Netanyahu Gave Up on Defeating Hamas Terror

If Israel had applied overwhelming force against Hamas at the start of the Gaza conflict, it could have proven more merciful and briefer for both sides than the demolition derby that ensued.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, August 27, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, August 27, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

After watching the latest Islamic State's (also known as ISIS) snuff movie (‘Orange Beheaded by the New Black’), the practitioners of "smart diplomacy" may hopefully decide to opt for renewed activism. The Foley murder should hopefully act as a form of salutary shock therapy.

It is reminiscent of the hoary joke about a Brit, a Frenchman and Israeli who were captured by cannibals and as the pot boils they are offered a last wish. The Israeli requests to be kicked in the behind; when his captors oblige he gives his best Bruce Lee impersonation, and dispatches his would-be consumers. His fellow captives ask their rescuer why he had postponed the heroics to the very last moment; he replies that a kicking was needed to rouse him from passivity.

The scenario this joke describes works well for the situation in Iraq/Syria, but it does not resonate at all to Operation Protective Edge - despite the numerous ‘kicks’ from Hamas that Israel absorbed. Israel has not measured up to its apocryphal role. Instead of demolishing the jihadi cannibals it retreated to the coconut groves and pelted its assailants with standoff weaponry from above.

This is an unwelcome approach. In the bad old days, when Israel was compelled to simultaneously fight on numerous fronts, the strategy was to finish off an adversary quickly by destroying its capability to fight and neutralize the threat to the civilian rear. Once the first front had been addressed, Israel moved on to the next adversary. In the current fighting we arrived at the paradoxical situation that after fifty days of fighting, the approach of a second front in the north (signaled by missile attacks from Lebanon and Syria) were heard in the distance, but the incoming fire from Gaza remained intense; by the time of the ceasefire, Hamas was bruised but unbowed.

Even if the Israeli decision to forego a full-scale invasion of Gaza had its justifications, the invasion option was too hastily discarded and never adequately considered. Aside from desultory appearances by Brigadier General (res.) Zvika Fogel and former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter, who advocated a full-scale invasion with regime change for Gaza, the media disparaged the option as foolhardy - or worse, as a proposal motivated purely by partisan political considerations. While we are regaled daily with sob stories about the politically stifled left, the media's leftist gatekeepers effectively throttled the desire of the Israeli majority that favored war as a last resort to put Hamas permanently out of commission (a position that even Martin Indyk admitted in his recent interview with David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy).

What we got instead was a puerile series of rationalizations, epitomized by a "diplomatic source," who told NRG's Ariel Kahana that an outright Israeli victory against Hamas was unattainable, bearing in mind Hamas has twice the number of effective operatives as ISIS. The West, explained the source, estimates that it will take years and many billions to defeat ISIS, ergo subduing Hamas will involve double the effort and the sacrifice of a campaign against ISIS. At this week’s ‘post-war’ press conference, Netanyahu remarked that the U.S. has not defeated Al-Qaida - so why should Israel be expected to have vanquished Hamas?

There is something profoundly wrong with this Hamas-ISIS comparison. Does somebody take us Israelis for idiots? ISIS lords over a territory four times the size of Israel; it has heavy weaponry thanks to its weapons seizures and is awash in cash garnered from ransom payments, extortion and oil wells. In contrast the Hamas Gaza emirate occupies 360 square kilometers and is surrounded on all sides. A week earlier we were told that if the order came down, the IDF could overrun Gaza in seven days. Now a week's work had suddenly mushroomed into a herculean task that would last years.

As opposed to Ayman Al-Zawahiri and other Al-Qaida bigwigs, we knew where Hamas' leadership was holed up, but we chose not to go in and take them out because Netanyahu feared excessive casualties or a kidnapping.

The equation Hamas = ISIS cannot be invoked as a matter of convenience. If ISIS and Hamas are the same and ISIS must be combatted to the bitter end then the same must apply to Hamas. ISIS, like Hamas, can be viewed as an antidote to anarchy; it too fixes the electricity grid and dispenses justice – albeit summary sharia style.

We have been through this debate before. During the Oslo War (aka the Second Intifada) Israel pondered an invasion of the PA to put an end to Arafat's terror offensive. At that time the same voices of caution were out in force. They warned of unacceptable casualties and anarchy. It took the Seder night massacre at Netanya's Park Hotel to kick-start Operation Defensive Wall to restore security to Israel at a cost much lower than the alarmist estimate. At least on the basis of this precedent, a duplication of Defensive Wall in Gaza was called for. An application of overwhelming force could have proven more merciful and briefer for both sides than the demolition derby that ensued.

Our dovish commentariat can justly feel vindicated. Netanyahu, by opting for his limited but achievable goals, ostensibly proved that the ‘age of victories is over’, as Israel’s Channel 2 TV commentator Amnon Abramowitz had crowed. Presumably we have to reach an accommodation with either the bad cop Hamas, or the good cop Abbas, who both seek our demise. Those of us who backed Netanyahu because he promised an uncompromising fight against terror till victory can either accept Abramowitz' conclusion - or seek an alternate leader.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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