Israel 2012: Tactical brilliance, strategic imbecility

Into the Fray: If the current government does not have the diplomatic competence to create the conditions necessary to provide security for its citizens, it should admit it.

Iron Dome interception 370 (photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)
Iron Dome interception 370
(photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)
The ultimate test of this agreement will be a test of blood.... If it becomes clear that they [the Palestinians] cannot overcome terror, this will be a temporary accord and... we will have no choice but to abrogate it. And if there is no choice, the IDF will return to the places which it is about to leave in the upcoming months. – Yossi Beilin, on the Oslo Accords, Ma’ariv, November 26, 1993.
Is it just me or is there something dreadfully wrong – almost grotesquely absurd – with the government not only asking a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to broker a deal for it in a conflict with... the Muslim Brotherhood, but, incredibly, also to adjudicate in the case of alleged breaches?
Things can’t get any more topsy-turvy crazy than that, can they?
Mad Hatters and March Hares
The dementia that has seized the policy- making process in Israel, and the mindless prattle of the political pundits that accompanies it, has become so pervasive that it is increasingly difficult to grasp.
Indeed, were the characters from Lewis Caroll’s fantasy Wonderland to tumble down a rabbit hole into Israel, they would be likely to find the events here so nonsensical and far-fetched, that they would make the Mad Hatter’s head spin with bewilderment, and the eyes of the March Hare glaze over with disbelief.
True, Israel has made impressive – indeed in many respects, unprecedented – advances over the years. In many – probably most – areas it is on the cutting- edge of human endeavor. In terms of accomplishment in science and technology, in medicine and agriculture, IT and genetics its record of performance is virtually unsurpassed – especially if its minuscule size and short history are taken into account.
Yet this impressive accumulation of achievement has done little to secure Israel from existential threats to its political and physical survival.
For the past few decades – arguably from 1977, but inarguably from 1993 – successive governments have led the country into increasingly perilous predicaments, which are inexorably bringing its long-term durability into serious question.
For this, leaders have been showered with international acclaim, and some even with a Nobel Peace Prize.
There is good reason for the poor Hatter’s head to spin and the luckless Hare’s eyes to glaze.
Googling the right to exist
To get an indication of just how acceptable it has become to debate Israel’s very right to exist, try the following: Choose the name of any county, and run a Google search to determine how many sites on the Web refer to its “right to exist.” The results are stunning and revealing.
A search I conducted hours before submission of this column yielded the following results: Only one site deals with Somalia’s “right to exist,” while three deal with Mexico’s. A search for “Greece’s right to exist” produced 171 hits. “Sweden’s right to exists” came up with 183 hits, and Syria’s 1,700. Troubled Lebanon, torn by ethnic conflict and internecine violence, came up with 25,400 sites – which sounds rather a lot until you come to Israel.
For when the “right to exist” of the Jewish state is googled – the only genuinely democratic state in the region, the only state that practices religious tolerance and societal pluralism, the only state that eschews gender apartheid and gay persecution – a staggering 6,780,000 hits are obtained.
It is difficult to imagine any starker and more compelling evidence of just how legitimate it has become to discuss, and by implication, question, Israel’s legitimacy.
Concessions counterproductive This underscores not only how futile Israel’s policy of territorial concession and political appeasement has been, but also how counterproductive it has proved.
Time and time again, it has been irrefutably shown that that no matter what Israel does – or refrains from doing – harsh international condemnation persists unabated.
To no avail, Israel has:
• evacuated the Sinai peninsula;
• relinquished its oil resources and forgone its strategic depth:
• allowed armed militias to deploy adjacent to its capital and within mortar range of its parliament;
• razed Jewish towns and villages in Gaza;
• uprooted Jewish graveyards; and
• laid waste settlements in northern Samaria.
However, rather than elicit any gesture of goodwill or reciprocity, each concession has merely caused the other side to ratchet up its demands. Every concession made merely created the expectation of yet another one; every withdrawal, the clamor for further retreat.
Yet despite the accumulated weight of indisputable evidence, no elected leader has shown real awareness of the need, much less the will, to terminate this self-defeating – and self-destructive – downward spiral.
Strategic deterioration
Despite dramatic techno-tactical advances, ever since Menachem Begin frittered away the strategic advantages and economic potential of Sinai in exchange for a few decades of uneasy and prickly non-belligerency with Egypt, Israel has been in strategic retreat.
For whatever the reasons, it has declined from being a nation that within six days could rout three regular Arab armies (plus reinforcements from numerous other countries), obliterate the enemy air power and armor, and seize vast tracts of lands, to one that fails – repeatedly – to silence bombardment of its civilian population by small, lightly armed irregular militias, which have no air support (or even air-defense systems), armor or navy.
In many ways, the emerging situation facing Israel today would have been inconceivable at the times when the decisions that that precipitated it were taken.
Thus it is inconceivable that Menachem Begin would have agreed to evacuate Sinai if he had envisaged that it would degenerate into a lawless noman’s land, in the grip of Islamist warlords and ruthless criminal gangs pressing up against Israel’s long southern border while an Islamist regime was ensconced in Cairo. It is inconceivable that Yitzhak Rabin would have agreed to the far-reaching concessions made in the Oslo process, had he foreseen the kind of realities they would bring about.
His final address to the Knesset, in which he conveyed his vision of the permanent solution with the Palestinians, would be dismissed as unrealistic extremism, were it adopted today by any incumbent politician.
But as the status quo deteriorated, Israel’s leaders resigned themselves to the new circumstances, and merely braced for the next deterioration – until it has become almost impossible to imagine different realities or even different trends in realities, certainly none reminiscent of pre-Oslo or pre-Camp David conditions.
After all, for most Israelis, these former realities are not even a distant memory.
For if we assume that a person’s political awareness begins to emerge at the age of 15, then about 60 percent of today’s population is too young to have any meaningful experience of pre- Oslowian conditions. In the case of pre- Camp David conditions, the figure is over 80 percent.
They were, for all intents and purposes, born into a syndrome which takes the notion of Israeli concessions and capitulation, of retreat and restraint, as an inevitable given, a natural element of the way things are meant to be.
Terrifying, tragic trajectory
It is against the backdrop of resignation and acquiescence that the terrible, tragic trajectory in which events are moving should be viewed.
The terrorist organizations have enhanced their capacities beyond all recognition. The performance of their high trajectory weaponry has increased dramatically. Originally, the range of the Palestinian rockets was barely 5 km.; and the explosive charge they carried weighed about 5 kg. Today their missiles have a range of 75 km. and a warhead of 90 kg.
If any intrepid pundit had, not too long ago, dared to predict that greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be in danger from missiles launched from Gaza, he would have been dismissed with disdain and ridicule. Yet incredibly, now that the unthinkable has occurred, rather than remove the source of threat, the government is hoping to placate it via mediation by a distinctly adversarial mediator.
There is no reason to believe that, as time goes by, the impressive development of Palestinian capabilities will not continue. Ranges will increase, war heads will be enlarged, precision improved, stockpiles augmented. More and more Israelis will be at risk.
Coordination with other groups – such as Hezbollah in the north, or Salafists in Sinai – may well be enhanced, stretching the capabilities of Israel’s anti-missile defenses beyond their capacities.
Cause for concern
It is in the context of these (and other) potential dangers that the decision to curtail Operation Pillar of Defense seems so inadequate and inappropriate. And the wording of the cease-fire agreement gives great cause for concern.
It might be possible to imagine a document that is vaguer, open to greater conflicting and fractious interpretation, riddled with greater and more numerous holes – but that would be very difficult.
The agreement gives cause for concern not only because of what it includes, but because of what it doesn’t.
In it, Israel undertakes to “stop the targeting of individuals” and agrees to the “opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas”; however, there appears to be no mention of any prohibition on the importation of weaponry into Gaza to prevent the replenishment (or enhancement) of stocks depleted or destroyed in the fighting.
It seems the Hamas and other Palestinian factions, who are allegedly party to the agreement, are free to re-arm, regroup and rebuild at will.
None of this augurs well for the South – and beyond – especially since any alleged breaches of the agreement are to be dealt with by a less-than-amicable regime in Egypt.
Danger of depopulation
Only the wildly optimistic can hold out any hope that this agreement will bring the required stability to southern Israel.
No matter how effective the Iron Dome is, people will not endure indefinitely having to scurry to shelter, to abort commercial activities and to suffer material, economic and emotional damages.
If there is no hope that such dangers will not continue to hover over their heads, they will eventually seek alternative places to live and raise their children.
Southern Israel will begin to depopulate and the Negev will be denuded of its Jewish presence, while Gaza-sourced rocket attacks on Eilat could turn the city into a ghost town.
After all, Scandinavian tourists are not the residents of Sderot.
Even if an Iron Dome battery is deployed near Eilat, it is unlikely to be a great draw for tourists – unless the plan is to attract extreme thrill-seekers, who are hardly numerous enough to provide acceptable levels of occupancy in the city’s hotels.
Israel’s capital has been shelled from Gaza. It is difficult to know what more is needed to press home that a ground operation is not only necessary, but inevitable.
The past few days have shown conclusively that Israel cannot effectively diminish Palestinian will to attack through standoff punitive action.
It can only protect its citizens by physically eliminating the Palestinian ability to attack. It can only defend its civilian population from Palestinian assaults by taking – and keeping – control of the territory from which they are launched.
Political correctness
It is unclear what the Netanyahu government is waiting for.
For Gaza to develop an effective air-defense system? Don’t dismiss the possibility.
After all, no one thought their missiles could reach Gush Dan.
Yes, of course there were political pressures to refrain from a ground assault, but leaders are elected to resist pressure, not to submit to it; to sidestep it, not to succumb to it; to divert it, not to yield to it.
If the current government does not have the diplomatic competence to create the conditions necessary to provide security for its citizens, it should admit it.
Political correctness cannot be allowed to prevent the pursuit of strategic imperatives.
Until Israel overcomes this obstacle it will continue to resemble a luxurious mansion equipped with all the modern comforts and the latest accessories – but with fundamentally flawed foundations that gravely imperil the whole structure.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.