September 2, 2014 - The Gaza war: on the absence of a viable Israeli strategy

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Q. The obvious opening question is, will the Gaza ceasefire hold?

A. At this point in time, barely a week after the ceasefire agreement and several weeks before talks on substantive issues are scheduled to begin in Cairo, three scenarios appear possible.

First, and worst, the ceasefire collapses within a month or so. Israel and Hamas show up in Cairo to discuss Hamas's demands for a sea and air port and Israel's demand to strip Hamas and other Gaza-based militants of their weaponry and, predictably, get nowhere. Alternatively, they don't even bother to show up because they know this is not a pragmatic agenda. (Some Israeli media reported this week that PM Netanyahu is inclined not to send negotiators to Cairo.) At this point, for whatever reason--perhaps it feels re-empowered and believes its own narrative that Israel lost, or perhaps Qatar goads it--Hamas renews rocket and mortar fire or looks the other way while Islamic Jihad does so.

A second scenario assumes that the Cairo talks are as predicted non-productive, but Hamas agrees to prolong them indefinitely and holds its fire. It has come to terms with the damage inflicted on the Gaza Strip and is deterred, at least for a year or two, from renewing the war. Extending the talks saves it face; meanwhile, it will try to regroup and rearm (not an easy task in view of Egypt's augmented siege of the Strip). Besides, immediate Israeli and Egyptian concessions regarding the Gaza passages, building materials, humanitarian aid, etc., are proving beneficial and too important to be waylaid by a renewed war. But the clock is ticking on the ceasefire.

In a third scenario Israel and Hamas, with active Fateh involvement on the ground in Gaza and in talks in Cairo and with Egyptian, US and European help, begin to put together a long-term political and economic package. It offers the Palestinian unity government renewed Israel-Palestinian two-state solution talks, agreement in principle to demilitarize the Strip and build its ports over the long term, and an undertaking to develop Gaza's economy as part of a broader Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. Israel is prepared to be forthcoming because the emerging Arab anti-Islamist coalition (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE) offers it compensation in the form of security coordination. For its part, the moderate Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas has already initiated a flurry of international diplomatic activity involving the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the Arab League and others, designed to pressure Netanyahu into returning to negotiations based on the 1967 lines.

Obviously, scenario number three is preferable. But it requires far more extensive participation by Israel, the PLO and numerous third parties than do the first two scenarios. Because it is more complex, it would appear to be less likely, though by no means impossible. Accordingly, and sadly, scenarios one and two are the more likely. If this proves to be true, the first minor dribble of mortar fire against the border kibbutzim, predictably attributed by Hamas to armed Islamists not under its control, will once again test Israel's strategy or, more precisely, lack of a strategy, for Gaza.

Q. Then who won the war?

A. We have to get used to the proposition that it's extremely difficult to "win" a war against a non-state, Islamist, guerilla/terrorist enemy in the classic sense that the enemy capitulates and the winner dictates terms. As we see again and again, when the fighting ends Hamas declares victory merely by virtue of having survived (Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah outdid Hamas by calling it a "miraculous triumph"), and cites as support for its claims "achievements" that even in the short term are of dubious validity like closing down Ben Gurion airport for a day. A reliable Palestinian poll published Tuesday indicates that an overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank believe Hamas "won" and support its military strategy against Israel. A majority would now vote for Hamas in elections.

This Palestinian majority clearly prefers to ignore two achievements cited by those Israelis who claim that Israel emerged with the upper hand: first, the huge losses in senior military personnel, ordnance and infrastructure inflicted during the war on Hamas and, to an even greater extent, on the no-less dangerous Islamic Jihad; and second, Hamas's acceptance of a ceasefire without achieving its much trumpeted objective of opening Gaza to the world with an airport, a sea port and a passage to the West Bank. Returning here to Palestinian public opinion, note that Palestinians more than others are apparently aware that Hamas's demand for ports does not reflect a genuine desire to turn Gaza into a Singapore and turn its back on armed conflict against Israel.

Overall, Israelis are far more self-critical than Palestinians and tend not to view Israel as the victor. Israel did not destroy Hamas or eliminate its leadership or even its arsenal, despite 50 days of aerial and artillery pounding. It did not achieve its stated goal of demilitarizing the Strip. It was obliged to acquiesce in the very same Palestinian Authority unity government it had rejected prior to the war. It entered the war without a viable strategy for dealing with either Hamas or the entire Palestinian issue, and it exited the war without one. It failed before the war to comprehend the strategic significance of Hamas's attack tunnels and it was unable to protect the residents of border kibbutzim. It suffered severe additional erosion of its international image. True, it was able to call upon a degree of support from a new and very important source: an anti-Islamist Arab coalition led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But it suffered from additional complications in its already problematic relations with the Obama administration.

Undoubtedly, Israel could have scored a "decisive victory" had it opted to invade and occupy the Strip. This option was clearly within the capacity of the IDF, and it may have to be revisited if Hamas restarts the war in the coming weeks. But it would cost Israel hundreds of military casualties and the Gazans many thousands, and it would leave Israel in charge of the Gaza Strip without an exit strategy--if only because it would have entered the Strip without a coherent overall Palestinian strategy.

Of course it is entirely possible, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has suggested with admirable caution, that the damage done by Israel in the Strip will be understood over time by the Hamas leadership as so severe and debilitating that the latter will opt to avoid any new conflict for years to come, much as transpired in Lebanon after the seemingly equivocal outcome of the 2006 war with Hezbollah. That would undoubtedly constitute, in retrospect, an Israeli victory. But even that desirable outcome would not reflect genuine strategic thinking on Israel's part regarding solutions to the Palestinian issue.

Q. If many Israelis are dissatisfied with the war's outcome, is some sort of official inquiry being mounted regarding mistakes and miscalculations?

A. The Knesset Foreign and Security Affairs Committee and its security-related subcommittees have already launched an investigation. While a number of serious MKs with considerable security knowhow serve on these committees, ultimately these are political forums dominated by the ruling coalition, which for obvious reasons wants to minimize criticism of the government's performance. This approach in no way corresponds with demands from the political opposition, along with some independent commentators, to appoint a high-level, apolitical, independent commission of inquiry.

The Knesset investigation will probably do a reasonable job at inquiring whether IDF intelligence adequately assessed the danger posed by Hamas attack tunnels and mortars and whether it provided the political leadership with sufficiently penetrating assessments of Hamas' leadership structure and decision-making dynamic--two areas where the lacunae were glaring. It will also ask where the IDF's capacity to initiate creative commando attacks behind enemy lines disappeared to in this war.

But will it push PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yaalon to explain why they had, and still have, no strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza beyond "quiet in return for quiet"? Will they inquire into the obvious link between this failure and the absence of a viable strategy for dealing with the Palestinian issue in general? Will they look at the sharp spike in racism and intolerance inside Israel generated by this war and the jingoist rhetoric that accompanied it--a phenomenon President Rivlin is commendably warning the public about while the rabblerousing politicians remain silent? Will they inquire to what extent Israel's punitive blockade of the unlimited entry of civilian goods into Gaza--yet another measure adopted and implemented by Netanyahu and before him Olmert without the benefit of an overall strategy--might have helped bring about Hamas' aggression?

Q. The Netanyahu government just announced that it is declaring as "state land" some 1,000 acres of West Bank territory just across the green line near the Etzion Bloc and will build a settlement there. Why now, with so much at stake in Israeli-Palestinian relations?

A. The announcement was explained as a "Zionist response" to the kidnap murder by Hamas of three students from an Etzion Bloc yeshiva last May--an incident that helped usher in the Gaza war. It is also a government response to settler circles who complained during the war that new settlement construction seemed to be frozen or lagging.

It is safe to assume that this particular settlement announcement was fully coordinated by the relevant settler-administered ministries with the prime minister himself. Accordingly, it would appear to be aimed at, on the one hand, placating the right wing of the coalition and on the other, sending a defiant message to the Palestinian leadership as it puts together a new campaign to pressure Israel regarding the 1967 lines. At the same time, by confiscating land adjacent to the green line in the Etzion Bloc area, which is perhaps the most obvious piece of territory destined to be attached to Israel as part of a final-status land swap, Netanyahu presumably seeks to mollify international critics as if by saying, "this is not a distant outpost; this is within the consensus. I'm still ready to negotiate."

Yet international criticism, from Washington, from Belgium, from Cairo, not to mention Ramallah, was vocal. The absence from Netanyahu's thinking of a viable strategy for a two-state solution cannot be masked by day-to-day improvisation and is by now obvious to all.

Q. Meanwhile, on the Golan front, another militant Islamist threat appears to be emerging?

A. That's an understatement. Not only have a variety of militant Islamist groups led by Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra taken over the key Quneitra crossing between Syria and Israel and taken some 45 Fijian UN troops hostage. Not only does a growing militant Islamist presence in the Syrian Golan pose a potential new terrorist threat to Israel. Perhaps worse, the fighting in and around the Golan demilitarized zone threatens to put an end to 40 years of UN-policed stability between Israel and Syria.

UNDOF, the UN's Golan unit, is not a combat force; it is a peacekeeping force. If shot at and its soldiers abducted, its member countries will remove their troops from harm's way. In recent months the Canadian, Japanese and German contingents already began to do so. Meanwhile, Islamist militants have taken up positions inside the no-man's land that ostensibly separates Israeli and Syrian forces, while the Syrian armed forces' military response has violated demilitarization arrangements that go back to 1974.

The militant Islamists on the Syrian Golan have no reason to honor an international ceasefire agreement entered into by the Assad regime 40 years ago. They do, however, have good reason to avoid a fight with Israel as long as they are fighting Assad and trying to consolidate power in southern Syria. So no immediate conflict with Israel is likely, even if occasionally the fighting spills across the border. But Israel--and Jordan, whose border area with Syria is also affected by the fighting--both have good reason to be concerned. So do the Druze of the Jebel Druze region on the Jordan border some 75 kms east of the Golan. Because they are considered apostates by orthodox Islam, they could be prime domestic targets of an Islamist victory in the region.

Meanwhile, in northeast Syria and northwest Iraq, the United States is increasingly coordinating international intelligence and operational aid to the forces combating the so-called Islamic State. Al-Nusra's ferociousness and Islamist devotion may pale alongside that of IS. But at some point it has to become clear that what Israel and Jordan face in southern Syria is part of the same struggle taking place in northern Syria. All the while, the vicious Assad regime cannot be considered a viable ally against militant Islam for Israel, Jordan or the US-led coalition.

Here, too, a strategy for combating militant Islam is sorely lacking. At least President Obama ("we don’t have a strategy yet") admits it.

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