By Michael Oren
Friday, July 14, 2006; A21
JERUSALEM -- For the first time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel is facing hostilities on two fronts. The exceedingly volatile situation is liable to embroil other Middle Eastern states, culminating in a regional conflict similar to that of the 1967 Six-Day War.
Faced with such a prospect, Israel could yield to international appeals for restraint and allow tensions to subside. By doing so, however, it would accelerate a process in which Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon can keep the country in a state of perpetual military mobilization, paralyzing it economically and deepening its diplomatic isolation. To deny the terrorists this victory, indeed to survive, Israel must take bold action to fundamentally alter the security situation on its northern and southern borders.
Paradoxically, Israel has been attacked from the two territories from which it unilaterally withdrew with the approval of much of the international community. Since the pullout of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah terrorists have periodically fired rockets at civilian targets in Israel and ambushed soldiers across the U.N.-recognized border. Since the withdrawal from Gaza last year, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have fired more than 1,000 rockets into Israeli territory and have repeatedly attempted to conduct terrorist raids across the border.
Israel refrained from large-scale military reprisals for this aggression, confident of having won international goodwill through its withdrawals and fearful of being dragged back into the Lebanese and Gazan morasses. But Israelis have learned that unprovoked violence against them raises little outcry in the world and that failure to react to isolated acts of terror invites unremitting terror. Today a united Hezbollah-Hamas axis has emerged, financed and trained by Syria and Iran, with the goal of destabilizing Israel and frustrating its efforts to disengage from the conflict. In spite of the perils that this front poses to Israel, and the ethical dilemmas that fighting it raises, Israel can transform the situation into one that promotes both domestic and regional stability.
In countering Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel has little choice but to strike at those who authorize the attacks: the heads of those organizations. Both Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and Hasan Nasrallah in Lebanon appear indifferent to their own people's safety. For propaganda purposes, they order rocket crews to operate in densely populated areas so that Israeli retaliation will inflict the maximum number of civilian casualties. But these leaders remain extremely reluctant to pay for terror with their own lives, a fact that Israel discovered when its policy of targeted assassinations compelled Hamas to agree to a cease-fire.
By contrast, punishing the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples collectively, as Israel has been doing, only strengthens their support for terror while creating painful ethical problems for Israelis. And negotiating with the terrorists for their hostages' release merely encourages them to kidnap more Israelis. Ultimately, Israel has no alternative other than convincing these leaders that terror incurs a personal cost.
But even targeted assassinations are no substitute for deterring the state sponsors of terror. Israel cannot hope for quiet along its borders as long as Hamas leaders continue to direct terror with impunity from Damascus and as long as Hezbollah receives orders from Syria and Iran.
Efforts by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union to dissuade Iran and Syria from activating their terrorist agents have consistently proved ineffective. Therefore Israel has no realistic option but to convince these states that the price of promoting aggression is prohibitive. If Israeli soldiers and civilians are the targets of Iranian- and Syrian-backed terror, then the Iranian and Syrian militaries must become targets for Israel.
By eliminating the terrorist leaderships in Gaza and southern Lebanon and deterring Syria and Iran from prodding their proxies to war, Israel can restore a reasonable level of security to its citizens. Such measures will also be implicitly welcomed by Israel's Jordanian and Egyptian neighbors, who are similarly threatened by these same terrorist groups. Only by establishing a new and more stable status quo along Israel's borders can Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proceed with his plan of redrawing those borders permanently, either unilaterally or in cooperation with a nonviolent Palestinian partner.
The writer, a military historian, is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, an academic research institute in Jerusalem.