The first step in making lemonade is to recognize when you are holding a lemon. Israel lost its war with Hezbollah. No amount of happy talk from the Israeli government, President Bush, or Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice can change that.
Though always unpleasant, defeats can be useful. They identify shortcomings which must be corrected if ultimate victory is to be won.
Israeli intelligence badly underestimated Hezbollah's fighting qualities, armament, and the extent of its fortifications. Many Israeli reserves reported for duty out of shape, with inadequate equipment. Retired Army LtCol. Ralph Peters, embedded for a time with an IDF reserve unit, witnessed some appalling breaches of basic tactical security.
By far the greatest Israeli failure was in its political leadership. The IDF had a plan which probably would have brought decisive victory within 10-14 days. But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Jimmy Carter of Israel, refused to implement it. He chose instead to combine rhetorical bluster with battlefield timidity. This drew out the war with inconclusive result, maximizing Israeli military and civilian casualties and damage to Lebanon, while turning world opinion - initially less hostile to Israel than at any time since the 1967 war - against the Jewish state. It also besmirched - with ominous implications - Israel's reputation for military invincibility.
But even though it had serious deficiencies, and was forced by Mr. Olmert to fight with an arm and a leg tied behind its back, the IDF won every engagement with Hezbollah. This was no mean accomplishment, when one considers that Hezbollah is the best trained, equipped and motivated Arab force Israel has ever fought.
Hezbollah won by surviving. The significance of its strategic victory should not be understated. Hezbollah's popularity has soared throughout the Arab world. Its influence in Lebanon is greater than ever. Secretary Rice said that as a result of the war, Hezbollah will no longer be "a state within a state" in Lebanon. If so, this is more likely because Hezbollah will become the state rather than because its influence will diminish.
But neither should the significance of the Hezbollah victory be overstated. Many of the pundits who describe Israel's defeat as a "catastrophe" do so on the basis of what might have been. Israel could have delivered a savage blow to Hezbollah that would have crippled it militarily; loosened its grip on Lebanon, and embarrassed its sponsors in Iran and Syria. But Mr. Olmert blew it.
Pundits also tend to exaggerate the significance of Hezbollah's psychological and propaganda victories, because we pundits are people of words, and we often imagine words are more important than deeds. And sometimes they are. But the fact is Israel is in a stronger position, tactically, now than it was when hostilities began. Hezbollah has been forced from (most of) its fortifications along the border. Most of its rocket arsenal has been expended or destroyed. Many of its best fighters are dead. And Israel now has an insight into Hezbollah tactics it lacked before.
Israel's tactical gains will erode. Neither the Lebanese army nor the "robust" international force will disarm Hezbollah, or prevent it from reoccupying its former positions once Israeli troops leave Lebanon. Iran and Syria will resupply the terror group.
But resupply cannot happen overnight, or without cost, financial and political. It took Iran two decades to build up Hezbollah's rocket force. It cannot be pleasing to the mullahs that so much of it has been expended, to so little effect.
Thanks to generous subsidies from Iran, Hezbollah will curry favor with Lebanese civilians by rebuilding what was destroyed by the war. But this will require a massive amount of money just to restore the status quo, and the subsidies are unlikely to be popular with the Iranian people, who will not want so much money drained from their troubled economy for the benefit of foreigners.
Whether Israel's tactical gains matter more than Hezbollah's PR gains depends on how soon the inevitable confrontation over Iran's nuclear program takes place.
"Because Iran, in conventional terms, is largely defenseless against an American bombing campaign, Iran's first objective will be to draw Israel into the conflict," wrote Noah Pollack in National Review Online. "The way Iran would drag Israel into the war and dramatically complicate the U.S. mission would be through Hezbollah."
It will now be many months before Hezbollah can again present a serious threat to Israel.
This may explain Iran's apparent change of heart about nuclear negotiations.
And in these ensuing months, Israel has time to get its military and political houses in order.