Lull Now?

I’m taking my title from today’s lead editorial in the English-language Ha’aretz, which used it without the question mark. Thus the “New York Times of Israel” explicitly calls for a cessation of hostilities, adding, “it is difficult to understand the purpose of prolonging the ground operation, which is liable to end in a difficult entanglement and casualties.”

The call appears to be (initially at least) for a unilateral cessation by Israel in an attempt to see whether Hamas will respond with a cessation of rocket fire, reserving a right to resume the use of force should rockets continue. Significantly, it suggests that Israel accept the proposal made by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, also a leader of the European Union. 

“Sarkozy,” the editorial goes on, “is a friendly leader who during his term in office has contributed to Israel's improved standing in Europe. Israel can return the favor for his support and bestow on him a diplomatic achievement if it adopts his initiative for a lull in the fighting and declares its readiness to begin immediate negotiations on a new, stable security arrangement in the Gaza Strip.”

This is a very important strategic argument, despite the fact that it is about diplomatic rather than military strategy. Clausewitz famously observed that war is diplomacy pursued by other means; if so, they are somewhat interchangeable, and in the long run an intelligent diplomatic strategy in Europe could conceivably save more Israeli lives than a continued military operation.

Ha’aretz wanted no ambiguity: “A few more days of fighting and hundreds more dead on the Palestinian side will not enhance Israeli deterrence; it will only undermine the political and moral basis of the operation.” Moral strategy too can save Israeli as well as Palestinian lives in the long run.

Ha’aretz is only one voice among major Israeli news organizations, and it is well known to be a liberal voice, but it is also an important one. I am on record refusing to take sides in disputes within Israel, and I suspect that the Ha’aretz position is a minority one, although perhaps shared by a large minority.

In any case it is up to the IDF and the security cabinet, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader and (as Prime Minister) one-time peacemaker. I look to them to lead and decide in the interests of Israel. The decision of when to end a military operation has been as important in Israel’s history as the decision of when to begin one.

But I hope they read the Ha’aretz editorial and think about it carefully. Every hour means more lives lost. Although every hour of continued military action may mean a little more security in the short run—one more weapons cache destroyed, one more tunnel destroyed—there are other strategic considerations. In the long run, diplomacy matters as much or more.

And although Israel must not try to be “a light among the nations” at the expense of its survival, it must ask itself not whether, but when, the moral cost of an operation, in the eyes of its friends as well as its enemies, exceeds its ongoing military value. Moral cost translates into diplomatic cost, and that translates into a loss of security, sooner or later.

Much has already been gained by this operation. Perhaps continuing it uninterrupted will yield further gains greater than that inevitable moral cost. But perhaps not.