There are grounds to wonder whether key members of the Israeli leadership are increasingly engaged in fantastic thinking rather than coping with reality.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of this malaise are considerable and have resulted in the country’s national security leadership in effect having a conversation with itself rather than contending with the diabolical conceptions of its enemies.
1. Pointless Diplomacy Jihadists most commonly operate thousands of kilometers from the shores of the United States. Yet the president of the world’s only superpower, Barack Obama, has eschewed negotiating with Islamic militants despite his known distaste for the military option. Rather, as Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby vowed following a September 1 US air-strike on leaders of the Somali al-Shabab terrorist group, “[the US is] going to continue to use all the tools at [its] disposal – financial, diplomatic, intelligence and of course the military – to dismantle al-Shabab and other terrorist groups.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the other hand heads a small country confronted directly by Islamic militants on its northern and southern borders. He even described Hamas and the Islamic State (IS) as “two branches of the same poison tree.”
On August 28, he told a delegation of the US House Armed Services Committee, “We have common enemies: radical Islamic terrorists who are running wild... we must adopt a common stand to defeat them.”
Yet, curiously, the prime minister is seeking a negotiated agreement to solidify the Hamas-Israel cease-fire which ended Operation Protective Edge.
Sources close to Netanyahu reportedly said that throughout the conflict the prime minister was navigating a “complicated” and “sophisticated” course aimed to reinstate the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas in the Gaza Strip or, failing this, keep a weakened Hamas in control of some 2 million Gazans. An agreement is meant to formalize this outcome. Netanyahu’s opponents argue the move is designed mainly to shackle the more hawkish members of his cabinet, who would have none of it. Either way, opting for a negotiated settlement requires a willingness to compromise, and thus Israeli concessions. Israel in effect would be rewarding aggression.
Moreover, both interpretations of Netanyahu’s course tacitly assume that an agreement would indeed be reached. They also anticipate the deal would be kept.
However, achieving an accommodation seems improbable, especially if Israel insists on the demilitarization of the Strip. It can be argued that Hamas consent to a deal would only come once its leaders are convinced they could cheat on its terms and rearm. It has come to light, for example, that Hamas had plotted to topple the PA just as it was negotiating the establishment of a reconciliation government with Abbas.
Therefore, in the best case the Israeli leadership is engaged in wishful thinking.
Netanyahu is hoping Hamas was deterred enough that it will not challenge his exercise in diplomatic futility and resume firing.
Yet ex-Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking at a mosque in al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza on September 5, hinted otherwise. He said “our confrontation with the enemy was not the last one.”
At worst the Israeli effort to reach an understanding with Hamas seems to have been dictated by the IDF’s inability to stop the latter from firing rockets and mortar shells into Israel. Netanyahu’s diplomatic maneuver indirectly lends credence to Hamas’s claim of victory. As its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared soon after the truce was announced, “Only after the [cease-fire] agreement will you [Israelis] be able to return to your homes and this is because of Hamas agreeing [to hold its fire] – not Netanyahu.”
2. Fictional Deterrence Doctrine The stated goal of Operation Protective Edge was “restoring prolonged calm while inflicting meaningful damage on the terror infrastructure [in Gaza]....” In effect, Israel made it clear it was seeking a return to the Netanyahu policy of “calm for calm.”
However, this goal qualifies as nothing less than utopian. It must be understood that for an organization like Hamas to decide to take on a military like the IDF is tantamount to opting for self-destruction.
In effect, by doing so Hamas has crossed what is known as “the fear barrier.” Under a religious banner, Hamas’s raison d’etre is the repeated demonstration that it is undeterrable.
In turn, for Israel to conduct operations expressly aimed to restore extended deterrence is simply kooky. At best it implies a fundamental underestimation of Hamas’ devotion to its cause. At worst it is a tacit admission that Israel is unable or unwilling to prosecute a war of destruction vis-a-vis Hamas. Israel behaves as if Hamas was a bratty kid who needs some spanking, not an organization sworn to its destruction.
Yet this conduct is potentially suicidal – Israel’s strategy assures that a nascent existential threat will endure if not grow.
In this context, the often-cited aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War as an example of successful Israeli deterrence is a dangerous fallacy. First off, the prolonged calm serves Hezbollah’s interest and more importantly those of its patrons – the mullahs in Teheran.
Accordingly, their Lebanese proxy’s main mission is to serve as a stop-gap strategic deterrent vis-a-vis Israel so Iran remains unhindered in its quest to acquire nuclear weapons.
Second, for the past three years Hezbollah has been preoccupied militarily in Syria defending the Assad regime from being toppled by a widespread rebellion. Third, over the past eight years – and in direct contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the 2006 war – Hezbollah has become a formidable strategic threat in terms of armament, training and operational planning. Like Hamas it has readied itself to go on the offensive next time it confronts the IDF and has even publicly vowed to “liberate” the Galilee. In other words what the Israeli government lauds as “extended deterrence” has in effect become a license to affect qualitative transformations in the threat posed to Israel.
Israel’s inability or unwillingness to stop this ominous trend indicates that the shoe is on the other foot – it is Israel that is deterred. After all Jerusalem knows full well that with the possible exception of biological agents (once in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s hands) there has never been a weapon in Arab/Muslim arsenals that was left unused when the opportunity arose, including the repeated resort to the use of chemical munitions.
Israeli leaders have boasted that Hamas “threw everything it had in store at us to no effect.” Inadvertently, they have thus confirmed that Israel’s intra-war deterrence was simply non-existent. Not only did Hamas use virtually everything in its arsenal of weapons and tactics against Israel, but it has also shown no limitation in choosing its targets. It fired on all major Israeli cities as well as on key strategic installations such as the nuclear reactor in Dimona, an offshore gas drilling platform and on Israel’s main airport. The idea no doubt was to demonstrate its reach, staying power, undeterrability and most of all that it was winning the fight.
Israel on the other hand constantly signaled its restraint, warning time and again it would intensify its response if Hamas continued to misbehave. Because it misread Hamas’s intentions from the outset it stuck to climbing a gradual escalation ladder which proved utterly incapable of deterring let alone “crushing,” in Netanyahu’s words, Hamas.
This error was compounded, paradoxically, by the effectiveness of the Iron Dome system in intercepting Hamas rockets. As Israeli civilian casualties were kept to a minimum, pressure on Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to react strongly was undercut. In short the Iron Dome system became a substitute for offensive action.
But the IDF’s self-imposed limitations were also in response to the Goldstone Report – a study commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council that accused the Israeli military of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity for its conduct during the 2009 Gaza conflict. This time IDF officers even boasted of the stationing of military lawyers at various command levels to advise planners of the legality of impending actions. Combat engagements were likewise videotaped to prepare alibis for a possible “Gladstone-II” inquiry. The military has also launched an investigation into its wartime conduct, headed by a major general and involving legal and military experts – who did not participate in the war themselves.
Operation Protective Edge, it turns out, was conducted with the IDF constantly looking over its Goldstone “shoulder.”
Needless to say, the ensuing degradation in the IDF’s military effectiveness was precisely what those who hatched the formation of the “fact finding” committee had hoped for. At the same time – whether by design or default – the Gladstone report also made Hamas even less deterrable than before and more determined to hide among the civilian population of Gaza.
Whatever the exact reasons for Israel’s strategy, its leaders’ hopes for extended deterrence vis-a-vis Hamas in the wake of Operation Protective Edge are unsupported by the recent history and almost certainly illusory.
3. Geopolitical Delusions Netanyahu and Ya’alon broadly hinted that the conduct of the war and its inconclusive termination were due in part to larger geopolitical considerations. In an interview on Channel 2 on August 30, Netanyahu said for example: “There is a not-insignificant number of nations which see the [jihadist] threats around us as threats to them [as well]. As a result they are treating Israel not as an enemy but as a potential partner.”
However a secret entente by definition is of limited strategic utility. As the Gulf Wars have demonstrated Israel will continue to be the regional odd man out anytime a coalition warfare scenario takes shape visa- vis an Arab or Islamic entity. Moreover whatever “partnership” is in place could abruptly dissolve and as in the case of Iran and subsequently Turkey even revert into open hostility virtually overnight.
It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia for instance would allow Israeli aircraft on their way to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities the use of its skies, let alone air bases. If anything the rising IS threat has made Riad seek new channels to Teheran. Thus, the Saudis have adopted a common position with their Iranian rivals over a new candidate to lead Iraq in shared hopes that a new government there would unite Sunnis and Shi’ites to battle the IS.
Egypt’s diplomatic help throughout Defensive Edge was made possible because the Israeli government opted from the outset to avoid the destruction of Hamas.
But the decision to rely on Cairo to pull Israel’s chestnuts out of the fire made it necessary to take into account Egyptian political sensibilities. Thus Egypt played a double role vis-a-vis the prosecution of the war – it acted to block the resupplying of Hamas from its territory. Also it was and continues to be Israel’s preferred diplomatic go-between. However, it has also served as an in-built constraint on the conflict’s military achievements. The latter could very well result in the resumption of Israel-Hamas hostilities earlier than later.
In short, the subordination of key Israeli national security interests to the vagaries of regional geopolitics is seldom justified and emanates from delusional thinking.
But the geopolitical constraint figured into the prime minister’s decisions in other ways as well. In his Channel 2 interview Netanyahu said: “I did not remove the goal of toppling Hamas... however I see al-Qaida, the IS, [thus] I preferred not to invest all our resources in this [Gaza] theater. I am readying for a very problematic Middle Eastern arena. We hit the Hamas hard enough for it to heed [the lesson for] many years, but we have to be ready for every scenario.”
Netanyahu, it turns out, thought he could perfectly calibrate the military punishment so it weakened Hamas without toppling it, and that the pummeling could be accomplished without torpedoing the dawn of what he called Israel’s “new political horizons.” Apparently he failed to consider the opposite – that Israel’s strategic value to the regional “partnership” and the US is directly tied to the speed with which it destroys its Islamic opponents. He was likewise unperturbed, it appears, by the possibility that his grand exercise would backfire – that abiding by the geopolitical constraints may undermine the deterrent message Israel was trying to deliver and instead abets the emergence of the “problematic” political surroundings which now pose an even more immediate threat to his country.
4. Reconstruction Pipe Dreams Given the victory celebrations in Gaza, any recommendation to improve Gazans’ living conditions so they have something to lose and thus shun another war amounts to engaging in talking with oneself. Islamic terrorist logic is entirely different. As many Gazans have said, “We are used to suffering.”
After all, this war according to all sides had caused enormous damage to the Strip and yet there was hardly any sign of discontent let alone an anti-Hamas uprising.
Instead tens of thousands have been flashing victory signs.
In spite of predictions by senior IDF officers that the devastation in Gaza would likely turn the civilian population against Hamas, a poll conducted in late August by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated the opposite is true. Accordingly, 94 percent of Gazan and West Bank respondents said they were satisfied with Hamas’s performance in confronting the IDF and 79% said that Hamas had won the war. Moreover, 74% of respondents in Gaza and 70% in the West Bank backed transferring the Hamas model of “armed resistance” to the West Bank.
The question must be asked – why would new apartments be more of a deterrent to resuming attacks on Israel than the thousands obliterated in the current round but which did not make Hamas or its supporters blink? On the contrary Hamas prolonged the fighting by rejecting or violating the cease-fire 11 times by Israel’s own count. In jihadists’ view, it transpires, the greater their losses the more compulsory the achievement of victory becomes.
In this regard the booby-trapping of what the commander of the IDF’s 401 armored brigade Col. Sa’ar Tzur described as “large... beautiful houses... some three stories high” by Hamas itself in the town of Beit Hanoun as well as in other areas must be considered as well. It turns out property destruction, even that of prime real estate, might not be the penalty Israel thinks it is, nor would its reconstruction be a sure-fire disincentive against Islamists going to war. In jihadist ideology houses are weapons, not habitats.
If Netanyahu’s feet were firmly planted on the ground he would have rejected any reconstruction effort in Gaza. Rebuilding will only cement Gazans’ belief that the battle was indeed worthwhile. It will also cause the locals to forget the cost of the war faster even if that toll was a factor in the calculations of their leaders. Gaza should be left in ruins as a reminder to anyone contemplating an attack on an Israeli city.
Besides, Islamic militants across the Middle East and beyond have shown great fondness to destroying cultural monuments and historical sites of other religions to erase any claim by what they call “kafirs” – essentially any one who does not fit into their ideology – to their own lands. Erecting new jihadist monuments – i.e. the shambles of their encampments – might be a fitting response.
5. Virtual Victory Both Netanyahu and Ya’alon have claimed victory. In his interview with Channel 2, Netanyahu said: “I believed that what we should do at this time is simply to pound them [Hamas]. So maybe they remain [in power], but they are pulverized; they are isolated; they cannot smuggle weaponry.”
However, it is difficult to reconcile the prime minister’s description of the outcome of Operation Protective Edge with reality. After all, in the final day of the war Hamas fired more rockets against Israel than in any day previously during the 50-day conflict. When the guns finally fell silent residents of communities bordering Gaza refused to return to their homes for fear the quiet was only temporary. It is easy to explain away Netanyahu’s rhetoric simply as another politician selling a bill of goods to whitewash his blunders. But how can Netanyahu think he can get away with it? The explosions of Hamas rockets impacting or being intercepted over Israel up to the last minute before the truce could not be concealed. Nor could the loud protests of thousands of dislocated Israelis be ignored or magically silenced. Which leads to the more worrying interpretation. The prime minister simply cannot not be bothered by the facts.
A true victory speaks for itself – most of all to one’s enemies. It needs no convincing.
However, the bluster coming from Gaza City, Beirut and Teheran suggest the message has not been received.
For example, Hamas spokesman Zuhri said in a news conference at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital: “The value of this campaign is not in the opening of this crossing or that crossing, but in paving the way for the next stage – liberating Jerusalem.”
Likewise, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari declared in an interview with the Arabic channel of Iran’s state Al-Alam television on August 4 that the number of rockets launched into Israel and the Palestinian fighters’ ability in confronting the Israeli ground invasion is proof of the Palestinian resistance’s “endless and growing power.”
He added that the events in the Gaza Strip reveal that “The Zionist regime will collapse soon.”
The Iranian news agency Fars on August 27 cited the Commander of Iran’s Basij (volunteer) force Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi as reporting that the, “Arming [of] the West Bank [resistance groups] has started and weapons will be supplied to the people of this region.” Accordingly, Naqdi underlined that arming the West Bank will ensure “the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” This logic was quickly echoed by senior Hamas member Mahmoud Zahar who, according to Ynet, said on September 6, “If the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank had a quarter of the tools that the resistance in Gaza holds, Israel would be wiped out in a day.”
It appears that in the minds of Islamic militants Operation Protective Edge has set forward the “annihilation clock” for the destruction of Israel.
Naturally, Israeli political and military leaders were quick to dismiss these and other such statements as sheer bravado – allegedly “they [the Islamists] know better than ever not to mess with us.” But before the war the same quarters were certain Hamas was uninterested in a confrontation and once large-scale fighting had actually erupted erroneously assessed that Hamas was “down on its knees.” The cardinal question is thus are these sources wrong again? Has Hamas been really knocked out of the equation for years as the prime minister suggests or is the jihadist onslaught to “liberate” Palestine and Jerusalem closer than ever in the wake of Protective Edge? Does Israel’s top leadership finally grasp how dire the situation may have become or did the war serve only to deepen its dangerous delusions? The writer is the author of The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence (Yale University Press).