That said, I will explain why I believe it serves Israel's best interests to agree to a cease fire now (as opposed to, say, last week). (very long)
"The point of war isn't just killing, except in some downward slide toward damnation. The point is to win a better peace than the one you started with."
--Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, in The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold
I believe that Israel is fully justified in its current actions under international law, and would be justified in mounting a full-scale ground invasion of Lebanon. As I have observed before, international law has consistently permitted invasion where a country proves unable or unwilling to control an organized armed force attacking from within its borders. The United States and European Union engaged in precisely such an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 because the Taliban would not surrender or expel Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. The United States and European powers have engaged in similar actions in bombing terrorist targets in sovereign nations (such as Sudan in 1998, when the United States bombed what it believed to be Al Qaeda targets in retaliation for terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies).
But there is a difference between what international law permits and what is the most effective strategy. As I explain below, I believe that an Israeli agreement to abide by a cease fire under which NATO-led troops occupy a buffer zone in Southern Lebanon is the best means at this point for Israel to achieve strategic goals of limiting future attacks, limiting potential long-term negative economic and diplomatic consequences, and ultimately achieving a stable equilibrium for itself in the region. By contrast, I believe that further military actions with no end game in sight can only have deleterious consequences for Israel in the short term as well as the long term.
As always, the question is not what is fair or what is just. Such considerations are important. But they must be balanced against short term and long term cost. Everyday, people make trade offs between what they think is fair or what they think they deserve and what they actually get. Or they don't, and accept that fighting for what they think is right has a terrible cost. Or they do neither and wonder why they are so unhappy all the time.
My analysis (for what it is worth):
Trying to find a place to start in analyzing any Mideast crisis is a lost cause. Everything builds on everything else. The current war started with a Palestinian action against an Israeli military checkpoint inside Israel, killing soldiers and seizing another. It is still somewhat unclear whether the action was carried out by the Hamas government via militias under control of Hamas, separate elements not under the direct control of the Hamas government, or mixed elements. The adoption of the raid by the Hamas government and demand that Israel exchange Palestinian prisoners for the release of the captured Israeli soldier in the form of a prisoner exchange modeled after Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner exchanges in the late 1990s.
Instead, Israel responded with an absolute refusal to negotiate and commencement of military action. Within a few days, Hezbollah, apparently in support of the Palestinians in Gaza although there is also some claim that it was in response to an Israeli preemptive strike, engaged in a similar strike on Israeli bases within Israel in the north, killing soldiers and taking two prisoner. Israel responded with air attacks on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon and against Lebanese infrastructure used in support of Hezbollah military operations. The result has been two weeks of Israeli-Hezbollah air attacks and ground assault, with some operation in the Gaza.
While Palestinians in Gaza have not posed a significant threat, Hizbollah's military capacity has enormously surpassed expectation. Indeed, that Palestinians and Hizbollah could successfully execute the initial actions is a serious blow to the idea of Israeli military superiority. Hizbollah's air power and ground resistance has also vastly exceeded expectations.
As in all confrontations, it is vitally important to consider not just your own motivations and interests, but those of everyone else involved as well. All sides seem to have been caught off guard by the reactions of the other, resulting in a continued escalation of violence with no realistic game plan for conclusion or even a realistic short term goal.
Let’s start with Hamas and why they started the current round of violence, keeping in mind that we come in during the nth act of a rather endless serial play. Worse, while we may speak of "Hamas," "Israel," "Hezbollah," etc. as if they were unitary entities with consistent sets of goals and actions, they aren't. As Clausewitz observed, "war is waged by human beings." Nevertheless, such simplification is useful to attempt to get even a vague understanding of what is going on.
From Hamas' perspective, they have been dealt one of the universes' all time sucky hands. They consider themselves as on par with Native Americans, forced off their land by foreign invaders who keep yappin' on about how they are terrorists (or, as we once put it in the Declaration of Independence, "merciless...savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions"). They have also inherited an economy devastated by ten years of corrupt government, totally dependent on foreign aid or humiliating economic linkage with aforesaid imperialist Zionist enemy. A true just solution (from the Hamas perspective) means abolishing the "crusader kingdom" (preferably after exacting a bloody vengeance for all the deaths and humiliation, etc. etc.) and sending the Jews packing. To the extent Palestinians think about the fact that, unlike the French in Morocco or the British in Egypt, the Jews have no where else to go, the Hamas attitude is "not my problem." (For all that Hamas and the rest of the Arab world call the Israelis "European invaders" or even "American invaders," the plain fact is that the majority of Jewish Israelis are either Jews who lived in Arab countries (such as Iraq), or are descended from same, or are native born Israelis with no other citizenship. A fact which makes retreat impossible, and which contributes to the Hamas miscalculation of Israel's reaction.)
Still, the Hamas folks aren't stupid. To the extent they have a crappy hand, they have tried to play it. The diplomatic end game they have tried to play for is referred to in Arabic as "hudna" and what I refer to as the "Taiwan solution." Fatah, Hamas' predecessor government, basically gave up and decided to lie their butts off while siphoning as much loot as possible for their personal gain. Hamas won't follow the Fatah strategy of pretending to recognize Israel and renouncing its claim to "greater Palestine" with Jerusalem as its capital. But they also recognize that they can't hope to beat Israel militarily unless they get help from surrounding Arab states.
So Hamas' "hudna" strategy has been to offer a long-term cease fire while maintaining its claims and refusing to officially recognize Israel. I call this the Taiwan strategy for the current situation (which has lasted more than 50 years) where China and Taiwan both claim to be the real Chinese government and that the other land mass is a rebellious province.
But Israel has declined to play this game. To the extent Israel has a solid, permanently fixed desire, it is to have a world in which it doesn't wake up in the morning with someone wanting to blast them out of existence. From Israel's perspective, the return of the Jewish people to Israel is an internationally recognized act of self-determination and a vital element in national survival. Prior to 1948, Jews lived everywhere in the world as a minority that was at best tolerated and at worst killed in droves like baby seals and absolutely nothing, not full assimilation, not even conversion, ever made it stop. Having your own country with your own weapons is at least safer than being scattered around the globe with no place to go and way to fight back when the killers come for you.
Which, of course, is the part that Arab states and associated groups (like Hamas and Hizbollah) never really understand -- the primary motivation of Israeli Jews (and other Jews that support is Israel) is fear. The deep down terror of a nation so abused over the last 2000 years that the idea of "security" and "normalcy" is both desperately sought after and never believed -- because history has proven over and over again that there is no safety anywhere except for this place and this country now, and only because of constant vigilance and overwhelming military force. And, of course, it doesn't help that the rest of the world continues to treat Israel as "the Jew of the nations" while one can read statements in the daily papers of most Arab regimes calling not only for the total destruction of Israel, but of Jews everywhere, in exactly the same language as was used in the last 200 years by others that have made the effort.
OTOH, Israel continues to have absolutely no plan for addressing what to do with the 6-7 million Palestinians living in the PA. Choices range from the completely impractical calls for "transferring" Palestinians en masse somewhere else (like that is even possible militarily, let alone diplomatically) to the pathetic belief by the Israeli left that something other than the complete dissolution of the State of Israel can somehow result in a "just solution," conveniently ignoring the fact that a "just solution" from a PA perspective is one that includes restoration of _all_ "captured" lands and anything less is, at best, a compromise for the sake of a peaceful future. Nor do the folks on the left seem to have any clue how to change the economic reality that even full retreat to the pre-1967 border leaves the PA as a non-viable state in the same way that most Indian reservations are non-viable. At best, they would like some kind of economic partnership and vague hope for a Middle East version of the European Union, without any thought that the PA doesn't believe in such a model.
Not that the Israeli right has any better solutions. The typical response is either the rather impractical (and, IMO, unethical) idea that the government should just transfer Palestinians to their "real homeland" in Jordan, or a response that the PA gets treated better than they would in any Arab state, it's their fault for running out in 1948 and getting resettled by Arab states in refugee camps along the pre-1967 border, and Israel has been a model of fairness and restraint in the face of continued terrorism and provocation. (Think of the immigration debate in the U.S., where no one wants to explain exactly what happens to the 12 million people already here or how it gets paid for.)
Ever since Hamas won the election, Israel has insisted from that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas won't do this, and offered Hudna in exchange. Israel responded by severing relations, stopping payments to the PA, and refusing to negotiate with Hamas until it renounced violence and acknowledged Israel's right to exist.
From the Hamas perspective, this was absolute proof that Israel never intended to negotiate. After all, Hamas won fair and square in democratic elections, and Israel responds with a demand that Hamas absolutely violate its central tenant. To Hamas, such insistence is mere pretext for a clear plain to economically enslave the Palestinians under the corrupt Fatah regime (especially when Hamas is prepared to offer a cease fire under essentially the same terms as Syria and Lebanon enjoy today).
From the Israeli perspective, this was absolute proof positive that Hamas will only be satisfied with the complete destruction of Israel and therefore any attempt to negotiate is tantamount to suicide. To refuse to even acknowledge a right of Israel to exist means you want the right to wipe it of the map, and any idea that this is just a discussion about borders or economics or even reparations is just so much chin music meant to disguise the ultimate goal. That Hamas also maintains that it drove Israel out of Gaza and will continue to do so until all "occupied land" is "liberated" likewise confirms for Israel that "hudna" is a trap the way Oslo was a trap; Israel gives, the PA takes, and Israel never gets the one thing it actually wants -- an end to violence and normalcy in its daily life.
This state of affairs has simmered for a couple of months. No one moves forward, each one rationally convinced from its perspective that the other is operating in bad faith because it will never give the one thing it absolutely wants (economic independence and viability for the PA, an end to violence for Israel).
So what happens when there is no path forward, you try to think "outside the box." In the case of Hamas, this means the use of violence to bring Israel to the negotiating table because, in Hamas' view, nothing else works and Israel's immutable demand for surrender as a prenegotiation makes anything else impossible. But Hamas has learned that suicide bombings are a losing strategy. They never get Israel to negotiate and provide further pretext for refusal. Plus, in 2002, Israel demonstrated that it can and will roll into PA territory with enough military force to crush the PA security forces if suicide bombings take a significant toll. Combine that with the general degradation of the capacity for suicide bombers as a consequence of Israel's activities in the last few years and suicide bombing did not appear a winning strategy. Similarly, constant low-level katushya rocket fire hasn't done much to bring Israel to the negotiating table.
Hence the carefully calculated military strike. Hamas hit a military target rather than a civilian target, took a prisoner, and demanded an exchange for Palestinian prisoners it considers unjustly held (or, at best, prisoners of war). The focus on a military target and the demand for release of women and children (defined as under age 18) prisoners would, from the Hamas perspective, have the following salutary effects: (a) it would minimize European backlash because it was not directed against civilians, and asked for the most sympathetic prisoners; (b) release of the prisoners would score serious points for Hamas with their home audience in the PA, which regards the prisoner issue as a galling violation of civil liberties; (c) would demonstrate that Hamas can successfully execute a military action, causing Israel to return to the negotiating table; and, (d) should work, because Israel consistently traded captured soldiers for prisoners in the 1990s. Hamas could also expect that Israel would not jeopardize its political advantages and economic well-being with a 2002-style operation (when a diplomatic solution was presented) because Hamas believe that the economic and diplomatic sanctions that Israel experienced post-2002 were the direct cause of the Gaza pullout. Finally, a similar Hizbollah action in 2000 had not triggered a military re-occupation of southern Lebanon. Therefore, in Hamas calculations, Israel would rather follow its traditional negotiation for prisoner exchange than re-occupy Gaza or commence significant operations that could cost it hard-won diplomatic and economic points.
Sadly, Hamas seriously miscalculated on a number of levels. First, the world has changed in the last few years. Since 2002, Europe has had a number of unpleasant experiences that have dimmed its traditional sympathy for Hamas and the Palestinian cause. This muted the European response when Israel began its operations in retaliation.
More importantly, Hamas completely failed to take into account Israeli fear and distrust. A successful, military attack by Hamas on a target inside Israel was absolute proof positive for the Israeli public that (a) Hamas intended to destroy Israel, because it extended its military operation as a government into Israel, and (b) it would have the capacity to do so if not blasted back to the stone age.
Now we get to Hezbollah. Hezbollah started 20 years ago as a Shiite militia determined to drive out Israel from Southern Lebanon. It has grown to become the dominant force for the Shi’a in Lebanon. Hezbollah has attracted support from Syria as a proxy army for Syria to attack Israel (and as a means of securing allies for Syria in Lebanon) and support from Iran as co-religionists engaged in the jihad to free Dar-Al Islam from the western Zionist menace. In addition, Iran supports Hezbollah as a protective militia for the Shia against the Sunni and Christian Lebanese, who dominate the Lebanese army and government.
Hezbollah has traditionally enjoyed popularity in Lebanon for driving out the hated Israelis (boo!) and for acting as a force for stability in Lebanon by creating a credible Shia counterweight to Christian and Sunni influence in the government and military. Recently, however, with the decline in the popularity of Syria, the election of a new Lebanese government, and economic revival as a consequence of continued peace, Hezbollah has experienced increasing pressure to disarm and join the rest of the country. Yeah, everyone still hates Israel and feels for the Palestinians. But, ya know, we can get our lives back together and stuff. Having Hezbollah exchange the occasional round of rocket fire and retaliatory raid with Israel is, from a Lebanese perspective, becoming less popular as a means of sticking it to evil doers and more of a concern that it will destroy the current revival.
As for Hezbollah, it has taken advantage of six years of relative peace to massively fortify itself and the region. Hezbollah believes the Israelis would come stompin’ back over the border if Hezbollah didn’t keep showing Israel who was boss, and is a committed ally of Hamas and the Palestinian struggle. And it is not insensitive to its waning popularity among the rest of the Lebanese.
So when Israel started committing what Hezbollah considered atrocities against its ally in Gaza, Hezbollah was set to give Israel what for and open a second front. After all, Israel had not taken significant retaliatory action for an incursion into its borders in 2000 under the Barak government and had shown a willingness to negotiate with Hezbollah in the past. If Hezbollah gave Israel a bloody nose and grabbed more prisoners, it was reasonable to assume it could force Israel to the negotiating table and score a win for its allies and a coup for itself as a credible, populist Arab force in the region (aka, the guys who can take on Israel). Besides, Israel was already taking pot shots at Hezbollah and vice versa.
But Hezbollah, like Hamas, has failed to consider just how thoroughly the Israeli government and Israeli public have been radicalized. After all, Hamas and Hezbollah know that it is the PA, not imperialist Israel, that are the victims here. Israel “knows” it is the imperialist, the bully, and therefore is fully capable of stopping when it wants. And the only way to make it stop is to hurt it.
But Israel doesn’t “know” anything of the sort. What Israel sees is a sudden two front war with an enemy that has built its capacity because Israel pulled out of the relevant geographic territory. For Israel, the only reward for territorial concessions has been an increase in enemy capacity. It must be stamped out NOW, because force is the only thing “these people” understand and negotiating and cease fires only give them time to rearm. Heck, when the U.S. felt vulnerable after one attack, it went on a rampage and actually conquered the country hosting the terrorist group that attacked it. So why shouldn’t Israel drive Hezbollah out of Lebanon and send a clear signal to Lebanon that if you can’t or won’t keep Hezbollah in line, Israel will do so itself and damn the consequences to Lebanon.
But Israel also miscalculated. It is clear that Israel did not anticipate that Hezbollah would be so thoroughly entrenched. And whereas Israel devised a battle plan that proved enormously successful in 2002 in crowded urban areas, it does not work as well against what amounts to a well supplied and entrenched modern army. And, as the damage to Lebanon mounts up, the EU and other powers become less sympathetic to Israel, risking the diplomatic and economic backlash that caused such sustained harm in 2002-2005. While the Israeli public at the moment is too pumped up to care, it will hurt in the long run.
So what is the solution? It is clear that driving Hezbollah out of Lebanon is going to take actual all out war, and may well spill over into other states. It may, in fact, exceed Israel’s military capacity – especially if Syria and Iran become fully engaged. Actually losing such a confrontation would be disastrous for Israel. At the same time, Hezbollah risks suffering the same fate that befell the PLO when Israel drove the PLO out of Lebanon. They survived, but became disconnected from their people and centers of power, ultimately being supplanted by other organizations. Nor can Hezbollah be indifferent to the long-term damage done to Lebanon and how that impacts their popularity (and that of the Shia generally) once passions cool.
As for Hamas, most of their leadership is now in jail or hiding. They find themselves in the same quagmire as post-2002, with even less of a hope of finding something short of total war that gets them closer to anything like a viable state.
Which is why this is an excellent time for Israel to accept a cease fire and return to status quo ante – less its three kidnapped soldiers but holding the political wing of Hamas in jail. A cease fire brokered by NATO allows the parties all to back off before the full and irretrievable slide into war begins. Each side emerges badly shaken, but capable of claiming some kind of “win.” While this averts the prize of victory, it also averts the cost of the continuing conflict. It may be possible to arrange for a prisoner exchange in which the Hamas political leaders seized are returned in exchange for the three soldiers rather than releasing any other prisoners taken prior to the Hamas operation.
The net result would, I hope, be a reconsideration of tactics. On the Hamas and Hezbollah side, it would be clear that military actions inside Israel do not produce the desired result and trigger massive retaliation. On the Israeli side, it will cause consideration that a policy which is all stick and no carrot is not a terribly effective policy and that it needs to figure out some way to deal with Hamas short of war.
Not perfect, not fair, and not justice by anyone’s definition. But that’s international relations for you. It may not even lead to a better peace, but it seems to me the only way to stop the downward slide to damnation.