ANALYSIS / Gaza War Brought Israel Its Quietest Year in a Decade

However, formulating an answer to rocket attacks seems to be a complex and lengthy process.

On Tuesday, the day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slipped while climbing into a sea commando's rubber dinghy, he also made several interesting statements. The media, which focused on Netanyahu's stumble and the security guard who caught him, devoted minimal attention to the prime minister's remarks at an international conference on aviation and space.

Israel, said Netanyahu, is the "most threatened country in the world." The rocket and missile barrages targeting the civilian population are "attacks that no country has faced since Britain in World War II." We are facing enemies "who aren't hiding their intentions and are arming themselves accordingly. They are attacking us physically and afterward they are also attacking our right to defend ourselves."

Netanyahu spoke via video conference to 1,000 conference-goers at the convention center near Ben-Gurion International Airport. The organizers, in consultation with the Shin Bet security service, decided the prime minister would speak in a different auditorium, on a separate floor, in front of a few dozen top officials from the defense industries. This was an effort to spare the conference attendees - many of them defense industry employees and Israel Defense Forces officers - the security checks undertaken any time Netanyahu speaks in a closed area. Even if Israel is not the most threatened country in the world, its prime minister is undoubtedly the most secured leader.

Though Israel is much stronger than its neighbors and the terror organizations they host, the enemy's response to it - first suicide attacks, and more recently massive rocket barrages - narrows the gap created by the IDF's great technological advantage. In the past, the enemy needed to occupy territory in order to obtain a military or diplomatic achievement after a war. Now, steep trajectory missiles can harm the civilian population, and be used in an attempt to force Israel into an advantageous cease-fire. Plus, missile systems can be used in an attempt to interfere with air force bases, the focus of Israel's qualitative advantage.

GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot said this week in a lecture at the University of Haifa that it is impossible both to ask the IDF to conduct a limited war and to expect it at the same time to achieve a decisive victory, as in an all-out war like the Six-Day War. A short war with few Israeli casualties and fantastic achievements? "This is an equation that doesn't add up," said the major general.

At the beginning of the decade, it seemed as though the Palestinians had found a way to erode Israel's strength, by means of suicide terrorism. However, a combination of superior intelligence, freedom of operational action in the West Bank and the building of the separation fence blocked the suicide bombers, and the tactic has not been a significant factor in the conflict since 2005. Thwarting the suicide bombers, along with the deterrence achieved by the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, brought Israel its quietest year in the territories and on the borders in about a decade.

Compared to the suicide bombers, the rockets have caused far fewer civilian casualties to date: In the 34-day-long Second Lebanon War, 4,200 rockets killed 54 people. About 20 people have been killed by the approximately 12,000 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip since January 2001. In total, the rockets have killed the same number of people as four or five suicide attacks, the toll of one murderous month at the height of the second intifada.

However, formulating an answer to the rockets seems to be a complex and lengthy process. It will have to involve a complicated combination of deterrence, threats, passive defense (from gas masks to shelters), multi-layered defense systems (the Iron Dome, Magic Wand and Arrow anti-missile programs) and some offensive activity.

The Iranian equation

The current delicate balance is liable to be disrupted by the events surrounding Iran. When Netanyahu met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, the latter said he is determined to address the Iranian threat thoroughly - and that Israel's role is not to interfere right now. It appears that the Americans believe Tehran is caught in a dilemma; this week, the Iranian foreign minister stated his country would not agree to the draft agreement that would have it send abroad 75 percent of its uranium for enrichment. The Iranians don't like the draft, but they know that refusing may bring serious sanctions. The Americans have stated that negotiations with the Iranians will be concluded by the end of the year, but it seems things will take a bit longer.

If the talks fail, Obama may manage to convince the Russians, who apparently were surprised by the existence of a secret enrichment plant near Qom, to join the sanctions initiative. China cannot be counted on. Washington, which is embroiled in intricate economic ties with Beijing, will have trouble pressuring it. A coalition, most likely including the United States, several prominent European Union countries and maybe Russia, will declare strict sanctions on oil refining and insurance and banking relations with Iran.

The situation on the Lebanese border is complicated. Despite the tremendous arsenal Hezbollah has accumulated - tens of thousands of short-range, thousands of mid-range and hundreds of long-range rockets - the group has been involved in no terror attacks since the 2006 war.

About a week ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah started taunting Israel again. Nasrallah claimed that 40,000 enemy soldiers had failed to defeat him three years ago, and that the next time, too, his organization would trounce "the seven or eight divisions" the IDF would send.

At the height of the war, there were about 9,000 IDF soldiers inside Lebanon. The threats do seem a bit hollow when one recalls that this time, too, they were made from the depths of the bunker where Nasrallah has been hiding since the war.

One of the conclusions that could be drawn from the Second Lebanon War was that the top brass did not attribute enough importance to the impact of the Katyusha threat on the home front, and to the need to eliminate that threat quickly. It appears that again, the military is placing more importance on maneuvers and ground advances, at the expense of "the chase after the fired Katyusha." This could upset Hezbollah's equilibrium and cause it many casualties.

Since the war, home-front preparedness has improved immeasurably, and the commanders' awareness also has been honed. Anyone who visits operations rooms during training maneuvers these days will see clear signage: "Four days of home front bombardments," "Eight days," and so on. The critical question in wartime, in the need to balance between ground maneuvers and hunting for launchers, is politicians' patience.

Even though Hamas is also arming itself and increasing the range of its rockets, Gaza is much less of a priority for the IDF than Lebanon. The shared interests of Israel and Hamas, both of which currently seem interested in quiet, might enable a relative truce. The north, however, is definitely liable to ignite by spring or summer.