Searching for the middle ground between war and peace

The 50-day Operation Protective Edge has left a sour taste in the mouths of those who believe Israel can do whatever it wants through the strength of its will – be it cause war, or bring peace. Reality however is much more complicated.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, right, confers with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, right, confers with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Two strong, countervailing Israeli traits have been on full display over the last few weeks – traits as quintessentially Israeli as streets without traffic on Yom Kippur, or the sound of matkot (paddleball) on a Tel Aviv beach.
The first is the unity and sense of purpose that marked the early days of Operation Protective Edge, especially when the ground troops went into Gaza.
The volunteerism, the charity, the we-are-all-in-this-together feeling that washes over the country in times of deep crisis.
The second is the disunity, the frustration, the carping and finger-pointing that is taking place now, as Operation Protective Edge appears to be over. The casting of blame, the recriminations, the politicization, the we-messed-up-big-time feeling that sweeps the country each time it comes out of a deep crisis.
Former National Security Council head Ya’acov Amidror put his finger on this during a press briefing on Wednesday.
One of the major differences between Israeli and Palestinian societies, he said, is that if Israel has a glass of water three-quarters full, people will complain about the missing quarter. While if the Palestinian glass is only one-quarter full, “they will celebrate that quarter.”
There is no question that Hamas emerged from the Gaza operation badly beaten and bruised, said Amidror, now a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Almost all of its offensive tunnels were destroyed, as were most of its rockets and rocket- producing capabilities. And, in addition, it was unable to carry out any successful attacks on Israel from the land, sea or air.
But, he added, “they are celebrating that they survived for 50 days. Because we cannot say that Hamas is on its knees, people are complaining.” He said that this may, however, be the secret of Israel’s success: always seeing what is missing, and trying to obtain it – rather than sufficing with “what we have.”
And, indeed, much is missing. Hamas was not wiped out, and the residents of the South have no guarantee that the rocket fire is over, once and for all.
To make matters worse, that which is missing can be clearly seen and easily felt.
We know Hamas was not destroyed, because we can see one of its leaders, Ismail Haniyeh’s, smiling face as he fires a machine gun in the air in a Gaza “victory” procession. This is jubilation on top of the ruins, celebrating not a glass – to extend Amidror’s metaphor – that is one-quarter full, but rather a badly broken cup that still manages to retain a little bit of water at its base.
Likewise, we can hear the anger and frustration in the voices of the southern residents who want certainty that it is over, that the sirens and the rockets and the scrambling for the bomb shelters in the dead of the night will never return.
But what Israel has achieved is more difficult to quantify. Yes, as Amidror said and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeated over and over, Hamas absorbed the biggest blow of its lifetime, a blow from which it will take years to recover. But the length of the quiet – how long it will last – is something we simply do not, and cannot, know.
“What matters at the end of the day is what will happen in the future,” Amidror said, adding that any discussion of who won or lost is inconsequential, since all that really matters is how long the quiet will last. And, he added, his hunch is that the future will be much closer to what happened following the Second Lebanon War, than any other precedent.
THE SECOND Lebanon War has come up often during the immediate Operation Protective Edge post-mortems.
Following that war in the summer of 2006, even more so than now, there was a sense in this country of deep failure and that Israel had lost the 34-day campaign.
Hezbollah was not subdued, as the country’s leaders unrealistically promised at the beginning of the war, and continued to fire rockets into Israel until the very end.
But one big difference between then and now is that while there was a sense during the Second Lebanon War that the IDF performed poorly, being inadequately trained and equipped for the type of battles it fought, no one is making a similar claim this time.
It is not the IDF not performing well in Gaza – it did – that has people riled up, rather that it was “not permitted” to perform to the peak of its capacity; that it was not – as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman intimate in their criticism – “allowed” by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to finish the job.
Netanyahu, with an obvious eye on the Second Lebanon War, set relatively modest goals at the start of the Gaza campaign, the first widespread military operation under his premiership.
Those goals were restoring quiet for a prolonged period of time, and delivering Hamas a “significant” blow.
Careful with his words, Netanyahu always stressed that the goal was to deliver a “significant” blow, never once promising a knock-out punch, knowing that in the current international climate – where Israel is unfairly held to a different standard, and unrealistically expected to wage sterile wars – a knockout punch was not achievable.
“Annihilating a terrorist organization is not something easy,” Netanyahu said Wednesday, at a sedate press conference in which he said Operation Protective Edge was both a military and political success. “In a democracy, it is very difficult. The US, the strongest power in the world, did not annihilate al-Qaida.”
Yes, this is a dramatically different tone than the one he sang back in February 2009, just after Operation Cast Lead and in the midst of an election campaign, when he told the annual Herzliya Conference that “at the end of the day, there will be no choice but to remove the Iranian threat in Gaza.
There will be no escape from toppling the Hamas regime, which is the Iranian proxy in the Gaza Strip.”
But that was then, when he was in the opposition, when he was running for prime minister, when it was easy to mouth slogans. Reality, as one prime minister after the next has come to realize, is much more complicated when seen from the top, feeling all the pressures – but all the pressures – bearing down on the country, and having ultimate responsibility for the state’s fate.
“I think that one of the most important things in this campaign, at the diplomatic level, is that the prime minister set realistic goals, not captive to unachievable slogans that sound very nice in the public – and unfortunately, cause militancy and unrealistic expectations,” Ya’alon said at Wednesday’s press conference alongside Netanyahu.
“We set achievable goals, and we met them. As to the question of subduing or not subduing the enemy, I suggest looking a bit at our history,” he said.
Ya’alon pointed out that the Six Day War, which was universally recognized as a brilliant military victory, was followed shortly thereafter by the threeyear War of Attrition. On the other hand, he pointed out, the Second Lebanon War, which was justly criticized by many, gave birth to eight years of deterrence – and counting.
Ya’alon said that in the beginning, Israel defined its goal as bringing Hamas to a cease-fire on Israel’s terms – and this is what happened. “That is the essence of subduing the enemy in these types of rounds,” he said. “ I hope that will be translated into deterrence; if not, we will know what to do.”
YA’ALON’S WORDS reflect the unpleasant reality that for the last 47 years, Israel has had to live with a reality where there is no “knock-out punch,” where there is no decisive battle that solves everything, forever.
Critics of Netanyahu call this a realization of the “limits of force.”
But as Yoaz Hendel, a former spokesman for Netanyahu, pointed out this week, there are also “limits of peace.”
Just as there is no decisive battle to settle everything, so too there is no overarching peace initiative that will resolve the conflict “once and for all.”
Since the cease-fire, Israel’s Center- Left has been arguing that the Gaza operation just proves the necessity of a wider, comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, an argument Labor head Isaac Herzog is repeating over and over, along with the claim that had Netanyahu only done more to make peace with the Palestinian Authority, the whole Gaza mess could have been avoided altogether.
Army Radio presenter Tali Lipkin- Shahak framed the premise a bit differently Tuesday morning, in the following question she posed to her guests: What was the use of this major confrontation, if all that came out of it was a cease-fire that left much of the country with a sour aftertaste? The question was based on a faulty premise: that Israel chose this confrontation, not that it was forced upon it first by unceasing rocket fire from Gaza, and then by Hamas’ rejection of previous cease-fire offers. The question also reveals another premise: that everything is in our hands – if Israel chooses, there is war; if it would only make another choice, there would be peace.
It is almost as though there is not another side out there which also makes choices, and goes a long way to determining what will be. If Israel does not want war, but the other side does, there will be war. If Israel wants peace, but the other side is not willing to make the same types of “historic compromises” demanded of the Jewish state, or is making demands that no Israeli government could agree to, then there will be no peace.
We spend so much time debating among ourselves that we create an artificial reality, whereby if we would just do this or that, reality would bend like butter to our will. But Israel is not an omnipotent actor in the region; everything is not in our hands. There is another side, another actor.
You can try to woo the Palestinians with offers of peace, or you can try to pound them into submission. But either way, they too have a mind and will of their own, and make choices that also shape the reality.
Those who believe the Gaza operation shows that all that is really needed is to make peace with the PA, are living no less a fantasy than those who think that with one magic blow, Hamas can be toppled. Because what if the only terms for peace that the Palestinians can live with are those that endanger Israeli security? Netanyahu has said on a couple of occasions during Operation Protective Edge that a new diplomatic horizon has presented itself, as a result of the earth-shaking changes in the region.
He has not, however, spelled it out.
Yet somewhere between total war – which is undesirable; and total peace – which since the Oslo Accords in 1992 has proven unattainable, and which will be even more difficult now following the Gaza fighting -- there must be a middle ground. Perhaps that middle ground will emerge when and if Netanyahu unveils this “new diplomatic horizon.”