Political stalemate, strategic watershed

In the conflict with Gaza, the Israelis have scored a dramatic victory with Iron Dome, helping them to embrace a new approach.

Netanyahu and Barak at Iron Dome site 300 (photo credit: GPO / Amos Ben-Gershom)
Netanyahu and Barak at Iron Dome site 300
(photo credit: GPO / Amos Ben-Gershom)
For those interested enough to dive deeper beyond the Tweets, the PR campaigns , and the moral indignation that muddies the waters of clear analysis, there are nonetheless some lessons from the most recent round in the Israel-Gaza conflict.
The first lesson, of course, is that this is, indeed, just the most recent round. The cease-fire is sure to prove inconclusive and no political impasse will break or even bend the conflict. On a diplomatic level, Hamas remains in power, continues to reject Israel’s right to exist, and retains significant –albeit not unlimited—support from within the Arab world, Turkey and Iran. Regional dynamics are unchanged. International dynamics are unchanged, with the US and other Western powers committed to unenthusiastic but consistent expressions of Israel’s right to self-defense. Israel itself remains unchanged in its approach to the Palestinian question. At the simplest level, Jerusalem is eager to restore the status quo ante: no Gaza rockets, no Israeli retaliation. Questions of a greater détente with Gaza that might ease the blockade are seldom raised, since Hamas rejectionism seems to make such considerations impossible from Jerusalem’s perspective.
If there are political notes to take, then the first point of interest is that West Bank Palestinians, although aggrieved, did not engage. This is subject to different interpretations. Some dismiss Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as irrelevant and certain to pay a price on the street. Others see a glimmer of hope in restraint from Ramallah as a signal for a genuine peace partnership with a prospective Centrist coalition in Israel. None of this is certain, but it is clear that one cannot speak of the “The Palestinians” as a monolith any more than a careful student can generalize about the broad spectrum of Israeli politics.
A second point of interest is that Egypt is still the foundation for a stable Middle East. Despite his Muslim Brotherhood associations and the anti-Western and anti-Israel sentiment of his people, President Mohammad Morsi remains a clear-headed and pragmatic statesman for Egypt. Both Hamas and Israel turned to Morsi to broker a cease-fire, and Egypt remains the sole party with influence on both combatants. Egyptian hearts and Brotherhood ideology may be with Gaza, but Morsi has thus far suppressed national emotions with sensible decisions to intercept Hamas rocket supplies as contraband. This is an enormous risk for Egypt, as it puts Morsi in direct conflict with the Arab street and with Shiite power in Hezbollah’s Lebanon and in Iran, which seek to fan the flames with open calls to rearm Gaza.
Jerusalem’s calculations on the cost/benefit of a ground offensive no doubt included careful consideration of Egypt’s dilemma, how far Cairo is from the Camp David cliff, and the impact should Morsi lose his balance.
Turkey’s reckless rhetoric, on the other hand, put Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the outside, even though the Turks and the Israelis –despite Mavi Marmara – have natural shared interests in both a stable Gaza and, of course, containment of the conflict in Syria. It is a triumph for traditional diplomacy and the inherent respect for the state system as opposed to the bluster of dynastic ideologues and the false hopes of multilateralism that Cairo is the clear winner by virtue of its brokerage commitment.
That said, there is little reason to expect significant political or diplomatic change from the current conflict. In the interim, at most we may see a greater divide between Hamas and Fatah, where the latter is determined to pursue its UN bid for Palestinian statehood, while the former wants no part of the recognition this would bestow upon Israel. In turn, Israel may at most offer a state with provisional borders, a move it had pondered even before the current round of hostilities.
Despite continued political gridlock and all appearances, however, the present conflict is nonetheless a watershed. It represents a monumental victory for Israel on a front that may prove decisive – and determine future strategic directions – if the Israelis opt to pursue it: The undeniable truth is that the Iron Dome anti-missile system exceeded all expectations. The six batteries deployed by the Israeli Air Force (it is of some note perhaps that ground forces do not operate the systems) have scored a 90 percent success rate. This is impressive not just because of the short distance and limited interception window for the Raphael systems, but further because the electronic brains of the unit can predict whether a missile is headed for a population centre or an empty field. In the latter case, the system allows it to fall and saves the ammunition –at $40,000 a shot—for the next attack.
This tactical success has yielded enormous strategic, and therefore, diplomatic potential for Israel in particular and for modern warfare in general. For Israel, the tactical success of Iron Dome may have eased popular pressure on the Israeli leadership for a ground operation in Gaza. As Iron Dome has prevented casualties on the home front, the Netanyahu government didn’t have the need to operate its reserve call-up. This saved Israel battlefield casualties, reduced the prospect of innocent civilian deaths in Gaza as a result and, therefore, ensured that Israel’s precarious diplomatic position is not further eroded.
This is just the immediate strategic benefit to Israel. Iron Dome is just the tactical piece in a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile blanket that offers Israel the potential for a complete strategic and doctrinal shift from its traditional emphasis on preemption and air power to an “active deterrent” posture that befits a more established state and superior military vexed by diplomatic isolation.
From the inception of the state in 1948 through the 1967 Six-Day-War, IDF doctrine trumpeted preemption as the means to reduce the disadvantage of the country’s small geographical size and leverage its superior air force. Israel’s defense establishment again argued for preemption in 1973 as Arab armies massed, but was overruled by a political echelon that chose passive deterrence to win diplomatic favor with the United States. The cost to absorb the first blows from Egypt and Syria was high for Israel. The scale of initial losses led the Cabinet to hint at a nuclear response that triggered an American airlift of materiel and diplomatic engagement.
The failure of “The Concept” in 1973 renewed Israel’s determination to take the battle to the enemy’s home front and still prevails in Israeli military doctrine, rooted in the national psyche.
Hence, Israel’s determination to hit Iran before it acquires nuclear weapons. Hence, Israel’s focus on F-35 fighter jets, bunker-buster bombs, aerial re-fueling capabilities, and frustrated attempts to gain Saudi or Turkish tacit approval for aerial attack routes.
Even if Israel succeeds at enormous financial cost with the prospect of heavy losses of its best pilots, the setback to Iran’s program will be short-term at best. Iranian retaliation, perhaps supported by Hezbollah – and even Hamas again – seems a realistic prospect. Diplomatic isolation is complete in this scenario.
Yet, this grim path is not inevitable. Iron Dome is also the tactical layer of a comprehensive anti-ballistic defense system that is in fact premised on the Arrow-II program. Developed in earnest after US Patriot systems provided some protection from Saddam Hussein’s SCUDs in 1991, the Arrow system is designed to counter long-range threats posed by the Shahab missiles Iran has manufactured with North Korean support to replace the older SCUD technology. “David’s Sling” is Israel’s middle-tier ABM, designed to intercept mid-range projectiles form Hezbollah. Supported by Israel’s own nuclear weapon arsenal, advanced Jericho delivery systems, and assured second-strike capabilities provided by Dolphin class submarines , Israel’s anti-ballistic systems add up to the potential for a powerful “active” deterrent. It is reasonable to consider that should Israel restructure its strategic doctrine to leverage and prioritize its impressive ABM investments that the country’s leaders could better protect the home front, reduce the imperative for preemption, and thus provide Israel with better regional and international diplomatic options as befits a more established state.
As with other Western militaries, the country could then focus on a leaner yet more elite core of personnel and materiel, as opposed to the burden of reliance on reserves. A few squadrons of F-35s configured for air defense, supported by ground forces and a navy re-positioned for equivalent roles might better prepare Israel for the threats the states now faces and in the diplomatic context in which it must maneuver.
There is no doubt that, if little else is gained by either party in the present conflict between Israel and Gaza, that the Israelis have scored a dramatic victory on the battlefield with Iron Dome. The full potential of such a victory is at hand if the country’s statesmen and civilian defense establishment can evolve the old doctrine – once so successful and now in doubt – and embrace a new approach. Present success aside, however, this is by no means assured. The IDF – trusted by the Israeli people and accountable for national security as opposed to diplomatic approval – still prefers F-35 birds in hand. The first modifications planned by the Air Force include auxiliary fuel tanks to extend the aircraft’s range.