If there is a lesson to be learned from Operation Pillar of Defense, it's that the Israel Defense Forces has gone back to preferring air strikes to ground operations and has tacked on a preference for surprise over preparedness. If such operations are kept to a few days and the home front suffers little, that's a military achievement that saves soldiers' lives.
But politically it's the opposite: Israel doesn't gain time but borrows it at an exorbitant rate, because down the road is a world ever more hostile to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies. The strike that launched Pillar of Defense was meant to behead Hamas. The organization's military commander, Ahmed Jabari, was targeted at a good time, when he wasn't surrounded by civilians. Israel also could have targeted any one of four or five other Hamas leaders. Just a few minutes after Jabari was killed, Hamas and Islamic Jihad's strategic arm, their Fajr missiles, were hit.
The Israel Air Force has a unique skill in planning (based on intelligence, combat doctrine and training ) and implementing its plans in a few hours, sometimes in less than an hour. This happens from the moment a ministerial decision is made and sent down the short chain of command from the chief of staff to the IAF commander to IAF operations to the squadrons. The rest of the military machine is too ponderous to take advantage of brief windows of opportunity.
Surprise requires disconnecting the operation from background noise that might reveal it. It must therefore not follow a major terrorist act, after which everyone expects an Israeli response and the other side gets ready.
Such a disconnect has its price in terms of public relations - the difficulty of persuading Israelis and the world of the justice of attacking leaders and weapons without a clear catalyst; that is, a recent attack on Israel. Another trait of the surprise air attack is delaying all preparations for ground operations to the next phase of battle. You can't completely conceal the calling up of reserves, the moving around of armored vehicles and the opening of emergency stores. The enemy notices these preparations, so it's better that the enemy errs in complacently interpreting their absence.
In building up a military force, the tough budget decisions, the addition of Iron Dome batteries, come at the expense of other operational or logistical systems. The result is sacrificing the preparedness of reserve ground forces and damaging the flexibility and chain the IDF calls "routine, emergency, war."
What can be done before opening fire - like bringing equipment forward and polishing up training, is put off to the air strike so as not to reveal the intent. That's the main difference between the combat models of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War - three weeks to restore preparedness compared to hurried improvisation on the front. (A third model, Lebanon 1982, involves planning, initiative and choosing the timing. And failure results ).
The decision in Operation Pillar of Defense was to open with air strikes and, without attracting attention, deploy rocket-intercept batteries near IAF bases, essential infrastructure and only then population centers. The ground capability would come only after opening fire. So the shortcomings of this capability were evident. The most important thing is for the fighting to be brief, and that depends on the government's willingness to stop and for the next round to be as far in the future as possible.
The problem for Netanyahu and his ideological partners is that the world, especially the United States, has nearly had enough of them. Fewer and fewer people are left of the generation that would excuse Israel's caprices. The longer the wait until the next war, the shorter the world's patience for Israel's rejection of peace in exchange for land. No brilliant military moves will cover up this rising, irreversible trend.