Wars rarely achieve their aims. There are no winners, only losers.
This is the case with the Gaza war. Both sides feel heroic and victimized, richer in achievements and justifications, poorer by the tragic loss of life. Societies cannot be coerced to alter their attitudes and behavior by force. In the long term, nothing much will have been altered.
Perhaps the most important thing that can come from out of war is to draw the right conclusions, each side on its own, and perhaps in some distant future, even together. To contribute to the necessary soul-searching and discussion, I would like to outline the main conclusions I have drawn from this war.
The fundamentalist religious Arab world is out of touch with reality. Hamas truly believes that it can defeat Israel by force, and in the process has brought catastrophe to the Palestinian people and cause. An important part of Palestine is now totally isolated in the world and in the region (except for Qatar and Turkey).
It has set the drive for Palestinian statehood back.
Globally, today’s axis of evil is the terrorists – al-Qaida, Islamic State, Hezbollah and Hamas. Khaled Mashaal and Co. risk kidnapping the Palestinian cause into his camp, losing the support of the pragmatic part of the Arab world along the way.
Religion and politics, messianic and nationalistic worldviews, are a bad combination for anyone; not least the Palestinians. Gaza has paid a heavy toll for the Hamas ideology when resources were invested in the underground terror world rather than in building houses, schools and hospitals for above-ground Gaza.
Terror is the weapon of the weak, but has never achieved anything for the people it pretends to represent.
This combination of religion, politics and violence is a common enemy to Israel and to the pragmatists in the Arab world.
We have a strong army, one of the most effective and technologically sophisticated armies in the world.
From the chief of staff down, it has an impressive line of command of down-to-earth young people. Their level of motivation and patriotism is high; a people’s army believing in the classic role of an army to defend its citizens, leading to an exaggerated belief that there are military solutions to our security predicaments.
With all the show of force and fire, neither side gained what it had hoped for. Hamas made only tactical gains, Israel succeeded in destroying most of the terror tunnels. Yet Hamas was not militarily destroyed and politically was only weakened at best.
With the illusion of power comes the realization of its limitations. For weeks, the discourse of many in the government was about the possibility of destroying Hamas, maybe even conquering Gaza, and about “getting rid of the problem.”
Hamas’s power base consists of religious fundamentalists in Gaza, hundreds of thousands of refugees, the poor and the unemployed youth. When people have nothing to lose, they opt for radicalism, religious fundamentalism and violence.
One can possibly defeat an enemy, but not a problem.
Therefore we must understand the limits of our power.
It is best used for deterrence; strategic solutions remain in the field of diplomacy.
During the war, there was a sense among many Israelis that finally we could do what we are best at, finally we could “let the IDF win,” finally we could “show the Arabs”... Well, at the end we could not, and must confront reality in a more complex and political way.
This desire to show force stems from a deep sense of anxiety and insecurity, hardly surprising for a post-traumatic society, after the century of the Holocaust and wars. While during this war, we also witnessed a good sense of Israeli patriotism, uniting behind the worry for our children, the soldiers; there were also more disturbing signs of patriotism turning toward ultra-nationalism and hate.
We are extremely powerful in this region, yet we feel like perpetual victims. The horrendous anti-Semitism and cruelty of Hamas touches a very raw nerve in our society. Being the victim is a very powerful ethos in our history. The strength of Israel was supposed to heal this, but it did not. We constantly refer back to all perpetrators, from the pharaohs to the Nazis, or as we say in the Haggada – from one generation to another...
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is the official spokesman of this syndrome, with his bullish, propagandistic slogans about the historic hour that has come to “crush the enemy.” The demons from within cannot be crushed.
This sense of victimization meeting an actual victimizer led to ugly outbursts of hate and racism, beginning with the boycott of Arab stores and continuing to the physical violence against Arabs. This homemade racism is far more dangerous to Israel than Hamas could ever be.
The media in Israel during wartime, while free, are willingly recruited to the national effort. Part of this is understandable and good, such as the expression of solidarity with the troops. Other expressions are proof of the dangers emanating from curbing freedom of speech during conflict.
The broad consensus in the country and the media became an almost holy consensus, dismissing contrarian views. The television studios were virtually invaded by retired generals – the old boys club – offering their experience for the fight. It is doubtful that todays’ generals are open to listen to Monday morning quarterbacks.
Many of the military correspondents not only reported the war, but trumpeted their views in favor of a deeper incursion into Gaza City, such as the “frustrated general” Roni Daniel of Channel 2.
Modern war is conducted on television screens, perhaps no less than on the battlefield. On this front, Israel fought a hopeless battle given the horrendous loss of lives of Gazan civilians including hundreds of children.
The world did recognize the terrorist nature and threat of Hamas, but sees in the Palestinian population the David to Israel’s Goliath in this conflict. That is the main source of international criticism against Israel.
And yet it was a serious mistake to view the images from Gaza as simply a part of a propaganda battle.
Israelis, including in the media, did not express simple human compassion for the suffering and tragedy of the other side. The humanitarian disaster in Gaza is indeed heartbreaking.
The few who did, like film producer Shira Geffen, who asked her audience for a minute of silence for the four Arab kids killed by the IDF on the Gaza beach, were branded as traitors and threatened with death.
The racist response from the extreme Right showed the ugliest face of our society. They were most apparent on social networks, with Facebook pages dedicate to demonize and threaten leftists and Arabs. This constitutes a real danger to our democracy.
There is a solution. Most Israelis come out of this war frustrated that we are doomed to live through cycles of violence, with increasingly dangerous Gaza terrorism.
It is a natural reaction after war; war rarely solves a strategic problem.
If we want to ensure our long-term national security, we must look at the Gaza problem in the broader spectrum of the Palestinian issue and of the wider region.
More important, we have to conclude that while we need a strong defense force for deterrence, the solution to our security predicament is in the realm of international and regional diplomacy. We must bring the level of our policy and diplomacy skills at least to the level of our military ones.
Hamas must be viewed as part of two confrontations – an existential battle with Fatah over the future leadership and nature of Palestine, and in parallel a schism with the pragmatic Sunni Arab world that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestine Authority.
Our aim must be to weaken Hamas, and therefore we must build bridges of interests with its foes in Ramallah, Cairo, Riyadh and Amman.
The question before them is, can Palestinian independence be achieved via Fatah or Hamas, through negotiations or warfare, with a clear preference for the Fatah strategy. We must, in the aftermath of the war, aim for a new regional pragmatic coalition that actively opposes terror. They key to this strategy is to negotiate statehood with Mahmoud Abbas for the West Bank, based on the 1967 lines, and offer it to Gaza only if the latter is led by a nonviolent, pragmatic leadership that favors economic development and demilitarization.
This is the choice that all of our international friends support, including our No. 1 strategic ally, the United States. This is the choice of most Palestinians who wish to live freely, in independence and economic prosperity.
This is also the choice that will lead us back to be a Jewish democracy, living in tolerance domestically and internationally.
The war in Gaza has taught me that we may not be strong enough to destroy our enemies in war, but strong enough to make peace with existing partners.
The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and founder of the YaLa Young Leaders peace movement, and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.