The worst outcome of the current confrontation between Israel and Hamas might be a hasty conclusion by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that this is an opportunity to realize his ongoing dream of attacking Iran.
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Hundreds of rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, some of them advanced and long-range, have caused only minimal damage. Iron Dome has done wonders intercepting them. Israelis were tense, but got used to it. While the rest of the world is busy with other crises, Netanyahu might think this is a good time for a quick strike on Iran’s nuclear program, as soon as the talks with the six powers fail. (They’re expected to peak, or reach a nadir, in about a week.)
If that’s how Netanyahu’s mind works, then woe to Israel and woe to its prime minister. The lesson to be learned from this week’s round of violence is not a simple one, even without stopping to consider what would happen if tens of thousands of Hezbollah warheads were to join the fray. How would the Israel Defense Forces prepare for a war on multiple fronts? How would it decide how to allocate the missile defense systems, for example, to protect air force bases or population centers?
Iron Dome would not be enough. This week it seems that not only millions of Israelis but also Hamas counted on the system. Otherwise, the organization wouldn’t have risked hitting Al-Aqsa when it fired rockets at Jerusalem.
The story Israel tells itself, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, is not what Hamas members tell themselves. In Gaza, what Israel calls Operation Protective Edge looks in Gaza like part of the ancient tradition of steadfastness, sumud in Arabic. Israel, as expected, was not defeated, but neither did it defeat. Over the course of 2,000 years, the persecuted Jewish nation was encouraged when it endured various Pharaohs. Now some see it as Pharaoh, or Goliath, and judge the result in terms of survival.
In every round of violence, Israel tries to extend the lull before the next round, as though the next round were inevitable. Israel is quick to announce that it has regained its deterrence, but one test of this is the duration of the pause — which cannot be predicted. The second test is using the lull to both improve military readiness for the next round and to use diplomatic means to avoid it. Netanyahu has repeatedly failed the second part of this test.
He squandered the time and opportunity to improve his grade during the 18 months or so since Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012. He pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into the arms of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, but instead of leveraging this unnatural union of extremists and moderates to drum up maximum Palestinian support for a settlement, Netanyahu was dragged into another unnecessary round of warfare.
One problem is the double meaning of the Hebrew word matara. In a military context it means target. This week the IDF was busy creating targets – identifying, locating, feeding data into weapons systems. But in the political context, matara is purpose. The purpose of this operation is not at all clear: It’s not logical that the purpose of ending the quiet is merely to restore it afterward.
Israel’s top brass have no answer to the simple question, how will we know that we have won? From Hamas’ announcement that it has responded to the world’s pleas and stopped the rocket-fire, or from realizing that the situation has changed, for example the passage of a full day without rockets? Until then, the IDF is just marking time.
Renewing the cease-fire is more a question of Hamas’ will than its capabilities, which it can regain in between rounds of hostilities. If the organization’s military wing comes to believe its performance has improved since Operation Pillar of Defense, it will have an incentive to end the round and rearm.
Israel’s pressure on Hamas’ field command was in part a reflection of its reluctance to wipe out the organization’s political leadership. Seventeen years after the failed assassination attempt on Meshal in Amman, Netanyahu is no longer eager for revenge on the Hamas leader, who communicates with him through the media and perhaps also through indirect channels.
Focusing on Hamas’ battalion commanders and their deputies as family men and homeowners is risky from the legal perspective. It has been established that Israel is justified in striking homes that are used to store rockets and launchers, if the inhabitants are properly warned and the target is isolated. But the new practice of bombing the homes of senior Hamas figures “that are used as command and control outpost” is more dubious. Who is a “senior figure,” when in the first two days of the operation the homes of 79 such individuals were flattened? Does Hamas have so many senior figures? And what exactly is a “command and control outpost?”
The most interesting aspect of the operation so far has to do with the relationship between army and society in Israel. The limited mobilization of reserves, mainly to replace regular-army units that were reassigned to the south, shows that the chief of staff has not healed from the wounds of the three operations in Lebanon and Gaza in the past eight years.
To lend credibility to a ground operation, reserve units must be mobilized. But if these soldiers are sent to the front line, they could be hurt, and not everyone understands the purpose of the operation and agrees with it. But if they are called up and not sent into action they’ll get bored, start grumbling and their absence will be felt in the economy.
In the meantime, the IDF is treading water, hoping the cease-fire initiative comes from Gaza before a further escalation. This is a good sign – Israel is counting on the Palestinians to save it from further entanglement.