The cabinet voted unanimously to withdraw by July all IDF troops from southern Lebanon, where they have been stationed for two decades. The contrast between the Israeli and Arab reactions to this move was telling.
In Israel this vote was seen as a flexing of muscle and a challenge to the country's enemies. Foreign Minister David Levy declared that the pullout would weaken Syria's position; Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami asserted that Assad is very stressed by Israel's decision to withdraw from Lebanon.
Just yesterday, Dan Margalit wrote about the threat of a unilateral withdrawal and suggested that maybe the sight of Israeli tanks returning to Metulla will have an effect and spur Syria to come back to the negotiating table.
In Lebanon, Hizbullah whooped it up on hearing of the cabinets vote. Likewise, in Syria, the president's son called this an Israeli defeat, the first since the creation of the state. The Syrian defense minister remarked that it amounts to a victory for the Lebanese resistance.
Which side had it right?
The Arabs did. Common sense dictates that an army that retreats has lost and its opponents have won. The Nazis won when British troops fled Dunkirk. North Vietnam won when American troops fled Saigon. The Afghans won when the Soviets abandoned Kabul. The Allies won when Iraqi troops ran from Kuwait.
Likewise, Syria wins when Israel retreats from southern Lebanon. It's obviously a victory for Hafez Assad and his Lebanese allies. The pullout means he no longer faces a rival for influence in Lebanon. He has also broken the dream of his Lebanese subjects that Israel will save them from the Damascene jackboot. He has shown Israel's Arab allies how readily Israel abandons its cause. And he will have a direct shot at towns in the North, which will no longer be protected by the southern Lebanon security zone.
Israelis tend not to see these facts.
They have convinced themselves that their retreat poses dangers to the Assad regime. As Barry Rubin of Bar-Ilan University puts it, "The irony is that a unilateral pullback is a defeat for Syria and a victory for Israel even though on the surface it should be the exact opposite." This mistaken view is based on the idea that pulling back to the border deprives Hizbullah of a justification to attack Israelis. Accordingly, this will end hostilities along the border. and eliminate the main lever Damascus wields over Israel to evacuate the Golan Heights.
But this charming faith in Hizbullah's respect for international borders ignores that organizations oft-repeated intent to take the conflict into Israel proper. Significantly, its leader recently demanded the return of seven Jewish settlements in the Galilee situated on the lands of Palestinian villages. Hizbullah has also proclaimed its intent of liberating Jerusalem for Islam.
Nor is this just words: the director of the General Security Service has announced that Teheran has directed Hizbullah to prepare an infrastructure for terrorism inside Israel.
Beyond that, the Lebanese government has put Israel on notice that it plans to deploy its Palestinians against it. We should soon, in short, expect guns, rockets, and terrorists to target the newly-exposed northernmost towns.
The Israeli consensus that sees retreat as strength fits an unfortunate but venerable Middle Eastern pattern of self-delusion. In 1973, for example, the Arabs managed to convince themselves that a near-disastrous war with Israel was actually a famous victory. To this day, the name October 6 dots the landscape in Egypt and Syria.
In a similar act of imagination, Hamas claims Israel "has forgotten that our people defeated it in every one of its battles."
Even more dramatically, Saddam Hussein claims his crushing defeat at the hands of the allies in 1991 was a monumental triumph. In the last days of the war, Radio Baghdad told the Iraqi forces, "You have triumphed over all the chiefs of evil put together."
It would seem that the orientalization of Israel has gone so far that it, too, convinces itself that defeat is victory. This does not augur well for the country as it tries to deal with its real problems.