Everyone seems to have a definite opinion about who won the eightday mini-war
between Israel and Hamas, but those opinions run the gamut, even among highly
informed observers of the Middle East. My recent record for prognostication is
not the greatest – though thankfully I resisted any temptation this election
cycle to reprise a 2008 piece “Why Barack Won’t be President.”
consequence, I find myself far more tentative than most about determining
winners and losers.
For one thing, we have no idea how long the
cease-fire will last. At the end of the Second Lebanon War, the fact that
Hezbollah was still capable of firing as many rockets on the last day of
fighting as the first strongly suggested to many commentators, myself included,
that Hezbollah was the victor by virtue of remaining unbowed.
northern border has remained relatively quiet for the past six years, and
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted that had he known how fierce the
initial Israeli response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers would be, he
would never have provoked Israel. Hopefully the fate of Ahmed Jabari and several
of his successors will remain similarly fresh in the memories of Hamas and
Islamic Jihad commanders.
Even with respect to decisions already made, we
lack information vital for a full assessment. We do not know, for instance, what
commitments were given by the United States or by Egypt, under American
pressure, with respect to the interdiction of arms shipments to Gaza. Egypt has
already intercepted one shipment of Grad missiles headed for Gaza from
Hamas appears to have badly miscalculated the extent to which a
newly ascendant Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt makes the present a
propitious time to challenge Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood will not risk its
hold on Egypt by letting Hamas drag it into a confrontation with Israel it does
not want and cannot win, or by endangering billions of dollars of desperately
needed American and International Monetary Fund aid. Ever since jihadists
operating in Sinai turned their fire on Egyptian troops, the Muslim Brotherhood
government has been more active in stopping arms smuggling from Sinai than was
the Mubarak government.
Another unknown is whether Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu agreed to a cease-fire because of American
Or was Operation Pillar of Defense from the start intended to
be a limited action, the goals of which had been largely achieved by the time of
the cease-fire? If so, acquiescing to President Obama’s request for restraint
would only be icing on the cake from Netanyahu’s point of view – a way of
earning a few much-needed brownie points.
The latter possibility would
seem more likely. Netanyahu’s overwhelming priority at present is Iran. A ground
operation in Gaza would have served Iran’s interests by distracting the
international community’s attention from its nuclear program, and by potentially
drawing international condemnation of Israel. Given the quality of missiles
launched by Hamas on the last day of fighting, it seems fairly clear that its
supply of Fajr-5 missiles is nearly exhausted – at least for the moment. The
prominence of the Iranian Fajr-5s in the fighting served, however, to remind the
world of how destabilizing a force Iran is, and to conjure up visions of how
much more so it would be if it possessed nuclear weapons.
One more reason
to think Netanyahu did not need to be coerced into a ceasefire: He presumably
had little interest in a military operation with potential for high casualties
just prior to elections. The success of Iron Dome enabled Israel to avoid being
dragged into a full-scale ground operation at a time not of its own
THE POSSIBLE perception of Israel being restrained against its
will by the US is significant for another reason. Harold Rhode, a leading expert
on the Muslim world and a former US Defense Department analyst, argues that Iran
would be emboldened by American pressure on Israel to accept a cease-fire. Such
a perception would raise doubts about America’s commitment to Israel and cause
the Sunni Gulf states to view America as an unreliable ally, not to be relied on
for protection against a hegemonic Islamic Republic. But that all depends on
whether Israel was, in fact, restrained.
And it is possible to
overemphasize the importance of perceptions. As Barry Rubin of the GLORIA Center
wrote recently in these pages, “Winning has to mean something real, not just
bragging to reassure oneself.”
Many of the commentators most despondent
over Israel’s seeming inability or unwillingness to defeat Hamas take the view
that any victory for Hamas, even a psychological one, is necessarily at Israel’s
expense. And similarly, that the increased prestige of Egypt’s Muslim
Brotherhood government by virtue of its central role in the cease-fire
negotiations is a loss for Israel, based on the axiom “my enemy’s gain is my
But that zero-sum perspective may be too short-sighted. Any street
cred gained by Hamas by virtue of going toe-to-toe with Israel will primarily be
at the expense of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, not Israel. And it
will change little.
The PA has no intention of challenging Hamas’s rule
of Gaza, and Hamas has little present chance of taking over Judea and Samaria,
especially as long as Israel has a security presence there. By the same token,
Egypt’s gain in prestige primarily comes at the expense of Turkey’s equally
hostile Islamist government and its pretensions to regional
THE PESSIMISTS’ verdict on Operation Pillar of Defense seems
predicated on comparing an imperfect current reality to an ideal alternative.
The current cease-fire can hardly be called a “victory” in the sense of
providing any finality. Hamas will rearm, and it will go on preparing for an
Israeli ground invasion into densely populated urban areas, in which the defense
has a big advantage. There will be other mini-wars sooner or later, and the
initiative as to when to commence hostilities remains with Hamas.
inconclusive resolution is inherently unsatisfying, especially compared to a
pleasing vision of Israel using its overwhelming military power to destroy the
terrorists’ arms caches and infrastructure in Gaza. But the imagined ground
operation would not take place in a vacuum. International pressure against
Israel to withdraw would mount every day. And even if the terrorist
infrastructure were destroyed and Hamas deposed, Israel would have to once again
take control of Gaza, something for which there is currently scant public
support in Israel.
WHILE IT is too early for a full assessment of
Operation Pillar of Defense, it is not too early to pass judgment on the 2005
Gaza withdrawal that made Operation Pillar of Defense inevitable. As Bret
Stephens, a one-time defender of the withdrawal, wrote last week, “Israel’s
withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a
Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As
strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.”
In 2006, 1,777 rockets
were fired at Israel, compared to 281 during the last full year prior to
At the time of the withdrawal, then-prime minister Ariel
Sharon promised that Israel would strike with full force if any further rockets
were fired. But that never happened. As a consequence, rockets fired at Israel
became the new norm.
So that when Israel’s patience finally ran out in
December 2008 with the launch of Operation Cast Lead, it was Israel that was
viewed as the aggressor for having broken the status quo.
It is doubtful
that Sharon would have made good on his promise had he not been felled by a
stroke. For starters, a major military operation against Gazan terrorists would
have been a tacit admission that critics were right when they said Gaza would
become a terrorist haven. The desire to curry international goodwill was the
major impetus for the withdrawal.
And the desire not to lose that
imagined goodwill would have always argued against a serious response to rocket
fire at Sderot, barring a direct hit on a school or hospital.
withdrawal ended up hurting Israel’s international standing. The newly created
terrorist havens made an eventual Israeli response inevitable. The heightened
sensitivity to civilian casualties – or at least those inflicted by Israel –
provides the terrorists with an incentive to both provoke Israeli attack and
maximize civilian casualties by placing arms caches and fighters in densely
Daniel Greenfield puts the matter well: “The more
precisely we try to kill terrorists, the more ingeniously the terrorists blend
into the civilian population and employ human shields. The more we try not to
kill civilians the more civilians we are forced to kill. That is the equal and
opposite reaction of the humanitarian formula.”
By refusing to permit the
stronger side to ever prevail, the international community prevents the one
outcome that might bring the violence to an end. Only because Germany and Japan
were forced to unconditional surrender – at a horrific cost in civilian
casualties – did they abandon their militarism and join the ranks of the
Defeat made possible cultural transformation.
of the kind, however, is taking place among the Palestinians.
international community’s hypersensitivity to civilian deaths makes it the
enabler of Hamas, and ensures that for all the achievements of Operation Pillar
of Defense, it will remain just another chapter in an ongoing battle.
writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies
of modern Jewish leaders.