Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Gaza War, Days After (May 24, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

The Gaza War, Days After

Q: Who won?

A: Both Israel and Hamas declared victory following the 2 a.m. ceasefire on Friday, May 21. Neither side could point to an event or narrative that bespoke ‘decisive victory’. It is much easier, writing barely four days later, to point to specific political and military leaders who appear clearly to have gained or lost from this eleven-day mini-war.


Q: What would have been required to end this war with a victory?

A: President George H. W. Bush, Bush 41, who led much of the world in war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in February-March 1991 and liberated Kuwait from the Iraqis, describes in a memoir his disappointment that that war did not end with a “Missouri moment”. Bush, a fighter pilot in the Pacific in WWII, was referring to the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945 on board the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay, documented and filmed for posterity. In contrast, Bush’s war against Saddam ended not in a ‘Missouri moment’ but at a low-key meeting of generals in the desert. Nor did Saddam surrender or acknowledge defeat. Bush was disappointed despite his achievement.

Fast forward to May 21, 2021. The ceasefire is ‘unconditional’. It was brokered by Egyptian intelligence and backed by the Biden administration. At daylight, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar left his hiding place to accept accolades from the Gazan public. At noon, PM Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Kochavi and GSS (Shin Bet) Head Nadav Argaman made statements to the press and the public, noting the many achievements of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Both sides seemingly tried to declare victory and boasted about their achievements. But there was no Missouri moment here. It’s safe to say that both the Israeli and the Gazan publics felt a sense of bittersweet déjà vu. This was suspiciously like the denouement of previous rounds in 2009, 2012 and 2014. There is no decisive outcome. The countdown begins to the next round, which will transpire when the deterrent effect of Israel’s blows wears off in Gaza and/or when Hamas is confronted again by an unusual opportunity to demonstrate Islamist and Palestinian leadership, no matter what the cost in Palestinian lives and fortune.


Q: What leaders came out winners and losers?

A: In Gaza, Sinwar and mysterious military chief Mohammed Def could take credit for having maneuvered Hamas to a position of Palestinian leadership. Champions of Jerusalem! Still firing salvoes of rockets when the war ended! Yet the Arab world, most of which dislikes Hamas, conspicuously did not respond with praise for the Palestinian Islamists or strong condemnation of Israel.

Here only Egypt’s President a-Sisi came out a real winner when US President Biden, who had ignored him since taking office in January because of Sisi’s appalling human rights record, was obliged to recognize Egypt’s constructive role in negotiating the ceasefire. Not Qatar or the UAE from the Gulf or Erdogan’s Turkey, all of whom tried to mediate, but rather Egypt, restored to its natural centrality in the Arab world. Now Cairo plans to help rebuild the Strip’s bombed-out cities.

In Israel, Netanyahu is a winner politically and Yair Lapid a loser, if only because the conflict eroded away at Lapid’s potential anti-Netanyahu coalition. Early in the eleven-day war Naftali Bennet of Yamina declared he would not join such a coalition and Masoud Abbas of Raam suspended negotiations. The former yielded to right-jingoist pressure, the latter to Arab and Islamist pressure. When the smoke cleared, Netanyahu appeared better positioned to maneuver for new elections sometime in the summer or fall, leaving him in power in the interim. Both Abbas and particularly the hapless Bennet looked, politically, like losers.

Benny Gantz, by avoiding politics and running the Defense Ministry capably, gained political points. IDF chief Kochavi ran a capable campaign with a minimum of mistakes. But will the two succeed with their schemes for conditioning aid to Gazans on Hamas concessions like ceasing arms production and repatriating the remains of two Israeli soldiers from the 2014 war? Will Gantz and Kochavi, as they pledge, renew Israeli attacks the moment Hamas launches even an incendiary balloon? Past experience dictates skepticism.


Q: Capable campaign? Minimum of mistakes? That’s not what world opinion seems to believe . . .

A: That’s because this war began in Jerusalem, not Gaza, and spilled over to the streets of Israel’s mixed cities and then to the streets of New York, Los Angeles and London. Thanks to social media, Israel could seemingly do only wrong. Peter Beinart (embracing the Palestinian right of return), Black Lives Matter and the progressive wing of the Democratic party reinforced this impression. So did abysmally inept Israeli public diplomacy. So did, more than any other factor, thirteen years of Netanyahu’s divisive nationalist-messianic policies inside Israel and in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

On paper, Gantz and Kochavi waged a far more effective and less lethal war than the previous one, in 2014. Then, 773 civilians were killed by Israel and 5400 wounded. This time, 122 civilians were killed and 2000 wounded. Yet the IDF destroyed far more Hamas military targets this time, including tunnels. Iron Dome was ever more efficient in protecting Israeli civilians. (Full disclosure: an Iron Dome battery fired salvoes right over our house to intercept rockets from Gaza, giving me a vested interest in the success of this defensive weapon.)


Q: An Israel Channel 12 survey just gave Netanyahu his usual 30 mandates in an imaginary new election. Does that mean Israelis approve of his performance in this mini-war? Do Israelis believe he triumphed here? No mistakes on his part?

A: Thirty mandates is one-fourth of the Israeli electorate. They are Netanyahu’s diehard supporters. That same surveyfound around half of Israelis opposed to the ceasefire and half believing no one won this war: hardly an endorsement of Netanyahu’s performance. Moreover, opposition leader Yair Lapid gained support in the survey. So did Gantz. Lapid now has ten more days to try, despite those wartime defections, to cobble together an anti-Netanyahu coalition.

As to Netanyahu’s mistakes, he may have maintained coalition harmony with Gantz during wartime (when Israeli politicians traditionally circle the wagons), but three clusters of disastrously misconceived Netanyahu policies from the runup to the war stand out. One was the irrepressible drive to assert Jewish messianic nationalism in Jerusalem: most recently, during Ramadan, at the Damascus Gate, in Shaykh Jarrah, on the Temple Mount, with the ‘flag march’.

A second was Netanyahu’s unconcealed preference to deal with Hamas through Qatari bribery and to ignore Abu Mazen, the peaceful leader in Ramallah. This guaranteed that conflict would again overshadow the prospect of constructive negotiations--which Hamas resolutely rejects and Abu Mazen embraces.

A third cluster of disastrous policies was Netanyahu’s decision to ally himself with a rightist minority of American Jews, with the Evangelicals and with the Trumpists. He has been ignoring and belittling two of Israel’s traditional strategic allies on the American scene, the Democratic party and the liberal Jewish mainstream.

It’s not as if Netanyahu was not warned repeatedly by IDF intelligence and the Shin Bet of the potential disastrous consequences of all these misbegotten policies. Yes, he grasped the danger at the last minute, restrained his ultra-nationalist cheerleaders and dealt respectfully with President Biden. Nor can anyone prove that Netanyahu deliberately set this ‘Guardian of the Walls’ fire--that he ‘conspired’ with Hamas to start the war. But it’s enough to recognize that he laid the bonfire and provided the matches.

As for Netanyahu and American Jewry, note the fresh declaration of Netanyahu’s recent ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, to the effect that Israel should cultivate US Evangelicals--“the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States”--and not the liberal American Jewish majority who are “disproportionately among our critics”. Here is my response at the grand strategic level: the annals of Jewish history will never forgive Netanyahu for abetting disunity and alienation between the world’s two key Jewish communities, Israel and American Jewry.


Q: Your bottom line?

A: At the tactical level, only time will tell how effective was the damage Israel inflicted on Hamas this time around. Will the deterrent effect be as long-lasting as with Hezbollah: fifteen years ever since the 2006 Second Lebanon War? Or will we witness mass Palestinian rallies at the Gaza border fence, incendiary balloons and mortar rounds six months from now? And will Israel respond to those provocations, as currently advertised, by starting yet another Gaza war? Indeed, can Israel really enable Hamas to rebuild in Gaza without also rearming for the next round?

Then, too, are Gazans now as fed up with their militant leadership and as appalled by the damage inflicted on Gaza as Israel’s leaders confidently claim they are, with little or no supportive evidence?

All this falls under the rubric of tactical musings, not strategy. ‘Mowing the lawn’ of Gaza yet again is not a strategy. Israel has no good strategy for Gaza. It rejects, for good reasons, the strategy of reconquering and reoccupying the Strip and somehow installing a friendly regime there. The price in human lives, Israeli and Palestinian, and in global condemnation and internal Israeli divisiveness is too high. Occupation doesn’t work. Nor will anyone else take Gaza off our hands and deliver order and prosperity.

And by the way, make no mistake about Hamas. It is quintessentially militant Islamist. It launched this war to grasp leadership over Palestinians and make them more militant and more Islamist. It has no room for Israel (or Jews) in its world view. When it attacks Israel, Hamas has to be opposed with heavy force.

But Netanyahu’s broader pre-war strategic mistakes can and should be corrected by whatever government succeeds him, if and when that happens. Relations with the PLO in the West Bank, with the American Jewish community and with the liberal America of Joe Biden must be repaired. The grip of ultra-nationalist messianists on Israeli politics must be broken.

Meanwhile, Israel will continue its descent down the slippery slope of violent bi-national disaster that was so evident in Jerusalem, Lod, Jaffa and Hebron during this war.