Warren Buffett. The most important thing you need to know about Israel today and how it has performed so far in the war with Hezbollah is Warren Buffett.
Say what? Well, the most talked-about story in Israel, before Hezbollah started this war, was the fact that on May 5, Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway chairman and the world's most successful investor, bought an 80 percent stake in the privately held Israeli precision tools company, Iscar Metalworking, for $4-billion - Buffett's first purchase of a company outside America. According to BusinessWeek, as a result of the deal, Iscar's owners were "likely to pay about $1-billion in capital gains taxes into the Israeli government's coffers - an unexpected windfall. With the Israeli budget already running a $2-billion surplus, the government is considering slashing value-added tax by one percentage point to 15 percent."
In May, Israeli papers were filled with pages about how cool it was that Israel had produced a cutting-edge company that Warren Buffett wanted to buy. It was being discussed everywhere, pushing the Tel Aviv stock exchange to an all-time high.
That is where Israel's head was on the eve of this war - and it explains something I sensed when I visited Israel shortly after the fighting started. Nobody wanted this war, and nobody was prepared for it. Look closely at pictures of Israeli soldiers from Lebanon. There is no enthusiasm in their faces, and certainly no triumphalism. Their expressions tell the whole story: "I just don't want to be doing this - another war with the Arabs."
Israeli soldiers were napping when this war started - that's why they got ambushed - for the very best reasons: They have so much more to do with their lives, and they live in a society that empowers and enables them to do it. (Unfortunately, the Buffett company is in northern Israel and had to be temporarily closed because of rocket attacks.)
Young Israelis dream of being inventors, and their role models are the Israeli innovators who made it to the Nasdaq. Hezbollah youth dream of being martyrs, and their role models are Islamic militants who made it to the Next World. Israel spent the last six years preparing for Warren Buffett, while Hezbollah spent the last six years preparing for this war.
"Israel was not prepared for this war," said the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi. "It came upon us like the crash of a meteorite. The whole focus of debate in the country before this war was on withdrawal." The Israeli army had just taken on its own extremists, the settlers in Gaza, and removed them against their will, added Ezrahi, "and the country had just elected for the first time a prime minister who promised voters to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank in return for nothing."
In the end, Israel will do whatever it has to do to prevail. But what is so troubling for Israelis is that this war is about nothing and everything. That is, Israel got out of Lebanon, and yet Hezbollah keeps coming. It is all about Hezbollah's need to justify its existence and Iran's need for a distraction.
What is doubly sad is that Lebanon was getting its act together. Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister, represented a whole new type of Arab leader - one who rose to power by being a builder and an entrepreneur. He understood that Lebanon, freed of Syria, was a country whose youth had the energy and skill to compete anywhere. He thought Lebanon could again be a model of how Arabs can embrace modernity. But Hariri was murdered, allegedly by Syria, and now Lebanon's democracy is being murdered by Hezbollah.
Israel mustn't get sucked into that same grave. Israel needs to get a cease-fire and an international force into south Lebanon - and get out. Israel can't defeat Hezbollah, it can only hurt it enough to make it think twice about ever doing this again - and it has pretty much done that. It must not destroy any more of Lebanon, which is going to still be its neighbor when the guns fall silent.
Israel wins when Warren Buffett's company there is fully back in business - not when Nasrallah is out of business. Because that will only happen, not by war, but when Arabs wake up and realize that he is just another fraud, just another Nasser, whose strategy would condemn the flower of Arab youth - who deserve and need so much better - to another decade of making potato chips, not microchips. Nasrallah can win in the long run only if he can condemn the flower of Israel's youth to the same fate. Don't let it happen, Israel.
© 2006, New York Times News Service