Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.
– Golda Meir, cited in The New York Times, December 9, 1978
We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
– Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons, March 1, 1848
If only Israeli strategic policy were founded on the enduring, down-to-earth wisdom embodied in the two preceding quotations. They convey the essence of Israel’s international and regional environments – the cynical self-interest that characterizes the former, and the unbridled brutality that characterizes the latter.
In recent decades, any understanding of these basic precepts seems starkly absent from the formulation – and certainly, the implementation – of Israeli strategic plans.
Politics as moralistic self-recrimination
As The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens recently pointed out, the conduct of Israel’s international politics, which ought to be an exercise in power and preservation of self-interest, has degenerated into moralistic self-reflection and self-recrimination.
In an international environment characterized by cynical self-interest and a regional environment characterized by unbridled brutality, such behavior is wildly inappropriate, and unless reined in and reversed, self-destructive.
As Operation Protective Edge drags on, needlessly and inexplicably, into its fourth week, one thing is becoming excruciatingly clear: Israel has lost all sense of strategic direction.
After almost a month of fighting, Israel has not been able to accomplish even one strategic goal it set (and repeatedly re-set) itself – however modest that might be.
It has not been able to compel Hamas to cease fire and accept “calm in exchange for calm.” It has not been able to halt the rocket fire on its civilian population. It has not been able to disrupt – kill or capture – in any significant numbers the senior echelons of Hamas’s chain of command and control. It has not been able to eliminate the threat of terrorist infiltration via the network of underground tunnels...
Worse, while success in achieving its declared goals still eludes Israel, casualties continue to mount alarmingly with each passing day, despite a policy of reluctance and restraint supposed to prevent them.
Incomprehensible and unacceptable
It is becoming increasingly difficult to comprehend – and accept – the military outcome achieved so far, given the dramatic imbalance of power between the protagonists in the ongoing Gaza conflict.
The IDF has a standing force of just under 200,000 and active reserves of about 500,000. Hamas gunmen, by most estimates, number 15,000 to 20,000. The IDF has some of the most advanced weaponry in the world. It has one of the world’s largest and most formidable air forces, superb special forces units, outstanding intelligence, a modern Armored Corps and artillery and a well-equipped navy. Hamas has none of these.
There are no jungles of Vietnam into which it can disappear, no long supply lines for it to disrupt...
It is, thus, inconceivable that the IDF should not be able to overwhelm its lightly armed, hopelessly out-numbered adversary, trapped in well-defined, highly constricted geographical confines, devoid of any significant topographical obstacles, and impose, within a relatively short time, unconditional surrender on it forces.
Any other outcome can only be attributed to abysmal political leadership, suffering from an utter lack of understanding of what is required from it at this crucial junction in the nation’s history.
Gigantic strategic blunder
The government has done almost nothing that it should, and has done much that it should not.
The adoption of a policy of restraint is a gigantic blunder. It is playing right into the hands of Israel’s foes – both its detractors trying to delegitimize it politically and its ferocious enemies trying to destroy it physically.
Not only will “restraint” not achieve any lasting substantive goals, not only will it inflict all the harm it was designed to avoid, it will undermine the very pillars on which the survival of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews is dependent.
I have cautioned repeatedly against the policy of successive governments that try to avoid/postpone confrontations which Israel can win, until the country is forced into one which it might not. We may now be on the cusp of precisely such a confrontation.
Yes, I know that some might find this difficult to digest; some might dismiss this as gross exaggeration, over-dramatization and unwarranted scaremongering. However its inexorable truth is already beginning to emerge in light of unpalatable facts, which the public – and government – will ignore at their peril.
Ravages of restraint (1): Depopulation of the South?
The prolonged violence is already creating disturbing initial signs of long-term – perhaps irrevocable – damage to the viability and sustainability of civilian life in the South.
Over the past months, I have repeatedly warned that unless the recurring rocket fire on the communities in the South is permanently terminated, there will be large-scale evacuation and depopulation of the region. However, the recent exposure of an elaborate network of terror tunnels has made this ominous specter far more realistic, far sooner, than I envisaged.
Today several communities adjacent to Gaza are largely deserted. It is becoming increasingly clear that if no radical solution can be found to reassure the residents that they will no longer be threatened by overhead rockets and underground terror tunnels, these communities, now evacuated temporarily, will be permanently abandoned.
Such an outcome can only be avoided in the long run by the IDF taking permanent control of the areas from which the rockets are fired and the tunnels are burrowed. Nothing else will have any lasting credibility or durability.
All other proposals are as risible as they are impractical and impermanent. But more on that later.
Ravages of restraint (2): Fueling delegitimization?
As counter-intuitive as it might sound, the policy of restraint fuels orgies of delegitimization and demonization of Israel across the world.
As the campaign drags on, with the IDF’s military machinery gummed up with the goo of political correctness, there is more time for Israel’s antagonists to mobilize international outrage, and promote punitive initiatives against Israeli institutions and individuals.
There is more time for them to disseminate the scenes of death and destruction that even a policy of “restraint” inevitably inflicts on the non-belligerent population – among whom the brutal belligerents conceal themselves and their weapons.
There is, of course, only so much devastation that you can fit into a TV screen. It is thus doubtful whether a decisive blow in the first week of fighting, which brought Hamas to its knees and dispatched its leadership to either a virgin-filled paradise or an international tribunal for war crimes, would have generated any greater footage with which to denigrate Israel – particularly if the strike was made during the World Cup, held when the fighting first broke out, with much of the world preoccupied with goals rather than Gaza.
But as long as the fighting rages on, there will be grist for the mills of the mendacious merchants of distortion, delegitimization and demonization...
Ravages of restraint (3): View from Tehran, Tulkarem… and Taibe
Many eyes are watching the events in Gaza – among them those of the ayatollahs in Tehran, the Palestinian- Arabs in Judea-Samaria, and Israel’s own Arab population.
No matter how well the IDF may be performing within the suffocating stranglehold of political constraints, the perception of the operational outcomes is hardly one of stunning military success.
It is easy to understand how some might see what is happening in Gaza as a clumsy military behemoth, flailing ineffectually against a diminutive, but determined and daring, foe; and capable of doing little other than inflict massive damage on a non-belligerent civilian population. It is not difficult to understand how this conjures up a picture that does little to strike fear into the hearts of Israel’s enemies, but much to stoke sentiments of ridicule, on the one hand, and rage on, the other.
The outcome of the battle so far can do little to enhance Israel’s deterrent posture vis-à-vis Iran. Indeed, it gives Tehran little reason to believe – whether justifiably or not – that Israel will go it alone to neutralize its nuclear facilities, if it cannot muster the resolve to overrun a small sliver of topographically undaunting land, abutting its own border.
Likewise, the scenes from Gaza can only serve to embolden the Palestinian-Arabs in Judea-Samaria, and motivate them to rise up against Israeli forces and to instigate riots and unrest in solidarity with their beleaguered “brethren.”
Moreover, confronted with the continuing spectacle of massive civilian casualties and apparent lack of military resolve, it is far from implausible that radical elements will begin to incite Israeli-Arabs to identify with their besieged kinfolk and ferment outbreaks of insurrection against the source of their perceived tormentors...
These examples are just a sample of the ravages of restraint Israel can expect to reap.
Delusion of demilitarization
To avoid acknowledging the imperative for Israel to take, and hold, the Gaza Strip, the latest proposal being raised for bringing an end to the conflict is demilitarization of the territory.
This is a dangerous delusion and should be discarded posthaste. Although it is an idea with little chance of being accepted, it is nevertheless likely to have disastrous consequences, if serious attempts are made to implement it.
After all, suppose that, against all odds, Gaza is actually demilitarized, who will defend it from attacks from emerging Islamist groups in Sinai? If the local regime is to be stripped of weapons, how will it cope with armed extremists bent on taking over the area? Would the IDF be called on defend the regime? Deployment of international forces has proven perennially ineffective. They frequently flee whenever any serious resistance is encountered or losses inflicted. Moreover – should they not discharge their duties adequately – their presence would make any intervention by IDF far more problematic.
Any suggestion based on a transitory alliance with some Arab regime should be summarily dismissed. After all, not all that long ago Turkey and Iran were among Israel’s closest allies, and in Egypt, while the Muslim Brotherhood is down, it is certainly not out.
Even today, Egypt, teetering on the brink of economic disaster, is hard pressed to keep the Islamists in check. If Ethiopia begins to use the water of the massive dam recently built on the Blue Nile for large-scale irrigation, significantly reducing the flow to Aswan, Egypt is likely to have neither the ability nor the will to impose law and order in Sinai... or to protect Gaza.
White flag over Gaza
The actions taken by Israel in Gaza are far too little and much too late.
We are told by an unending procession of professed experts via Israeli media that we cannot defeat terror by military means.
Without engaging in debate over the doubtful truth of this declaration, one thing is certain – given the political freedom to act, the IDF could impose defeat on Hamas, drive its leadership off in disgrace to captivity and prosecution for war crimes, and fly a white flag over Gaza for all to see so that there can be no ambiguity about the outcome of the war.
To prevent an even more brutal and extreme successor from taking over, Gaza must be dismantled and the non-belligerent population relocated. This is the only way to protect the area from recurring rounds of death and destruction, imposed by the cruel, corrupt cliques that have led it astray for decades.
This is a humanitarian imperative for the Palestinians and a security imperative for Israel. Mobilizing the international community to accept this plan is a national imperative for the Jewish people.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.( www.strategic-israel.org)