The right choice for a safer future

The decision not to launch a ground operation was made with an acute awareness of the grave challenges that lie ahead.

By ARI HAROW
November 29, 2012 15:54
Col. Amir Baram briefing soldiers.

Reserves 370. (photo credit: Courtesy IDF Spokesperson)

Operation Pillar of Defense continues to be dissected from all angles. From the merits of Israel’s military hardware to the social media battle, every possible aspect of the conflict is being analyzed. Unsurprisingly perhaps, at the heart of the debate is the million-dollar question of who really won and lost this latest round of fighting, especially in light of the decision not to embark on a ground operation in Gaza. Of course, the answer will only truly become clear in the months and years ahead.

However, when the dust does at last settle on Operation Pillar of Defense, the final analysis will not only show that Israel’s leaders exhibited impressive diplomatic efficiency and military precision to achieve short-term gains.

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Time will also demonstrate the wisdom of their operational decisions, which have placed the country in a stronger position to tackle the significant challenges that lie ahead.

There is no doubt that even a single missile aimed at civilians is an unacceptable reality.

First and foremost, Operation Pillar of Defense has brought about a much needed (although temporary) respite for the residents of the South, who have endured the appalling terror of deadly rocket attacks for far too long. However, the operation generated an expectation by many Israelis, particularly those in the South and from elements of the military echelon, that a ground offensive would ensue, capable of delivering a decisive blow against Hamas. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged the clamor himself last Thursday when he commented, “I know that there are citizens who expected an even sharper response. We are prepared for this as well.”

Much has been made of the initial polls following Operation Pillar of Defense, which indicated that the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu ticket would suffer as a result of not putting boots on Gazan ground. Even the stunt of 16 uniformed soldiers who vented their frustration at the absence of a ground operation by arranging their bodies to spell “Bibi loser” became a viral hit.

So, why did the prime minister decline the opportunity to satisfy those demanding a mortal blow against Hamas? During my time as Netanyahu’s bureau chief during Operation Cast Lead, I heard him reiterate time and again that there are only two attainable outcomes of a ground operation in Gaza: One is the cutting off of Gaza’s weaponssmuggling highway by taking over and controlling the narrow Philadelphi Corridor, which straddles the Gaza-Egypt border and hosts an underground network of tunnels used by Hamas to acquire deadly armaments.

Although strangling the thoroughfare of arms to Hamas terrorists would leave them impotent for the time being, such an operation would require the long-term placement of Israeli troops on the strip. The geographical isolation of the narrow corridor would make these soldiers extremely vulnerable targets, creating an unsustainable complex reality.

The other possible outcome of a ground incursion into Gaza, as stated by Netanyahu following Operation Cast Lead four years ago, would be the total dismantling of Hamas. In time, we will find that this is the only longterm tactic that can bring true quiet to southern Israel. However, we are all too aware of the dangers and complexities of a long, complicated and inevitably bloody offensive in Gaza which aims to bring Hamas not to its knees, but to oblivion. It would involve an IDF presence in Gaza for months on end, house-tohouse fighting resulting in a significant body count and, of course, inevitable denunciation, and perhaps worse, by the international community.

Make no mistake though; the destruction of Hamas is possible and will need to be enacted in time. The prime minister indicated as much last week when he commented, “We are also prepared for the possibility that the cease-fire will not be upheld, and we will know how to act if need be.” In other words, it is not the absence of operational capability or a lack of will that is holding Netanyahu back; it is merely a question of timing. While not ignoring the difficulties of conducting a major military campaign in the midst of election season, domestic considerations were not behind the decision to leave Hamas intact for now. Quite simply, with so many other regional uncertainties to consider, Israel cannot afford to get bogged down in an inevitably lengthy, costly and energy-sapping Gaza quagmire at this moment in time.

There are multitudes of looming dangers that threaten the delicate balance of Israel’s security. Hezbollah provides a similar threat to northern Israel as Hamas does to the South.

Meanwhile, nobody quite knows what might replace Syrian President Assad, should he finally lose his tenuous grip on the power. Unrest in Jordan and Islamist rule in Egypt make relations with our current peaceful neighbors more precarious than at any time in the last three decades. And, of course, lurking in the background is the dire threat of Iranian nuclear ambition.

With such a complex regional reality in mind, the overthrow of Hamas via a ground operation was simply not an objective of Operation Pillar of Defense. However, the actual strategic goals of the operation were accomplished successfully and will yield important results for the future. Firstly, the killing of Hamas’s military chief, Ahmed Jabari, the mastermind of so much killing, will no doubt blunt the organization’s ability to execute more terror attacks in the near future. Not only will the death of Jabari help throw Hamas’s military capability off course, but it sends an important message that terrorists with Israeli blood on their hands must always look over their shoulders. Secondly, Israel succeeded in destroying most of Hamas’s long-range missiles.

This did not simply decrease the danger to the country’s major population centers during the eight days of fighting; the reduced long- range capability also lessens the threat that they will face during the next conflict.

THE MOST obvious success was the hero of the hour, the Iron Dome missile defense system. If Iron Dome was conceived in the military laboratories of Israel and the United States, it was truly born over the skies of Gaza, intercepting an incredible 90 percent of missiles fired by Hamas during the conflict. Operation Pillar of Defense was as good a live test-run as the Iron Dome will ever get and it unquestionably proved its worth, saving countless lives in the process. Over the past decade, our enemies have invested hugely in rockets and missiles, staking everything on their ability to wreak havoc and destruction upon Israel. The Iron Dome may just have changed the rules of conflict in our region. When it arrives, the next conflict will not be the same conflict as the masterminds heading Hamas, Hezbollah and enemies from further East had envisaged just a few weeks ago.

The fourth strategic goal successfully achieved was the simple demonstration that Israel will use force when needed. Hamas did not expect the show of strength that ensued after intensifying its bombardment of the South. Operation Pillar of Defense sent a clear message that will permeate not only Hamas, but other like-minded foes, showing them that a collective will exists in Israel to protect its borders and its citizens through force when necessary.

An unintended achievement of the operation was the demonstration of strength on Israel’s home front. Hamas had counted on the fatal fragility of Israel’s civilians once they launched missiles that would reach Tel Aviv and the center of the country. However, the fortitude of millions of Israeli citizens under fire was a significant success, meaning that they are now better prepared for whatever the future holds.

Another by-product of Operation Pillar of Defense was the apparently enhanced understanding of the international community. The leaders of the free world consistently expressed their support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

Considering that Israel’s previous Gaza adventure spawned the hysteria of the Goldstone Report amid baseless allegations of human rights abuses, international backing for Israel’s use of force was a welcome development.

Once again, it leaves Israel better prepared for future conflicts with a degree of diplomatic leverage to fall back on.

There will come a point in time when Hamas must be removed from Gaza, but Operation Pillar of Defense was not that moment. The stability of the Middle East is precarious and the threats of violence are both numerous and varied. This wider regional perspective dictated that the operation was never going to include a lengthy and costly entanglement in Gaza.

However, plenty was achieved during Operation Pillar of Defense which will place Israel in a stronger strategic position in advance of the next bout of violence, conflict or possible war.

Far from being short-sighted, the decision not to launch a ground operation was made with an acute awareness of the grave challenges that lie ahead. It has left us far better equipped than ever before to meet these challenges head-on.

The writer served as bureau chief to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and is currently CEO of 3H Global.


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