Setting realistic goals in Gaza

December 31, 2008 – Jerusalem -- What are the purposes driving Israel’s campaign against the Hamas regime in Gaza? A careful reading of the relevant government statements, and of the manner in which operations have evolved so far, reveals a great degree of caution and even bitter sobriety as to what can be achieved – and what lies beyond reach, at this stage.

Much as we may want to see them gone, and despite some emotive and careless statements from Israeli politicians (and even diplomats), the sad truth is the IDF did not go into this war seeking to uproot Hamas in Gaza – or even to obliterate its capacity to make war or launch rockets. A great deal of the Hamas arsenal lies hidden well within the urban area of the City of Gaza, where any attempt to “hunt” and destroy it – from the air, or on the ground – is bound to be costly and highly destructive.

The troops are eager to go. But the political level and the high echelons of command strongly feel that they owe them a careful reckoning of what a ground campaign may entail, and what it might achieve, with none of the damaging bravado which attended the war in 2006. If this operation is aimed at coercing Hamas, not destroying it, than the choice of means should be tailored to the choice of purpose.

What, then, can be the reasonable outcome of this clash of wills? Since what Israel officially seeks – “a profound change in the security situation in the Negev” – is quite deliberately described in imprecise terms (leaving the leadership with the option of “declaring victory” at any time…), it may well be necessary to break this into three different and more specific layers:
  1. An end to the firing of rockets, regardless of what happens at the other levels. The only way to achieve this is to generate a deterrent effect, demonstrating to the Hamas leadership just how much of an act of folly it had been for them to cast aside the previous ceasefire. There may be initial signs that the message is getting through - but the extension of range to Beer Sheva shows that a full deterrent effect has yet to be achieved.
  2. A viable agreement, which would enable Israel to secure the border passages against the resumption of Iranian arms supply to Hamas. This is where the Lebanon “endgame” failed: UNSCR 1701 is honored in the breach, Hizbullah runs guns almost at will under UNIFIL’s noses, and Iran’s proxy now has three times more rockets than it had in 2006. We cannot afford to let this happen again, and hopefully, Egypt has now learned just how serious the consequences of lax policies may be (Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria and Iran targeted Cairo for an inordinate amount of abuse this time, simply because Mubarak saw fit to tell the truth – namely, that the responsibility for the present tragedy fall squarely upon Hamas). With their help, and with serious international backing, the challenge of cutting off the terror supply lines may be met successfully this time.
  3. Finally, and in close connection, there is the question of the “battle of orientations” in the Arab world. Egypt and others (including Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas!)are essentially looking for their place in a challenging modern world in cooperation with the U.S and other allies, against Iran and its allies – Syria, Hamas, Hizbullah – who seek a clear victory for the so-called “resistance”. Given the narrative which Hizbullah has been generating since the Israeli “defeat” in 2006, it is not going to be easy to prove to the world that this is not a repeat performance of Israel’s sub-optimal outcome back then. Much will depend on the specific nature of the endgame.
Endgames are indeed notoriously slippery, and one wrong move can undo a great diplomatic effort. It is at this stage that Israeli diplomats as well as Israel’s friends should hammer home the message: unless the three realist goals – no rockets, no resupply, no radical victory narrative – are met, the region may well witness even sadder sights soon.
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