The essence of strategy, according to British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, is to retain freedom of action while trapping your enemy in a pre-selected path. Whoever is able to keep his enemy guessing makes it difficult for him to concentrate his force, and whoever follows the expected path will face ferocious resistance.
Thus Israel failed in the Yom Kippur War and on the Gaza-bound flotilla: In both cases, the military and political leadership presumed easy victory and acted crudely. The other side anticipated how Israel would behave, prepared accordingly and neutralized the Israel Defense Forces' military advantage.
A good strategist delays confrontation until the last possible moment and leaves his opponent facing a dilemma, trying to guess intentions and aims until they are hit with a decisive blow. This is true in war and in diplomacy, and this is why statesmen usually hide their intentions. Every decision locks them in "corrals" and makes it easier for rivals to concentrate political power against them. This is why prime ministers prefer to watch ministers and the public waste their time trying to understand what it is they want.
Benjamin Netanyahu is no different than his predecessors; he delays decisions on the two central issues on his table: countering the Iranian threat and the future of the West Bank. Meanwhile, everyone is busily engaged in empty dialogue about his intentions and motives. Will he free himself from the shadow of his father and the pressures of his spouse? Is he afraid of Barack Obama and Avigdor Lieberman? Does he admire his former commander, Ehud Barak? Or, precisely the opposite, is he maneuvering the Americans and the forum of seven ministers according to his wishes?
At the start of his tenure, Netanyahu exhibited a direct and unsophisticated approach vis-a-vis the Palestinians. He stopped the Annapolis process and spoke about "economic peace." This allowed his rival, Mahmoud Abbas, to corner him as a rejectionist and frighten him with the delegitimization of Israel through the Goldstone Report and the international boycott movement. In order to extricate himself, Netanyahu had to pay by accepting the two-state solution, freezing settlements and limiting construction in East Jerusalem, as well as by cooperating with the United Nations following the flotilla incident.
Over the summer, the situation turned. The prime minister emerged from the corral, brought about the resumption of direct talks with the Palestinians and managed to cause uncertainty as to his intentions - all without conceding anything. His peace speeches in Washington, in which he referred to the "West Bank" - sacrilege of the Likud heritage - led the following question to resurface: What does Netanyahu want? A blame game with Abbas, American approval for an assault on Iran, or to be done with the occupation and the settlements?
As far as the prime minister is concerned, this is an ideal situation. His rivals at home and abroad are finding it difficult to decipher him and prepare accordingly. If he now manages to get through the issue of the settlement freeze, Netanyahu will enjoy freedom of action as relates to the Palestinians, until the deadline that was set for the negotiations.
But compared to the sophistication he has displayed on the Palestinian front, Netanyahu was caught by strategic inferiority vis-a-vis Iran. His declaration that an Iranian bomb would be a "second holocaust," an intolerable existential threat to Israel, convinced the world of his determination to attack Iran, which led to a detailed media discussion of a potential operation. This transparency enabled the Iranians to build up a military and diplomatic machine to counter this possibility, to threaten to destroy Tel Aviv if it is attacked and to present itself as a future victim to Israeli thuggery.
Under such circumstances, precisely when everyone expects an Israeli air armada over Natanz, Netanyahu must not attack. Following an anticipated path is a recipe for strategic disaster, as Liddell Hart warned.
Netanyahu must take advantage of the time-out expected in the Palestinian track to formulate a more sophisticated strategy regarding Iran, one that would leverage its weaknesses and neutralize its ability to harm Israel. The Iranians are cunning and careful, but they too have weak spots - just like Nasser and Saddam Hussein, who preceded them in challenging Israel's strategic supremacy in the region, and were defeated.
Instead of rushing toward a frontal confrontation, Israel needs an indirect approach. Finding it will be Netanyahu's essential task, the minute he manages to extricate himself from the chatter over the settlement freeze.
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