Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Who Won? Who Lost?

Everyone seems to have a definite opinion about who won the eight-day mini-war between Israel and Hamas, but those opinions cover the gamut, even among highly informed observers of the Middle East. My recent record for prognostication is not the greatest, though thankfully I resisted any temptation this election cycle to reprise a 2008 piece “Why Barack Won't Be President.” As a consequence, I find myself far more tentative than most about determining winners and losers. For one thing, we have no idea how long the ceasefire will last. At the end of the Second Lebanon War, the fact that Hezbollah was still capable of firing as many rockets on the last day of fighting as the first strongly suggested to many commentators, myself included, that Hezbollah was the victor by virtue of remaining unbowed.

Yet, the northern border has remained relatively quiet for the last six years, and Sheikh Nasrallah admitted that had he known how fierce the initial Israeli response to the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers would be, he would never have provoked Israel. Hopefully, the fate of Ahmed Jabari and several of his successors will remain similarly fresh in the memories of Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders.

Even with respect to decisions already made, we lack information vital for a full assessment. We do not know, for instance, what commitments were given by the United States or by Egypt, under American pressure, with respect to the interdiction of arms shipments to Gaza. Egypt has already intercepted one shipment of Grad missiles headed for Gaza from Libya.


(Hamas appears to have badly miscalculated the extent to which a newly ascendant Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt makes the present a propitious time to challenge Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood will not risk its hold on Egypt by letting Hamas drag it into a confrontation with Israel it does not want and cannot win, or by endangering billions of dollars of desperately-needed American and International Monetary Fund aid. Ever since jihadists operating in the Sinai turned their fire on Egyptian troops, the Muslim Brotherhood government has been more active in stopping arms smuggling from the Sinai than was the Mubarak government.)


Another unknown is whether Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu agreed to a ceasefire because of American pressure. Or was Operation Pillar of Defense from the start intended to be a limited action, the goals of which had been largely achieved by the time of the ceasefire? If so, then acquiescing to President Barack Obama’s request for restraint would only be icing on the cake from Netanyahu’s point of view – a way of earning a few much needed brownie points.


The latter possibility would seem more likely. Netanyahu’s overwhelming priority at present is Iran. A ground operation in Gaza would have served Iran’s interests by distracting the international community’s attention from its nuclear program and by potentially drawing international condemnation of Israel. Given the quality of missiles launched by Hamas on the last day of fighting, it seems fairly clear that its supply of Fajr-5 missiles is nearly exhausted, at least for the moment. The prominence of the Iranian Fajr-5s in the fighting served, however, to remind the world of how destabilizing a force Iran is, and to conjure up visions of how much more so it would be if it possessed nuclear weapons.


One more reason to think that Netanyahu did not need to be coerced into a ceasefire: He presumably had little interest in a military operation with potential for high casualties just prior to elections. The success of Iron Dome enabled Israel to avoid being dragged into a full-scale ground operation at a time not of its own choosing.


THE POSSIBLE PERCEPTION of Israel being restrained against its will by the United States is significant for another reason. Harold Rhode, a leading expert on the Muslim world and a former Defense Department analyst, argues that Iran would be emboldened by American pressure on Israel to accept a ceasefire. Such a perception would raise doubts about America’s commitment to Israel and cause the Sunni Gulf states to view America as an unreliable ally, not to be relied on for protection against a hegemonic Islamic Republic. But that all depends on whether Israel was, in fact, restrained.


And it is possible to overemphasize the importance of perceptions. “Winning has to mean something real, not just bragging to reassure oneself,” writes Barry Rubin of the GLORIA Center of Hamas.


Many commentators most despondent over Israel’s inability or unwillingness to defeat Hamas take the view that any victory for Hamas, even a psychological one, is necessarily at Israel’s expense. And similarly, that the increased prestige of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government by virtue of its central role in the ceasefire negotiations is a loss for Israel based on the axiom: my enemy’s gain is my loss.


But that zero-sum perspective may be too short-sighted. Any street cred gained by Hamas by virtue of going toe-to-toe with Israel will primarily be at the expense of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas, not Israel. And it will change little. The Palestinian Authority had no intention of challenging Hamas’ rule of Gaza, and Hamas has little present chance of taking over Yehudah and Shomron, especially as long as Israel has a security presence there. By the same token, Egypt’s gain in prestige primarily comes at the expense of Turkey’s equally hostile Islamist government and its pretentions to regional leadership.


THE PESSIMISTS’ VERDICT on Operation Pillar of Defense seems predicated on comparing an imperfect current reality to an ideal alternative. The current ceasefire can hardly be called a “victory” in the sense of providing any finality. Hamas will rearm, and it will go on preparing for an Israeli ground invasion into densely populated urban areas in which the defense has a big advantage. There will be other mini-wars sooner or later, and the initiative as to when to commence hostilities remains with Hamas.


Such an inconclusive resolution is inherently unsatisfying, especially compared to a pleasing vision of Israel using its overwhelming military power to destroy the terrorists’ arms caches and infrastructure in Gaza. But the imagined ground operation would not take place in a vacuum. International pressure against Israel to withdraw would mount every day. And even if the terrorist infrastructure were destroyed and Hamas deposed, Israel would have to once again take control of Gaza, something for which there is currently scant public support in Israel.


WHILE IT IS TOO EARLY for a full assessment of Operation Pillar of Defense, it is not too early to pass judgment on the 2005 Gaza withdrawal that made Operation Pillar of Defense inevitable. As Bret Stephens, a one-time defender of the withdrawal, wrote last week, “Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.” In 2006, 1,777 rockets were fired at Israel, as opposed to 281 during the last full year prior to withdrawal.


At the time of the withdrawal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised that Israel would strike with full force if any further rockets were fired. But that never happened. As a consequence, rockets fired at Israel became the new normal. Thus, when Israel’s patience finally ran out in December 2008, with the launch of Operation Cast Lead, it was Israel that was viewed as the aggressor for having broken the status quo.


It is doubtful that Sharon would have made good had he not been felled by a stroke. For starters, a major military operation against Gazan terrorists would have been a tacit admission that critics were right when they said that Gaza would become a terrorist haven. The desire to curry international goodwill was the major impetus for the withdrawal. And the desire not to lose that imagined goodwill would have always argued against a serious response to rocket fire at Sderot, barring a direct hit on a school or hospital.


Ironically, withdrawal ended up hurting Israel’s international standing. The newly created terrorist havens made an eventual Israeli response inevitable. The heightened sensitivity to civilian casualties – or at least those inflicted by Israel – provides the terrorists with an incentive to both provoke an Israeli attack and to maximize civilian casualties by placing arms caches and fighters in densely populated areas.


Daniel Greenfield puts the matter well: “The more precisely we try to kill terrorists, the more ingeniously the terrorists blend into the civilian population and employ human shields. The more we try not to kill civilians, the more civilians we are forced to kill. That is the equal and opposite reaction of the humanitarian formula.”


By refusing to permit the stronger side to ever prevail, the international community prevents the one outcome that might bring the violence to an end. Only because Germany and Japan were forced to unconditional surrender – at a horrific cost in civilian casualties – did they become ripe to abandon their militarism and join the ranks of the democracies. Defeat made possible cultural transformation. Nothing of the kind, however, is taking place among the Palestinians.


The international community’s hypersensitivity to civilian deaths makes it the enabler of Hamas, and ensures that for all the achievements of Operation Pillar of Defense, it will remain just another chapter in an ongoing battle.



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