Major offensive operations are underway in the Middle East, and things are about to get a whole lot worse. Israel’s forces are engaged in a full-scale mobilization, a move that that would only be made in preparation of war—it is too costly, too dangerous, to take such an action for anything less. Hezbollah sees those preparations, and is launching rockets like there's no tomorrow. Both HAMAS and Hezbollah are looking to use what forces they have before they are lost to Israeli strikes, and in so doing they encourage the battle to come. Then, each hopes to engage in a prolonged guerrilla struggle. But Israel doesn’t intend to play that game.
Israel’s strategy is, in part, predicated on lessons learned from the American experience in Iraq. One conclusion that has been drawn by Israel is that rapid military victory is possible, but the pain of occupation is optional. By this reasoning, the mistake for the United States in Iraq was to try to secure and rebuild that country. That kind of idealism is a luxury a small state like Israel can’t afford. Thus, the creation of viable states—democratic or otherwise‑‑is not a goal for Israel. Instead, if one assumes that the intentions of most of its neighbors are and will remain destructive, a reasonable assumption given the events of the past sixty years, the only question is how much of a capability one’s enemies will have. In these conditions, the goal is not to rebuild a state, but to remove it from play. Lebanon, despite all the progress towards liberal democracy of the past few years, is about to be returned to the condition when it was a state in name only.
How would this be done? Hit hard, get out, and make a deal with the weakest faction of the divided enemy. Encourage the imposition of a government dependent on outside assistance. If that is not possible, encourage civil war. Seal the borders‑‑by a wall, or otherwise‑‑and let one’s adversaries kill one another.
It is an old strategy. It is a strategy that served European colonialists in several parts of the world. But Israel shouldn’t expect that kind of long-term success. The world has changed. A network of non-state actors can continue to operate long after the formal collapse of the government. Perhaps Israel recognizes this and sees its plans to be the best of a bad set of options, a device to buy time. But time is not on their side: demographically and economically, Israel’s position is slipping. Militarily Israel remains preeminent, but that only continues to encourage an asymmetric—terrorist—style of war. Perhaps, with luck, this operation will give Israel another twenty years. It will create zones that are incapable of mounting a serious military threat for a decade or two. That is a significant achievement. However, it will not bring peace. It is an acknowledgement that peace is not possible. And if the birth rates and improvements in military skills of Israel’s adversaries (state and non-state) continue to grow more rapidly than those of Israel, it does nothing to end the underlying problems.
Syria and Iran remain important unknowns. What can they do? Whatever it is they are capable of doing today, it has to be less dangerous than what they can do after Iran has an operational nuclear weapon. After all, from the Israeli point of view, Iran and Syria are already at war with Israel‑‑through proxies. If these states thought they could win any other kind of war today, they'd be fighting it. Instead, they are using Hezbollah while building their own forces. Time is not with Israel. But again, there is another lesson of Iraq: Israel has the option of preventive war.