In Gaza, Israel Sits Uncomfortably Between S&M and Soft Power

The choice is between quick and painful or long and weak. Either way, the people will buy what Benjamin Netanyahu sells them.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Israeli soldiers stand on Merkava tanks in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 8, 2014.
Israeli soldiers stand on Merkava tanks in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 8, 2014. Credit: AFP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The Israel Defense Forces isn’t capable of delivering the goods – at least not the offensive ones. This is the sad but necessary conclusion six days into the latest confrontation with Hamas.

Yes, the IDF is defending us, but it can’t achieve much on offense. This isn’t exclusively the fault of the military, which is operating under the premise that the politicians bear overall responsibility.

But anyone reciting that old saw “Let the IDF win” doesn’t know where he’s living. There is no practical way to give the IDF the diplomatic and legal cover it needs to exploit its full power.

Israel’s dependence on American assistance, which includes funding for the Iron Dome rocket-defense system, prevents the government from unleashing the army. (And since the state budget can’t cover Iron Dome entirely, that’s a detriment to the prime minister, defense minister and finance minister, even as they boast of the system’s success.)

The U.S. administration and Congress give Israel defensive weapons so that they won’t be forced to use offensive ones, especially not in densely populated areas. As long as Israelis are being saved from death thanks to American generosity, the Obama administration will make every effort to curb the Netanyahu government’s impulses to take to the ground.

And since a ground offensive would clearly speed up the pressure on Israel to stop the operation, the decision to launch one would basically be an invitation to exert such pressure.

Whether on the ground or in the air, an easy, quick and effective operation isn’t in the cards. The choice is between quick and painful or long and weak; between sadomasochism and soft power.

The IDF, bound by a long tradition of campaigns, avoids recommending its preferred course of action. It describes the alternatives, bows and leaves its political masters the pleasure of choosing one. The politicians will decide, the IDF will implement, and everything has its cost assigned.

Cease-fire terms identical to those that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 would radiate both backward and forward. They would portray the earlier operation as a failure, after which Hamas got stronger and forced Israel to exchange senseless punches with the group in another round. Such terms would leave room for Hamas to get even stronger.

If Israel stubbornly seeks better terms, it’s liable to prolong the irritation of its people and the suffering of Gazans, with no real achievement to show except maybe reducing Hamas’ capabilities somewhat. And that would only be temporary.

Israel finds itself, two decades after Yasser Arafat arrived in Gaza and the West Bank, hoping for the Arafatization of Hamas. israel wanted Arafat to be too weak to fight but strong enough to impose his authority on Hamas. Now, Israel wants Hamas to continue to control Gaza – to stabilize it and be sufficiently strong to impose its authority on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – but too weak to contend with the IDF. Concocting an exact mix that has so far eluded Israeli experts.

The decision makers in Jerusalem – or in Tel Aviv, since meetings are usually held near General Staff headquarters – have yet to come up with a bold or original move. Any six or eight people on the street would produce the same results. Not that this is so surprising; neither Economy Minister Naftali Bennett nor Finance Minister Yair Lapid has shown any insight exceeding conventional wisdom.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rose to prominence in politics on his persuasive abilities, will have to try very hard to portray as a major achievement the concessions Israel will have to make to Hamas – or to a truce’s broker. His old talent, honed as a marketing vice president of a furniture company that described a used sofa as “reclining unit with a pedigree,” will have to be resuscitated.

That won’t be too big a challenge for Netanyahu. Israelis buy it all. He sucks up to them and tells them how special they are.

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