Not ‘Cast Lead II’ but ‘Defensive Shield II’

We need to gear up for a broad operation aimed at completely destroying the terror kingdom established by Syria and Iran on our southern border.

cast lead 311 (photo credit: kobi gideon)
cast lead 311
(photo credit: kobi gideon)
Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008 brought us only limited gains. The operation was launched after Hamas actively broke the temporary cease-fire - the tahadiyeh - that had enabled a relatively quiet period on Israel’s southern border.
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Among the Israeli leadership, there was no agreement on which course of action to take. Prime minister Ehud Olmert was nearing the end of his term, and his room for political maneuvering was limited. The foreign and defense ministers – Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak respectively – led rival parties and their personal relationship was tense.
The looming elections to the 18th Knesset in February 2009 compounded mutual suspicions within this triumvirate. It was not possible to assess in advance the electoral implications of the conflict, or how public opinion would respond to a high number of casualties on the battlefront or to significant damage to the home front.
This political uncertainty made it difficult for the political echelon to formulate a bold plan. In any case, IDF chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi took a cautious position, and did not push for wide-scale military moves. The unsatisfactory results of the Second Lebanon War – which effectively ended the tenures of the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff, the deputy chief of staff and the head of northern command – hovered above our leaders, both in the government and the IDF.
During the operation in January 2009, I toured the Southern Command in my capacity as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, accompanied by several senior members of the committee. The head of Southern Command, Yoav Galant, clarified to us that, despite the fact that his own thinking differed from that of the chief of staff, he felt obligated to give us that personal view. He believed it was necessary to exploit the tactical success achieved in the operation thus far to bring about a strategic change.
He supported the expansion of the operation in order that, ultimately, the IDF would be in a position to hermetically seal the weapons smuggling routes into Gaza. Galant believed that this mission was possible without exposing IDF troops to great risk, though he stressed that accomplishing this ambitious goal would require the IDF to remain on Gaza’s border with Egypt for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, the southern commander’s position on the matter remained in the minority, and was never seriously considered by the security cabinet.
As a result, no fundamental change in the balance of power took place, even after the ceasefire was established on January 18. Yes, Israel’s deterrence against Hamas was strengthened, and in the subsequent two years, the scale of terror from Gaza to Israel declined by over 90 percent. Nevertheless, this calm was exploited by all terrorist organizations in Gaza not only to restore their operational capabilities damaged in the fighting, but also to relentlessly upgrade their projectiles.
The hundreds of tunnels running under the Gaza-Egypt border have been used to smuggle in missiles and upgraded rockets with a longer range, greater accuracy and deadlier power than the missiles used at the beginning of Operation Cast Lead. In addition to missiles, a huge amount of raw materials for manufacturing weapons, explosives, mortar shells, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles have been smuggled into Gaza. One of these anti-tank missiles was fired at a school bus near Kibbutz Sa’ad last week, an event that led to the current escalation.
As we have seen through the decades of conflict, deterrence against terrorist organizations is elusive and temporary. What we define as the enemy’s fear of the use of our might, is actually a temporary hiatus, exploited by the other party to recover from the previous round of violence, glean the appropriate lessons and prepare for a significant escalation in the next battle.
What options does our government currently have?
One possibility is to manage the conflict like we have thus far since 2009. This policy has been based on making specific responses to limited provocations by Hamas and other organizations operating out of Gaza, particularly Islamic Jihad, taking care to maintain a measured, intelligent and balanced use of force. In practice, these strikes and counter strikes do not remotely serve Israel’s long-term interests.
A second option is to launch “Cast Lead II.” Any decision to take such action must consider the diplomatic implications involved, in light of the de-legitimization campaign waged intensively against us in the wake of Cast Lead, the Goldstone Report and the Turkish flotilla incident. From the operational point of view, it’s not clear whether the benefits inherent in another operation, similar to its predecessor, justify the price. As we learned from the results of the conflict of 2008/9, in the absence of widespread and sustained damage to weapons smuggling operations, and to the capacity of the local Gazan arms industry to continue to independently produce weapons, the practical effect of such an operation dissipates in a relatively short time.
THERE IS a third option; not “Cast Lead II” but “Defensive Shield II,” a broad operation aimed at completely destroying the terror kingdom established by Syria and Iran on our southern border. Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 put an end to suicide attacks that claimed over a thousand lives in Israel’s population centers. Within a relatively short period (from March until May) the IDF took control of major Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria (Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tulkarem and Kalkilya) and smashed the widespread terrorist infrastructure that had been established there since the IDF left these areas following the Oslo Accords. Each year since 2002, there has been a sharp decline in the loss of life in Israel from terrorist activities originating in Judea and Samaria, to near zero in the last five years.
There is no escaping the third alternative. Of course, Israel should not be drawn into such an operation as a result of local escalation without careful thought and advanced planning of each detail and every possible scenario. The implications of such actions on Israel’s international standing must also be considered. American understanding for such an operation must be obtained. The significance of such an operation in terms of our relationships with Egypt and Jordan will need to taken into account; those relationships are far more sensitive than they were in past, because of the dramatic events in the Arab world. And it is necessary to coordinate the timing of any future conflict in the south with the far more important campaign to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
Since the countdown to a frontal battle against Hamas in Gaza has already begun, the government and the security establishment need to be certain that, when it comes, the timing is right and we are equipped and ready to ensure we achieve our goals.
The writer is a former Kadima minister.