Although Ehud Olmert has had a tough time, his tenure has seen Israel recover much of its deterrent capability. It’s now up to Netanyahu to turn this momentum into peace.
Israel has been relentlessly pounded in the international press for its attack on the Gaza Strip. The latest example is a cartoon by Patrick Oliphant, which portrays a goose-stepping Israeli soldier wheeling a fanged Jewish star pointed at a little female representing Gaza. Resorting to equating Israeli soldiers with Nazis is foolish and misplaced, an emotionally exploitative act that itself does violence to history.
The blunt truth is that Gaza does represent a security threat to Israel, something that was underscored by the bold Israeli attack in January on a weapons convoy in Sudan headed for Gaza. The strike was a blow against both Hamas and Iran, not to mention further unwelcome publicity for Brigadier Omar al-Bashir, who is already in hot water with the International Criminal Court and who has longstanding links with Tehran. For Israel, the strike serves as a reassuring sign that its intelligence and security forces have not lost their mojo. As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put it on Thursday, "Israel has never had stronger deterrence than it has gained in the last few years." Indeed, Olmert's record, which has been fiercely criticized, may itself be coming in for revision.
Despite the hand-wringing over Israel's incursions into Lebanon and Gaza, both actions were basically successful. The border with Lebanon has been quiet. No doubt the Lebanon conflict revealed grievous shortcomings in Israel's war-fighting capabilities, but as the Gaza war indicated, they have largely been rectified. Israel has dramatically improved its ability to fight unconventional, guerrilla forces. The Sudan strike puts Iran on notice that it cannot simply smuggle weapons into Gaza with impunity. Olmert also deserves high marks for bombing a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in September 2007. As Amos Harel astutely notes in the March 26 Haaretz.com,
Despite his deficiencies, the prime minister has throughout his term demonstrated a steely determination in leading military operations into enemy territory. A series of decisions, some of which we only learn of through reports in foreign media, reflect a willingness to take risks in approving distant, secret operations aimed at ensuring Israel's strategic position.
If Olmert has been prepared to use military force, it's also the case that he has publicly acknowledged that Israel must reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and the Syrians based on concessions. At a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, the Jerusalem Post noted that Olmert warned, "Time is not working in Israel's favor. If Israel doesn't initiate a political solution in an active and dynamic fashion it will be harming its own interests."
Now Israel needs its Ronald Reagan. Someone who understands the utility of force, but is also prepared to cut deals with his adversaries. Will Benjamin Netanyahu, the incoming prime minister, be the new Gipper with Ehud Barak playing a moderate George Shultz? In The National Interest, the sage Walter Laqueur recently concluded that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will likely drag on, no matter what professions of peace are made by either Israeli or American leaders. The Israelis and Palestinians, then, are simply locked in an endless and violent struggle. Maybe. But the Obama administration is intent on creating a Syrian-Israeli peace accord, which would do much to weaken Iran's aspirations to become primus inter pares in the Middle East.
What's more, Netanyahu is, at bottom, an opportunist and the Obama administration will be pushing him to reach some kind of deal with the Palestinians. But in exchange, Netanyahu might demand a free hand toward Iran, which Obama will be most reluctant to grant. The raid in Sudan was a warning shot to Tehran. But a broader war in the Persian Gulf, just as America is trying to extricate itself from Iraq and gear up the fight in Afghanistan, could serve as the real catastrophic body blow to the world economy. Anyway, President Obama will be meeting next week in London with Russian and Chinese leaders, eager to win their support for both negotiating with Iran and taking a tougher line toward it on nuclear weapons. The challenge for Obama is to reach a deal with Tehran within the next year. If he fails, he will himself come under intense fire from conservatives and neoconservatives for betraying Israel, especially if Iran successfully tests a nuclear weapon.
For now, Olmert has taken tough decisions. His actions may well make it easier for his successor, Netanyahu, to emerge as a peacemaker. It would be one of the ironies of history if Netanyahu fulfilled that role, but not a wholly implausible one.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.