Savir's Corner: The end of the war – time to talk

Just as the last one was, wars are terrible and have become fairly superfluous. Yet they can change basic concepts about national security, as happened to us in 1967, to Egypt in 1973 and hopefully now to us again in 2012.

Iron Dome battery. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Iron Dome battery.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN'S OFFICE)
Who would have believed only a month ago that within one week Hamas would have succeeded in shooting rockets at Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Rishon Lezion, that a bus would explode in Tel Aviv, that 1,500 missiles would be fired on southern Israel, and that the reaction of our government would be to restrain our military response and attacks on Gaza to airstrikes on Hamas strongholds? Indeed, Operation Pillar of Defense was a rude awakening for many Israelis and a difficult lesson about the limitations of power.
This “eight-day war” began with full consensus and hubris throughout our society, with the majority of the public backing the government’s military initiative to secure the South.
Yet the war ended with a deep break in self-perception about our power, with serious doubts and concerns replacing national hubris and a certain sense of realism replacing the illusion of omnipotence; very much the opposite of the aftermath of the Six Day War.
The national consensus at the beginning of Pillar of Defense was both a natural and traditional Israeli reaction in cases of war, and a real agreement that the government had to put an end to the ongoing rocket attacks on the South.
This consensus was further enabled by the troika’s (Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman) limited definition of the operation’s aims and by a sense of pride in the effective Israel Air Force strike against the chief of staff of Hamas, Ahmed Jabari.
Then, like in every war, one knows very little about how it ends. Warfare is not conducted in a closed laboratory of army against army, but rather is a much broader confrontation influenced by social motivation, international players, world public opinion, modern media and a multitude of unforeseen events.
It is a confrontation not just of militaries, but also between societies, with their relative ambitions and vulnerabilities. Above all, it is ugly because innocent people get killed. And indeed, it turned ugly and messy and ended in a sort of a draw, with both sides claiming victory and sensing frustration.
While the war was relatively short and not comprehensive, there are extremely important general conclusions and lessons to be learned from it. In our modern age, in which the poorest of societies can be armed with ballistic missiles and communicate on the Internet, wars have become virtually unwinnable, and surely not winnable in the way traditional wars were won – with a triumphant side and a capitulating side.
The United States is not able to bring the Taliban or al-Qaida to surrender, nor did we in Lebanon with Hezbollah or in Gaza with Hamas. Operation Defensive Shield was a clear case in point, despite the IDF being the best, biggest and most sophisticated army in the region. The operation could have continued for another month, and the outcome would have been the same or worse from our point of view.
In the equation that defines possible military victory and achievements, it is no longer merely about how much infrastructure you destroy or how much territory you conquer, but rather on the modern war scoreboard. One must also list the motivation of each population to absorb suffering, the geopolitical position in the region (in this case in relation to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey), the position of the international community (mainly the US), the world media and public opinion. Adding these scores, the results are different from just those reflected by the military balance, which in this case is a draw at best.
In many ways, Hamas came out strengthened by the “eight-day war.” Its popularity among Palestinians has increased, also in the West Bank and vis-à-vis Fatah. It is now part of a Sunni coalition in its favor, which includes Egypt, Turkey and Qatar.
Gaza has been visited, as if it were a capital, by a series of foreign ministers, including those of the Arab League. It has brought the American president to interfere with Israel and Egypt in favor of a cease-fire and against an Israeli ground offensive. It did not falter to Israel’s mighty army despite losing much of its long-and-short-range missile arsenal and some of its terrorism leadership.
Israel’s leadership, before and after our January 22 elections, must reflect these consequences and draw strategic and immediate conclusions from this latest confrontation.
Strategic Conclusions:
• The most important strategic conclusion from our point of view is related to the change in the significance of warfare in this era. Our security predicaments, therefore, will not be resolved by war, nor will our national security be strengthened by it.
• Security can be fostered by the creation of regional and international relations. The most important defense shield Hamas had during the recent confrontation was the regional coalition, headed by Egypt, that came to its defense. Israeli national security strategists need to think in terms of coalition building, both regionally and internationally.
• Societies do matter. On both sides of the confrontation, people proved to be resilient. We may get rid of part of Hamas’s leadership, but not of the popular support among Gazans for the organization they elected. Any change in relationships in the region will in the future need the legitimacy of the people, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
• Technology matters. Our military superiority remains, even with the changing nature of warfare, of utmost importance, especially in the field of high technology. The perception that the IDF can, by technological means, reach virtually any target in the region and find the best means of defense is important to our national security and deterrence. This was mostly expressed by the colossal success of the Iron Dome system, for which former defense minister Amir Peretz, hardly a defense expert, deserves much credit.
• Taking into account the growing irrelevance of warfare, the prime importance of regional and international coalitions, the great relevance of constituencies in decision-making – the main conclusion is that our future security and well-being will depend on our ability to negotiate with our neighbors and enemies, as well as with our friends in the international community, and to create coalitions of common interest. Even US security depends on coalition building, not to mention, ours.
Immediate conclusions:
• The Gaza War has proven that Barack Obama is back in town. The re-elected American president, on a first visit to Asia, was on the phone with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at least 10 times within three days, and sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo to ensure the cease-fire.
For our current government, as well as for the next one, this is the opportunity to coordinate with Washington to agree on a common strategy for Middle East peace and security. This must relate to keeping our qualitative technological edge (such as more financing for the Iron Dome), to enhancing the anti-Iran coalition with the tightening of crippling sanctions on Tehran and to a new road-map for negotiations with the PA of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). This intense Presidential involvement in the recent conflict is a function of American strategic interests to forge a pragmatic, stable coalition in the Middle East in order to counter the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and the development of nuclear arms.
Gaza (a fraction of a percentage of the total Middle East) was important, because the Palestinian- Israeli conflict is of prime importance to the region and its constituencies. Such a coalition of stability and pragmatism is also critically important to us, and therefore it’s time for Jerusalem and Washington to coordinate a broader strategy for the region, while finally giving up on the escapism from the Palestinian issue.
• It’s time to talk, as we now understand that force will not resolve very much. And the talking must be conducted with the one moderate and pragmatic leader on the Palestinian scene – Abu Mazen, who, in his regional isolation, has sought solace at the United Nations with a futile, symbolic resolution to recognize Palestine as a non-member state.
Nothing much will come out of it for the Palestinians, nor is there any danger for us in this move.
Yet our government will probably react with hysteria, looking to further weaken the moderates in Palestine, shortly after strengthening the extremists.
Instead, we should take Abu Mazen up on his offer to negotiate (with the non-UN member Palestine), as equals, for permanent status. This can happen mainly after our elections, with a coalition that can launch such negotiations. Whether we like it or not, we will have to negotiate our security, while maintaining our strength.
• In parallel to the Palestinian negotiations and the coordination with the second Obama administration, we should work on being part of a regional coalition that could include Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. As the Muslim world is basically split between relatively pragmatic Sunnis and fundamentalist Shi’a (with Tehran as its headquarters), we need to foster a rapprochement with the pragmatists, none of whom are great lovers of Zion, yet are interested in stability and in a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue.
The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan are pillars of our national security, and an improved relationship with Ankara would be instrumental in relation to Iran and the post- Assad Syria. Again, it’s about strategic policy-making and negotiations.
• This brings the regional and Palestinian peace process to the forefront. We must convince the Palestinians of our intentions, as they have to convince us. Right now there are two schools in Palestine, those who negotiated with us – Fatah and the West Bank – and those who have fought us through terror – Hamas and Gaza. The Palestinian people ask themselves who gained more through these two different approaches.
The answer to them seems clear – in Gaza, Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines and evacuated all the settlements. In the West Bank we are in control of more than 60 percent of the territory and have a presence of 300,000 settlers.
With Hamas we negotiate (which on tactical issues may be the right thing to do), with Fatah we do not. To Hamas, we release prisoners, to Fatah we do not.
This equation has to change immediately and dramatically, in our self-interest.
Just as the last one was, wars are terrible and have become fairly superfluous. Yet they can change basic concepts about national security, as happened to us in 1967, to Egypt in 1973 and hopefully now to us again in 2012.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.