive in this region.”

Hence, the sobriety, the seriousness, that is pervading Israel today. Soldiers are no longer allowed to use their cell phones to call Mommy and Daddy from the battlefield. And the parents--while tense and waiting for news from their children--seem understanding. They know that the war-management-by cell-phones of 2006 should have been stopped. Cabinet ministers go on the airwaves and refuse to say what they think about the daily happenings--this is time for unity, not for debate, they say. In stark contrast to the Lebanon war in 2006, they are taking pride in keeping secrets--as if reminding the public that mistakes of the past should not be repeated. Israel’s useless, irresponsible, reviled politicians have become a group of fairly responsible leaders. The IDF’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, is setting the tone with his Spartan efficiency, managing the war without a hint of the cockiness or brash arrogance of his Air Force general predecessor, Dan Halutz. The military officers are following his example--not speaking as much to the press or spending time hanging out with ministers, second-guessing their superiors and undermining their competitors, which is what contributed to the unraveling of the Lebanon war in 2006.

Of course, this new and enhanced commitment will be worthless if it does not materialize into something that most people see as an Israeli “victory.” There are some encouraging signs: The leaders understand how high the stakes are, the media is not as hysterical as it was in 2006, and the military has adjusted its strategies in light of their failure in Lebanon. But most of all, the Israeli public seems well aware of how high the stakes are.

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

By Shmuel Rosner