In the five years since becoming prime minister for the second time, Benjamin Netanyahu has cloaked Israelis in a kind of security bubble wrap. Perhaps that is why he has remained in office even in the face of growing criticism in other areas. Echoing his campaign slogans in the 2009 election, was seen as being strong against Hamas in particular and the Arabs in general. As a storm raged around us, most of the country was calm. Israelis could continue living in denial.
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Hardly anything penetrated the bubble. The lack of a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, the distress of the Gazans, the rocket threat over the entire country, the upheavals of the Arab Spring — all remained outside. Israelis railed against the high cost of living and demanded changes to education and to welfare.
The bubble burst this summer. The first stage was the abduction and murder of the three Jewish teens in the West Bank, where only considerable effort by the Palestinian Authority prevented the eruption of a third intifada. Then came the rockets and tunnels war in the Gaza Strip. Rockets were fired at Israel and there were violent incidents on all its borders, with the exception of Jordan in the east. On Wednesday Syrian opposition groups captured the Quneitra border crossing from the Syrian army, and two Israelis were wounded by errant cross-border fire.
Soon taxpayers will be asked to foot the bill for the Gaza war, paying a heavy price. Israelis who had hoped that social issues would come to the fore of the national agenda, in the wake of the 2011 protests, are likely to be sorely disappointed.
Netanyahu is already paying in the popularity polls for the lack of a decisive military victory in Gaza, with a sharp decline in his public support. In a press conference Wednesday evening summing up the war he admitted, with uncharacteristic candor, the limitations of Israel’s great military power.
The war against Hamas reflected the type of operations the Israel Defense Forces now faces — asymmetric wars against terrorist and guerrilla organizations that attack Israel’s home front while hiding within and behind their own civilian populations.
Israel paid a heavy price in Gaza — 64 troops killed — in exchange for a limited military achievement, the destruction of most of Hamas’ attack tunnels. A larger achievement, in the form of reoccupying the Strip and toppling the Hamas government — would probably have cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers, a price the Israeli public might deem intolerable. It’s not clear how it would handle assuming responsibility for the lives of 1.8 million Gazans or how long it would take to eliminate all the terror networks in the Strip.
The war ended in what may best be described as a draw, despite both sides’ intensive propaganda efforts, one that exposed faults in the IDF’s performance as well as a number of political issues. The army’s original plans were changed at the last minute, shifting to a ground operation to destroy all the tunnels it knew about along the border fence without advancing more than two or three kilometers into the Strip. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz did not want a major ground incursion. Instead, they approved the destruction of the tunnels: A tactical goal was declared a strategic goal.
The methods for finding and destroying the tunnels were improvised on the fly. The IDF discovered, for example, that aerial strikes on the tunnel shafts ahead of the ground invasion caused the ground troops to spend two or three more days searching for the tunnels’ layouts.
During the fighting and more so afterward, the IDF boasted tactical intelligence achievements. The forces had more accurate intelligence than before about the enemy’s deployment and the tunnels. But the information was not submitted to the cabinet and some ministers complained they were not briefed on the enormity of the threat. It was also clear that the intelligence agencies had not fully parsed out Hamas’ intentions. Israel did not understand in time that Hamas was prepared for a major operation, aimed at ending the blockade on the Strip, and made optimistic assessments about the speed with which Hamas would break under the military pressure.
The biggest diplomatic problem was the tension in Israel’s relations with the United States. Much has been written about the 36-hour suspension of commercial flights from the United States to Israel, but the deliberate delay during the war in American arms deliveries, including Hellfire missiles, was much worse. It was a clear message from Washington to Jerusalem, one that also hinted at how the Obama administration might respond to an uncoordinated Israeli attack on Iran. Israel reached the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement with little help from or coordination with the United States.
The war exposed gaps between various branches of the Israeli military. For the past decade the Israel Air Force and Military Intelligence has benefited from significant spending, but the training and equipment budgets of the ground forces have been cut. As a result, the army is better prepared to face conventional armored Syrian or Egyptian divisions than to engage guerillas entrenched underground and armed to the teeth with rockets.
It was proved yet again in Gaza that even after massive air strikes it takes a long time to quash the enemy’s will to fight.
The Israeli public, which showed understanding for the loss of soldiers who died destroying the tunnels, would presumably have started to ask questions had there been hundreds of military funerals. The top brass predicted this in its presentation to the cabinet on the option of reoccupying the entire Gaza Strip.
Other factors to be considered are the media’s influence and the somewhat hysterical debate in Israeli social networks. The mainstream media outlets responded to the war largely with a burst of patriotism and support for the soldiers. But as the fighting continued the “hard questions” began. Every public statement by a senior defense figure came under scrutiny. Gantz was slammed over his “anemones speech,” which was criticized no less for its excessive lyricism than for its bad timing. Ya’alon was castigated for canceling a scheduled visit to Kibbutz Nahal Oz when it was under mortar fire.
Gantz knew Hamas would end the war with victory celebrations in Gaza, regardless of its results. But he and his fellow generals seem convinced that the outcome of the war was not accurately reflected by the media and the response of the Israeli public. Like Ya’alon, Gantz still thinks there was no way to defeat Hamas without paying a high price in soldiers’ lives. But he believes the damage Hamas suffered will prevent it from initiating another confrontation for a long time (especially if an agreement is reached in Cairo to alleviate the blockade on Gaza).
If there’s one thing that really bothers Gantz, it’s the tension between the defense establishment and the residents of the communities adjoining the Gazan border. His “anemones speech” was seen as a premature call on the residents of the south to return home after the tunnels were destroyed. But nobody asked Hamas. When the talks in Cairo stalled, Hamas pounded the kibbutzim near the border with mortar shells, killing three civilians — a toddler in Nahal Oz and two adult members of Kibbutz Nirim. At this point the kibbutz members and mayors lost all patience with the cabinet and the IDF.