WASHINGTONFour weeks ago, I wrote a column explaining why I thought Israels reaction to the abduction of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah was a mistake. Based on my experience from a recent trip to the area, I concluded that the Israeli offensive would destroy the best chance of a multisectarian and entrepreneurial society in the Arab world, and that it would shift the balance of power in Lebanon in favor of a totalitarian organizationHezbollahthat was not calling the shots in the nation even if it had a disturbing chokehold on the Shiite population.
Strengthening Lebanons standing institutions and impressive civil society, I suggested, would be a better way of undermining Hezbollahs power in the long term. After all, the Shiite theocrats had not been able to prevent the so-called March 14 coalition of Christians, Muslims and Druze from forcing Syria out of Lebanon the previous year.
I received a bombardment of e-mails from the U.S., the Middle East, Asia and Latin America either reprimanding me for not being harsh enough on Israel or taking me to task for failing to see that this was an existential war and that Israels survival hinged on the elimination of Irans surrogates.
A month later as a U.N.-brokered cease-fire goes into effect, not a single one of Israels objectives has been achieved. Hezbollah has not been disarmed or defeated; its leadership is intactand ever more loquacious on al-Manar, Hezbollahs intractable TV network. The two Israeli soldiers have not been recovered and will now likely be the object of a prisoner swap that Israel said would never happen. Israels deterrent looks less deterring than four weeks ago. And Tehrans despotic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now a lot more powerful in the eyes of the Muslim masses. Even the pro-western Arab dictatorships that originally rooted for Israel, convinced this was a great opportunity to curb Irans rise in the region, ended up praising Hezbollahs resistance.
Hezbollah has achieved what no Arab army had achieved since 1948, including Egypt and Syrias strong performance in the Yom Kippur conflict of 1973 that eventually led to a settlement over the Sinai.
An indication of what has happened can be obtained from reading moderate Arab papers that despise Shiite fanatics. Writing in the United Arab Emirates Khaleej Times, businessman Matein Khalid put it like this: With $70 crude oil, an ideological vassal and strategic deterrent in Hezbollah, the Syrian connection and a proxy war on its own terms against Israel, Iran is the new rising star in the Middle East. ... This is the Armageddon scenario for both Jews and Arabs, the requiem for those of us peaceniks who staked our lives on a reconciliation among the warring children of Abraham.
Some Israeli critics of the war claim that perhaps this setback will create an opportunity for negotiation, particularly on the Palestinian question. They point to the fact that the only time Israel engaged in meaningful negotiations was after the 1973 war, which it won after initial and costly setbacks.
I am less optimistic. In recent years, Israelis have become understandably exasperated by the proliferation of fundamentalist enemies while Israeli politics has moved toward a belligerent consensus. Today, the country is reeling from a humiliation. With few exceptions, the critics are not blaming Ehud Olmert for going to war but for not unleashing sufficient wrath on the Lebanese, as if a toll involving more dead children than dead militiamen, 1 million refugees, 15,000 destroyed houses and 80 bridges reduced to rubble constituted insufficient pain. They see a purely military lesson in the recent setback. One can sense this spirit in the undignified way in which the air force pounded irrelevant targets even as the cease-fire was supposedly in place. As I write, a non-Shiite friend in the Bekaa Valley tells me the Temple of Bacchus, one of the Roman marvels of Baalbek, has been hit from the air.
Perhaps the biggest casualty on Israels sideapart from the 150-plus people killed and the million-plus terrified citizens who had to take refuge in shelters in the Galileeis the relative strength of the forces of reason and extremism. The emergence of Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, as the perceived winners will strengthen the voices of intolerance in Israel and further weaken those of reason, even if the latter have a better chance of making Israel secure because they are in a better position to strengthen moderate Arabs by showing them that negotiation and coexistence are possible.
Was this war a mistake? The wrong people have come out strong in Lebanon, Iran and Israel. One could not have asked for a more perfect mistake.