I am convinced that the residents of the Gaza-border communities can return to their homes... to a good and quality life here
- IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, August 6
I have lost my faith in the government of Israel
- Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council in southern Israel, August 27
I feel a sense of acute discomfort in writing this week’s column.
I served for a number of years in the Prime Minister’s Office and witnessed first-hand the dedication and devotion with which so many in the security establishment discharge their duties. I am well aware of the huge debt the entire country owes them for their tireless and selfless endeavor. Yet despite their splendid and stirring efforts, dark and dangerous storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, and the emerging ramifications of accumulating miscalculation and misjudgment in the directives issued them are too menacing to be swept under the rug.
If they are not confronted openly, honestly and robustly they will fester and grow to dimensions that jeopardize the very foundations upon which the State of Israel was established.
Collapse of credibility?
It appears my misgivings are shared by a rapidly increasing segment of the population.
Earlier this week, my colleague Isi Leibler (August 25) published a column assessing the losses and gains of Operation Protective Edge. In it he wrote: “Today, despite a decline in support, the majority of Israelis still back Netanyahu.” He was right – but not for long.
A poll published later the same day found that support for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had plummeted to well below 50 percent. Having soared to a stunning 82% early in the campaign (July 27), public approval of his performance dropped to 63% (August 5), dipping to 55% (August 21) and then, just prior to the latest ceasefire, plunged to 38% (August 25), with 50% disapproving.
But worse was yet to come. A Channel 2 poll published on Wednesday evening showed a dramatic collapse in public support for the prime minister, severe disapproval for his acceptance of the cease fire and a bleak assessment of the outcome of 50 days of fighting.
Only 32% approved of his performance, compared to almost 60% who disapproved. Moreover, 54% of the public opposed the cease-fire, with only 37% endorsing it. Perhaps most significantly, 59% believed Israel had not been victorious in the campaign, while a mere 29% believed it had.
Reasons for mistrust
The disintegrating credence in the government’s handling of the Gaza situation is reflected in the response of the residents of the South and their local leaders. In a report titled “Leaders in southern Israel skeptical of Gaza cease-fire” (Jerusalem Post, August 27), the heads of regional councils that bore the brunt of much of the Hamas’s bombardment over the last seven weeks expressed scathing criticism of the government and deep mistrust of its commitment to their security, warning “residents were still afraid to return to their homes...”
Indeed, the communities in the “Gaza belt” have good reason for skepticism. Given the events of recent weeks, especially the chilling revelation of the terror tunnels and the threat they posed, the decision last October to withdraw the IDF security details protecting these communities seems such a massive miscalculation that it is difficult to grasp – especially in view of recent government claims that it was aware of the danger.
Under the headline “Dozens protest against removal of IDF Gaza security patrol” (October 30, 2013), Ynet reported: “Following Defense Ministry’s decision to halt security in 13 communities in Gaza vicinity, final soldier to leave region on Thursday; protesters claim ministry is risking lives of residents. ‘Decision was made after lengthy consideration,’ [Defense Minister Moshe] Ya’alon says.” It went on to state that the decision was taken “after long, serious and lengthy field work [and] was made responsibly after a lengthy consideration.”
Local residents clearly disagree.
‘Don’t have all the facts…’
An earlier report headlined “IDF to stop securing border communities” (September 17, 2013), conveyed: “Residents of Gaza vicinity area outraged after army announces it will cease providing security for 22 towns in Israel, near Sinai and Gaza border,” adding that “Army officials had made the decision following a comprehensive situation assessment... of threats on the stipulated areas...”
In light of later developments, this is hardly likely to instill confidence in future “comprehensive threat assessments.”
In this regard, let me turn briefly to the ire of several disgruntled government-loyalists, who have assailed me for my criticism of the handling of Operation Protective Edge. According to them, since I do not have all the facts and those in power have information that I do not, I should refrain from passing judgment on their decisions.
Their censure is, of course, entirely misplaced. Superior knowledge does not necessarily imply superior analysis or decision-making. One need not have an intimate familiarity with every bend and eddy current of the Nile to determine that the river flows from south to north – even though in some portions, it might momentarily run east or west.
After all, what “superior knowledge” gave rise to the Olmert government’s mismanagement of the 2006 Lebanon War, or to Ariel Sharon’s unilateral abandonment of Gaza, precipitating all the dangers its allegedly less-informed opponents correctly warned of – including the current round of fighting, and the one before that, and the one before that?
Political predilection not possession of facts
The political decision making process is far more a function of political predilection than of possession of facts. Indeed, good analysis of partial information is likely to produce better assessments of reality than poor assessments of fuller information.
Thus allow me a moment of immodest indulgence in which to remind readers of the assessment I made immediately following the cease-fire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.
In a column titled “Israel’s infuriating impotence” (November 29, 2012), I wrote, with only partial information at my disposal: “Temporary lulls are increasingly unacceptable, making life in the South increasingly untenable both economically and emotionally.”
I warned of the specter of deserted Jewish settlements in the western Negev, of precisely the kind we now see: “If this continues much longer, depopulation of the South and the denudation of the Jewish presence there is an ever-more tangible possibility.”
With what turned out to be a tragically accurate sense of foreboding, I asked: “Unless there is a realistic prospect of permanently ceasing the attacks, why would any responsible parent consider remaining and bringing up their children there?” Finally, I underscored the disastrous effect of political predilections, and adherence to failed formulae would have on the political outcomes: “By adhering to Oslo-compliant paradigms and eschewing political alternatives that envision the deconstruction of Gaza and resettlement/rehabilitation of its Palestinian population elsewhere, military campaigns will always be driven by a rationale that dictates objectives which are limited, temporary and hence, in the eyes of the other side – inherently unsuccessful.”
I would invite my critics to point out where possession of partial information impaired my prognosis.
A nation misled?
Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon are two of the most iconic Israeli leaders of the last half-century. It is a jarringly unnerving experience to revisit their proclamations regarding the prospects for Gaza and its relations with Israel.
Rabin, prior to the signature of Oslo II Accords (September 28, 1995), disdainfully dismissed the ominous foreboding of opponents. In a July 24, 1995, radio interview, he scoffed: The nightmare stories of the Likud are well known. After all, they promised Katyusha rockets from Gaza as well. For a year, Gaza has been largely under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. There has not been a single Katyusha rocket. Nor will there be any Katyushas.
Nine years later, Sharon, in a Knesset address (October 25, 2004), confidently predicted a rosy future following Israel’s unilateral evacuation: “I am firmly convinced and truly believe that this disengagement... will be appreciated by those near and far, reduce animosity, break through boycotts and sieges and advance us along the path of peace with the Palestinians and our other neighbors...”
Scary stuff. Or have I said that before? But irony aside, one could not ask for a more dramatic illustration of how political predilection overrides possession of fact.
Confronted with such spectacularly mistaken assessments by leaders with vast experience and updated intelligence, the Israeli people seem to have little basis for placing unmitigated trust in their leaders – no matter how well informed they are alleged to be.
Fortress too daunting?
It is in this context that the declarations of victory over Hamas should be judged. They are clearly little more than political spin, with little substantive strategic substance to them.
Yes, of course, after 50 days of fighting Israel has wrought great devastation on Hamas and the populace of Gaza. Although we may admire the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the intelligence collection and the precision of delivery of weapons to targets, with an unopposed freedom of the skies, no anti-aircraft systems or opposing planes in the air, this was almost a foregone conclusion.
What is not a foregone conclusion is whether, in the next – inevitable – round, that will still be the case. Or whether our pilots will then have to face harrowing challenges from newly emplaced air defense systems, acquired with Qatari cash from any one of a myriad of willing suppliers – from Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
What should be clear from the events that have unfolded since July 8 is that for almost a quarter-century, successive governments in Israel have permitted Hamas to construct, under their very noses, a fortress so formidable that the IDF hardly dare set foot in – even when civilians are forced to cower in shelters for 50 days on end.
Sadly, there is no way to avoid the appalling conclusion that, because of fear of military casualties, the Israeli leadership refused to order the IDF into battle (which by all accounts it could have easily won within days) to protect the nation’s civilians.
What could have been done differently? Well imagine if all the explosives that were dropped on Gaza during 50 days of fighting were dropped in the first five days of fighting. Instead of a lone fighter sent to hit a single objective, waves of fighters were sent to hit multiple objectives simultaneously. Suppose this massive aerial onslaught was followed by a commensurately large artillery barrage to cover a land invasion from the north and east and a marine-borne assault form the west...
Yes, there would be casualties, but that is what warriors in a democratic society do – put themselves in harm’s way so that civilians are not.
In a recent paper (Wise Tactical Choices in Gaza) my good friend Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser, wrote that Israel could not have launched such a preemptive strike and retain international legitimacy. There are a myriad of reasons to dispute this claim, but even if it were true, it comprises perhaps the most severe indictment of the Netanyahu incumbency.
For after being in power continuously for over half-a-decade it has done nothing to put in place mechanisms/ systems to contend with the foreknown hostility of the Obama administration and to establish the legitimacy of the Jews right to self-defense – including the right to preempt aggression.
Missing the moment
The full ramifications of Operation Protective Edge are still unfolding. Much that is deeply disturbing has yet to be discovered.
Regrettably, just as the mistaken “Conception” (Konsepzia) that prevailed in 1973, and led to what has become known as the “Debacle” (Mehdal) of the Yom Kippur War, the emerging ramifications of how Protective Edge was conducted will rock the foundations of the relationship between the Israeli people and their government.
But this time the result is liable to be even more traumatic.
Binyamin Netanyahu is a man of great talent and considerable achievement who hesitated, and missed the moment.
Sadly, that is how history is likely to remember him.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. www.martinsherman.net