August 11, 2014 - New Dynamic in Gaza War

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Q. Last week, Israelis appeared to think the Gaza war was over. Now we seem to have entered a cycle of ceasefires and negotiations. Has a new dynamic emerged?

A. Yes. Roughly speaking, it breaks down as follows. Both sides are now completely dependent on Egyptian mediation: Israel willingly, because Egypt is more hostile than ever to Hamas and is strategically friendly to Israel; and Hamas unwillingly, having lost any capacity to recruit its supporters Turkey and Qatar to mediate and having accepted that the West Bank-based PLO and Palestinian Authority represent it.
Ostensibly, this represents an Israeli achievement. But Hamas retains the ability to refuse to extend a ceasefire and to go back to shooting. It does so repeatedly because it feels it has not succeeded in forcing Israel to negotiate under fire. Nor has it forced Israel, Egypt and the PLO to agree to far-reaching commitments to open the Gaza Strip to the world without Hamas first accepting heavy restrictions on its capacity to rearm.

The renewed shooting, in turn, is relatively low-level on both sides--a kind of minor war of attrition--because both sides want to avoid serious re-escalation in order to get back to negotiating. Meanwhile, Israel won't negotiate under fire and won't bend to Hamas' demands, while Hamas threatens simply not to end the war. Egypt has benefited by successfully positioning itself as the sole arbitrator. The PLO has ostensibly succeeded in repositioning itself as sole spokesperson for all Palestinians; Hamas apparently agrees to a PLO/Fateh presence in future at crossings into Israel and Egypt. How durable this PLO achievement will prove remains to be seen.

It would all be much simpler if Israel and Hamas were talking directly, say at a tent set up at one of the Gaza crossings. But Hamas refuses, and while there are prominent voices in Israel advocating that Israel at least offer Hamas direct and unconditional talks, such a gesture would alienate both Egypt and the PLO and would isolate Israel, with nothing to show in return. From Israel's standpoint, Egypt's good will is of the utmost importance. Even the Egyptian intelligence establishment, which is managing the negotiations, generally speaks only with PA/PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas's representative in Cairo, Aziz al-Ahmed, and not with the Hamas members of his delegation--so deep is Egyptian antipathy to Hamas.

Q. How does this "phony war" affect the Israeli discourse about the conflict?

A. While public support for PM Netanyahu is still high it has begun dropping as people begin to query whether his management of the war effort has actually succeeded. There is particular distress over the plight of the Israelis living in kibbutzim bordering on the Gaza Strip: most residents fled when the war broke out because they were unable to manage their lives with repeated rocket warnings of 15 seconds, no warnings at all of incoming mortar shells, and the threat posed by Gaza attack tunnels that emptied out on their doorstep. Thus far the IDF has, hopefully, eliminated the tunnel threat by at least temporarily eliminating the tunnels, but rocket and mortar threats remain until a permanent ceasefire is achieved.

In recent years these kibbutzim have prospered, with enlargement schemes bringing in new residents who are attracted by the Mediterranean/desert climate, government economic incentives and express train access to Tel Aviv. Now, in national and Zionist terms the prospect of a portion of sovereign Israel becoming unlivable due to enemy fire is absolutely intolerable. When the first 72-hour negotiating ceasefire was reached last week, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz publicly welcomed the Gaza periphery residents back to their homes; when that ceasefire collapsed he got egg on his face.

Some commentators who are dissatisfied with the current situation are proclaiming that Hamas appears to have the upper hand and that Israel's war aims were mishandled. Others are calling on the government to hit Hamas harder or admit failure. There is public dissent among government ministers who are jockeying to protect their political reputations by arguing that they were not consulted about the war effort.

All this grumbling will blow over under one of three possible scenarios. First, and most likely, a compromise will be reached in Cairo that gives Israel, Hamas and the PLO enough of their respective demands to generate a stable ceasefire. In a second scenario, the negotiated outcome will be seen by some in Israel as a capitulation to Hamas's demands, but in the course of the following months and years the resultant quiet on the border will convince more and more Israelis that in fact the damage done in Gaza created a genuine deterrent, meaning Israel "won". This second scenario draws on the eight years of quiet experienced on Israel's northern border since the end of the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah, which at the time was deemed in Israel to be a fiasco.

The third and least likely scenario posits failure to reach a ceasefire, followed by a reluctant decision by Netanyahu to conquer and reoccupy the Gaza Strip or attack so strongly that Hamas rule collapses and Israel then finds itself "stuck" with the Strip. This would satisfy Israel's right-wing hawks and might please those in the peace camp who would like to see full PLO rule in Gaza re-imposed by Israel by force. And while it would bring about a quiet Israel-Gaza border, it would also transfer the real violence between Israelis and Palestinians inside the Strip. All this, not to mention the huge losses the Israeli reoccupation campaign would generate, the far-reaching international condemnation, and the costs involved in Israel once again occupying and administering the Strip with its 1.8 million inhabitants.

Q. Assuming the first or second of these scenarios, what "victory narrative" will each side parade?

A. Israel can claim success in removing the tunnel threat and the success of Iron Dome at virtually neutralizing Hamas rockets. It avoided the abduction by Hamas of IDF troops and gained and maintained the unique and welcome support, whether explicit or implicit, of the regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, alongside most western governments. It cannot claim decisive victory and, at least in the short term, it will not be able to claim to have convincingly deterred Hamas. It is very doubtful that it will be able to claim to have "demilitarized" the Strip.

Hamas's victory narrative will include having forced two-thirds of Israelis to defend themselves (albeit very successfully) for more than a month against cheap homemade rockets, emptying the Gaza periphery of its civilian residents, and posing a serious threat of commando invasion of Israel via attack tunnels. Hamas also obliged Israel to attack the Strip on Hamas's terms, meaning inflicting heavy civilian losses in the course of targeting Hamas targets deliberately embedded among civilians. This callous tactic generated sympathy for Hamas and condemnation of Israel on the Arab "street" and in the international community and created an ongoing humanitarian emergency in Gaza that ensures continued condemnation and anger at Israel. To the extent that Israel and Egypt enable any significant steps toward "opening" Gaza (passages, ports, etc.), this will top Hamas's list of achievements.

Q. Surely the Israeli security community will also cite lessons learned from the conflict that are applicable to future wars, whether against Hamas or against the other militant Islamists on Israel's borders with Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

A. This war, following that with Hezbollah in 2006 and previous campaigns against Gaza in 2008-9 and 2012, reinforces the sense among Israeli security planners that Israel must better anticipate future conflicts with militant non-state Islamists on its borders and develop the appropriate weaponry to fight them. To do so it must draw on lessons from this latest conflict.

The most important of these lessons concerns attack tunnels dug under border fences by a resourceful Islamist non-state actor. Israel only began to appreciate the strategic significance of these tunnels when, a week into the war, Hamas tried to launch a commando attack and massacre in a border kibbutz. Destroying the tunnels with multiple explosive charges inside enemy territory worked this time, but that may not be possible in, say, Lebanon. It's clear that Israel's technological expertise now has to be applied on an accelerated timetable to develop methods to detect the tunnels from inside Israel and hopefully destroy them without invading enemy territory, too. Some military observers now advocate that Israel develop its own offensive tunnel warfare program.

Against rockets, Iron Dome proved itself beyond any doubt and in general silenced critics of the broad program aimed at intercepting incoming rockets and missiles using defensive missiles. The "Magic Wand" program to develop and deploy missile batteries to intercept longer-range attack rockets--the kind Hezbollah can fire from deep inside Lebanon all the way to the Negev--will now be accelerated. And regarding the shortest range of all, the 120 mm mortar shells that Hamas used so effectively in this war to target both civilians and soldiers near the border, better early warning and hopefully interception techniques will have to be developed.

Israeli armor made a "comeback" in this war, proving invaluable for protecting foot soldiers as they rooted out tunnel openings and Hamas fighters. More "Namer" armored personnel carriers will now replace older and more vulnerable APCs that cannot withstand direct hits from anti-tank rockets. The "windbreaker" system for protecting tanks and APCs against rockets proved itself dramatically and will undoubtedly now become an international best-seller, thereby providing revenue for developing a next generation. The same can apparently be said for the technologies deployed successfully on the ground for the first time in this war: hand-held smart-screens used by combat commanders in the battlefield to coordinate aerial and ground reconnaissance and air support and integrate battlefield intelligence, both electronic and visual; hand-launched battlefield drones for close reconnaissance; tanks equipped with ground sensors that relay coordinates to other units; etc.

While the IDF gets high marks from observers on these counts and IDF combatants on the ground get high marks for professionalism and bravery, there is criticism from some observers, including government ministers and retired security officials, of the relative lack of daring IDF outflanking maneuvers in this war--the kind the IDF is famous for, that are designed to disrupt enemy equilibrium and probe for openings for a decisive strike. The IDF responds that it could have launched massive armor attacks into the Strip heartland and conquered the entire Strip within a week or ten days--but at a huge price in losses, international condemnation and the headache of long-term occupation--had the government demanded such an operation. We also know of a single naval commando operation carried out against targets near Gaza City. But there was nothing in-between those one-time commandos and the lumbering frontal assault the IDF managed so well just across the border.

Why? Were there no more original and innovative attack plans in the IDF contingency file? Why weren't the Hamas leadership and the bulk of Hamas's fighting echelon made to pay a higher price? Why was the Air Force relied on once again for the first week of fighting when it should have been clear that it cannot decide the contest on its own? The explanation appears to lie in the absence of an effective war-fighting doctrine against a non-state guerilla enemy attacking across Israel's borders. This lacuna is paralleled only by the absence of an Israeli strategy for dealing politically with Hamas in Gaza. It's time to fill these very negative vacuums in Israeli strategic thinking.

Finally, Israel tried in this war to apply lessons derived from the devastating international impact of the UN-sponsored Goldstone report on Palestinian civilian casualties that followed the 2008-9 war. Pilots and field commanders were thoroughly briefed regarding their international legal obligations. Yet did all the IDF's attempts at forewarning civilians of attack during this war and observing the strictures of civilized combat have any effect? Undeniably, civilian targets, included designated UN safe havens, were hit this time, with devastating civilian losses. The fact that Israel's defensive measures limited its own civilian casualties to close to zero tends to be perceived internationally not as an indication of Israel's concern for civilian lives but rather as some sort of perverse Israeli double standard.

The next "Goldstone report" is on the way, and the Netanyahu government has yet to decide whether to cooperate and offer its evidence this time or boycott, as it did with Goldstone. That the international community has its own double standard when it comes to Israel's wars against non-state actors embedded amidst civilians is obvious. That this issue will be encountered again and again is also obvious. Unlike the weapons innovations outlined above, here there is little prospect for a breakthrough. Israel's only solace is that for the first time it is backed by some of its own state neighbors, beginning with Egypt.

Q. Finally, to the peace front. President Barack Obama told the NYT's Tom Friedman last week that Netanyahu is currently "too strong" in terms of public support to feel a need to make the necessary concessions for a two-state solution. Is this an accurate reading of the link between Israeli politics and peace efforts?

A. I don't think so. History shows that it is Israeli leaders who feel politically strong and ideologically committed who are prepared to make painful concessions: Begin, Rabin, and Sharon come to mind. So if Netanyahu is ever going to offer concessions, now would be precisely the time.

Unfortunately, the longer this war goes on and the murkier the outcome, the less popular Netanyahu will become. But if Obama believes that a weak Netanyahu could more easily be pressured (by whom: the Israeli public? the Obama administration?) this is also almost certainly a misreading, as the primary pressure on Netanyahu will come from his more militant settler-dominated right flank. Meanwhile, barring a dramatic, unexpected and peace-oriented complete takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority, the broader Israeli public is liable to emerge from this war with more misgivings than ever about abandoning territory to Palestinian rule.

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