I know, I know. Israel destroyed almost an entire country and here I’m asking whether Ehud Olmert got religion when he saw the IDF strategy wasn’t working in Lebanon and pulled the plug on it. That may be giving the man too much credit. But no less an esteemed Israeli journalist than Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar said precisely this on today’s To the Point (audio stream) radio show. The following is from Eldar’s column in today’s Haaretz:
…His courageous decision to buck a large majority of the public, as well as the generals and pundits who argued against the cease-fire, makes up for all those mistakes, as well as for a long list of [war] failures…
Two weeks too late, following much loss of life and an erosion of Israel’s deterrence, Olmert understood that swimming with the aggressive populist tide was liable to deprive us of the opportunity to save Siniora’s pragmatic but weak government. The prime minister related with appropriate seriousness to the danger that the destruction of Beirut’s remaining infrastructure and an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the south would lead to anarchy and civil war. That would have left us with an Iranian-Shi’ite government to the north and a Sunni-Muslim Brotherhood government to the south.
Olmert deserves to stay in power, because he managed to learn, albeit the hard way, that in our neighborhood, it is not enough to show that the landlord is capable of going crazy. He appears to have learned that it is important to reach peace agreements with those neighbors who are interested in leading normal lives – even if this requires giving up “victory,” even if it requires giving up real estate. The prime minister’s final grade will be determined by his willingness to internalize these lessons and apply them vis-a-vis our Syrian and Palestinian neighbors.
There must’ve been a huge struggle within the Israeli political and military echelons about whether to unleash all out ground war on Lebanon or acquiesce in the ceasefire process. We already know that Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni were laying down a message of negotiation first, which seemed to contradict the Olmert-Peretz line in favor of the military strategy.
Now, according to the NY Times, you also face the distinct possibility (as unlikely as it may seem) that the Bush Administration may’ve also been exerting pressure to pull the plug:
…As the assault wore on and it became evident that Hezbollah was a far more fearsome and skilled adversary than Israel had first thought — and as Lebanese civilian casualties mounted — American policy moved more urgently toward seeking an immediate political solution.
That shift, recounted by senior administration officials, led to one of the most dramatic bouts of diplomacy that the United Nations Security Council has witnessed in years…
[As the ceasefire was being negotiated] The Israelis were so mistrustful of an imminent political breakthrough that they ordered a ground assault that they had held in abeyance to give diplomacy a chance.
As evidence of how committed the United States had become to the notion that an Israeli military victory was no longer an option, Ms. Rice and other administration officials posed pointed questions to the Israelis about the likely consequences of an intensified military push. And in a rare pointed remark clearly aimed at Israel, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said Wednesday, “We do not want escalations.”
Another official said he worried that a stepped-up military campaign with no clear Israeli victory would end up handing Hezbollah a moral victory in the Middle East.
To be sure, the above passage has a distinct self-serving odor to it like so many of the PR jabs of this Administration. By the by, today’s patently false Bush contention that Hezbollah “lost” this war is a similar attempt to tilt the pinball machine in a direction favorable to his flawed perspective on the conflict. To a great extent, this is the Administration trying to get on the right side of history. The jig was up for Israel and Bush knew it (though reluctantly I’m sure). What is left now except for Bush to paint himself in as flattering a light as possible after the fact?
But one must also acknowledge that even if this is pure puffery, some or all of it may be true as well. Perhaps they did pressure the Israelis to tone it down. At any rate, Olmert faced enormous pressures from internal Israeli machinations to escalate the war. Whatever pressures were brought to bear in favor of deescalation, still the decision was Olmert’s to make and he made it. He knew it would be politically costly as it would’ve been to continue the war and not win it (which Israel would never had been able to do). He faced a lose-lose situation and all that was left for him to do was to determine which choice would cause him to lose less. So I do think you have to give Olmert credit for not acceding to the lunatic fringe of the IDF-political establishment which wanted to go for broke and perhaps even attack Syria or Iran (as some bloggers and even Israeli journalists have posited with some justification). Let me make clear, I do not like Olmert. But I think sometimes your political enemies deserve credit when they do the right thing even if it is far too late in the process.