When the US went into Afghanistan and Iraq 2002-3 the major criticism it justifiably faced from the start was that Bush had no clear goal for the wars, no Exit Strategy. Such is not the case with Israel’s third Gaza incursion. Prime Minister Netanyahu clearly stated his goal for the “operation” as “quiet for quiet.”
On what basis did the prime minister decide that he could impose his will, achieve even that minimal goal? Hesitant as he was in escalating “noise-for-noise” this past week of efforts to achieve even a truce proved dependent not on Israel, but Hamas. Even as this is being written Hamas resumed rockets over Tel Aviv three hours before the formal end of the present “truce.” But even had the “truce” held what justifies yet another round of intense fighting to yet another “quiet-for-quiet” outcome? By last count, while the IDF fought well and bravely more Israeli soldiers died in combat than in any prior Gaza “operation.” And some reports describe most residents of the south seeking refuge in the north while approximately half say they intend not to return to their homes. And serious as these costs they are the least challenges to Israeli security.
Hamas is not just a terrorist organization threatening Israel from the south. Recent IDF experience demonstrates Hamas has used the recent “quiet” years to transform itself into an fighting force on par with Hezbollah. And like Hezbollah Hamas is battle-hardened and organized along more traditional military lines, a motivated force trained and of demonstrated ability to fight Israel to a standstill, at least in a media-influenced brief war on home territory.
According to recurring reports in the media Bibi’s “dream” outcome for Gaza is to retain (moderate) Hamas to govern while defanging the militant wing of the organization and demilitarizing the Strip. Such an outcome, were it even realistic, is dependent on “political Hamas” willingness and ability to abide by negotiated agreements. But what is the evidence for such? A peaceful Gaza is also dependent on whether the US and the EU are willing, even capable, of imposing such a diplomatic outcome, the demilitarization of Gaza. And what evidence-base experience supports that?
And what costs failure of Bibi’s “dream” outcome? Certainly the return to rockets over Tel Aviv. The likelihood of the Negev with abandoned kibbutzim and towns and even the region’s capital, Be’er Sheva. And finally Gaza IV and another outside-brokered “negotiated settlement.” Slim pickings for life and treasure the cost. But the problem of Hamas is not just merely a local problem for Israel. There are far wider implications, far larger strategic issues at play.
Today’s Israel press reflects outrage in Gaza, as Bibi predicted over the course of the war. But Gazans are not blaming Hamas for bringing destruction to their lives and home, but Israel for the massive destruction. The Gazans do not see in the destruction failure at the hands of Israel but Hamas victorious in war and in dictating the conditions of the truce! Nor is this perception Hamas victorious held only by Palestinians near and far. Whatever quiet “support” Israel may enjoy from the Saudis, Egypt and Abbas, Hamas victorious is the message in the Arab press from the Gulf to Lebanon:
“Israel is stupefied and confounded by the rockets of the Palestinian resistance that struck deep in Israel and reached Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, despite the siege of Gaza by [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi and his government...” Mansour wrote.“If the resistance is provided with arms and allowed to deal with the cowardly, petrified and stunned Israel, then Israelis will either live in shelters or flee the country,” he boasted.
If the outcome in Gaza as seen by the Arabs is appears in the Arab media does this have an impact on Israel? For myself this is the central issue of the Gaza War. The “exit strategy” from Gaza must be the total defeat of the Islamist government, not just containment of a terror threat. Israel today and likely tomorrow can contain that threat. What is at stakes today is not whether or not Israel can defeat Hamas, present and future, but the impression of Israeli weakness and vulnerability beyond Israel’s immediate borders. Hamas is not the only, certainly not the most powerful jihadist threat to Israel in the evolving “Arab Spring.” Al-Queda militias, Hezbollah and ISIL sit across the Golan boundary with Syria and Lebanon. And ISIL only today reportedly took Iraq’s largest water reservoir from the Kurds, is even now assaulting the their capital, Erbil:
“The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly on Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State in Iraq and Syria storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish pesh merga, was routed in the face of the onslaught… Panic on Thursday spread even to the Kurdish capital of Erbil, long considered a safe haven, with civilians flooding the airport in a futile attempt to buy tickets to Baghdad.”
While the Iraqi Army abandoned arms and uniforms at the approach of ISIL in the opening stage of the invasion, the Kurdish Peshmerga defeated the Islamists at Mosul. If the Kurds, a trained dedicated fighting force quietly aligned with Israel are losing ground to ISIL, the danger of Israel appearing weak against a far lesser foe in Gaza should be obvious.
But the possibility of Israel “weakness” in Gaza encouraging Islamist challenges is not Israel’s primary security threat. Since the US invaded Iraq and declined to deal with the regional threat posed by Iran, most obviously represented by its nuclear weapons program, the Islamic Republic has clearly described its intention to rid the region of the Jewish state. Over the past month several sources have described serial Hamas provocations leading Israel to war not as originating in Gaza, but in Teheran. According to these the Gaza War is the opening salvo of an Israel-Iran war, the ayatollahs testing Israel’s military doctrine and anti-missile capabilities. Some describe the rejection by Hamas of serial American efforts to achieve a cease-fire as originated not in Gaza but Teheran. If so, based on Israel’s political response to Hamas’ how does Iran’s al-Quds Force measure Israel as adversary? And if and when Israel and Iran do meet in combat is Gaza-Hamas expected to just sit idly by?
It is comforting that Israel’s military in 2014 proved capable successor to 1967; that Iron Dome proved equal to the challenge and that Israeli technology will likely provide an answer to Hamas’ tunneling. But does Israel really want to leave Hamas in the south to join Hezbollah in the north if or when a showdown with Iran occurs? Is it really in Israel’s best interest to leave Hamas in Gaza?