It is a sickening thought. It is one that many in Israel have had to live with for months. One they have kept inside, silenced, some for reasons of guilt, others out of sympathy, superstition, or denial:
Despite everything, despite international denunciation unprecedented even by the standards of past Israeli operations, despite mind-reeling devastation of residential areas and unconscionable loss of life among Palestinian civilians, could the winter invasion of Gaza have actually been a success?
The suggestion was put forward this week in a Washington Post opinion piece headlined "Israel's Gaza Vindication." The Monday column was written by Jackson Diehl, who covered the first intifada as the paper's Jerusalem bureau chief, and who early in the Gaza war had called Cast Lead "Olmert's final failure."
Diehl noted that while a number of Israel's stated -- and patently unrealizable -- aims for the war went unaddressed, two crucial elements of the postwar reality were cause for distinct Israeli satisfaction: a precipitous drop in Palestinian rocket launchings against the Negev, and a considerable rise in the strength of Hamas blood rival, Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Israel's defeat in Gaza has widely been portrayed as a foregone conclusion. During the war, Time magazine's cover was headlined "Why Israel can't win." An accompanying article asked darkly "Can Israel survive its assault on Gaza?"
Diehl's article argues that Israel has done far more. "The point," he writes, "is that Israel has bought itself a stretch of relative peace with Hamas, just as its costly 2006 invasion of Lebanon has produced three years of quiet on that front. From the Israeli perspective, a respite from conflict is the most that can be expected from either group -- or from their mutual sponsor, Iran."
The idea that the very brutality of these wars is what caused them to succeed, raises a number of extremely uncomfortable questions for Israelis. There is little question that a intentionally ferocious military offensive was the object of Israeli strategic planners, even if real efforts were made to reduce civilian casualties.
Is this the meaning of victory here? Is resort to extreme force the only way to defend Israeli civilians against rocket attacks north and south? If this is how you win, what does this say about us, and our future? What does this say about the enemies we face, and the viability, durability and credibility of any peace agreements forged between the sides?
Was it, in fact, the bludgeon of overwhelming military force that has kept the borders quiet north and south? If not, one must ask, why else have the rockets stopped? What else has changed? Not occupation, not settlement activity, certainly not Palestinian affection for Israel as a neighbor.
The issue, at a time of relative quiet vis a vis armed Palestinian groups, raises other questions as well. To what extent has terrorism itself proven a failure, has it begun dying out, and if it is, will Israel be capable of an appropriate response?
Earlier this month, a number of analysts marked the eight anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with assessments that Al-Qaida was in decided retreat. Time ran headlined a story by Tony Karon headlined "Why Osama Bin Laden failed." The Guardian, meanwhile, reported that Al-Qaida faced a recruitment crisis.
Perhaps most significantly, a recent Pew Global Attitudes poll found "Support for suicide bombing in freefall among Muslim publics."
Of the nine Muslim publics polled, support for suicide bombings was far the strongest among Palestinians, with 68 percent calling it often or sometimes justified [a decline of only two percentage points in the last two years], and only 17 percent ruling out bombings altogether.
Yet the fact remains that Palestinian terrorism, whether borne by Qassam or suicide bomber, has decreased dramatically.
At the same time, terrorism, whether real or not, remains central to Israel's explanations of many of the most morally problematic of its policies, including the siege of Gaza and restrictions on the movements and commerce of Palestinians in the West Bank.
For the right, the specter of terrorism has become the primary, at times, the only argument against territorial compromise in the West Bank.
So reliant has Israel become on terrorism as the underpinning of its policies, it remains to be seen if its reflex dependency on Palestinian violence can be replaced by a world view appropriate to a Holy Land uncontaminated by terrorism.
May this be a year in which we have a chance to find out. May this be a year in which Palestinians have the steadfastness and the strength and the shrewdness to resist the temptation to launch attacks, and may Israel have the might and the wisdom and the ability to change course, to keep from launching military adventures when the other side is, for whatever reason, holding its fire.
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