Analysis: After Cast Lead: where do we go from here?

January 22, 2009
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Prepare for more civilian casualties

Anshel Pfeffer
Israel correspondent of the JC

It is, notoriously, hard to argue with success. And that seems to be the case with Operation Cast Lead. There were minimal Israeli casualties, and its leaders enjoyed more than 80 per cent public approval ratings, reaching across the political spectrum.

The usually suspicious watchdog that is the Israeli press remained largely muzzled. On the home front, local authorities responded extremely well. Even on the diplomatic front, despite a hostile international media, Israel can claim victory, with the Europeans rushing to hold hands with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert less than 24 hours after the guns fell silent.

Nevertheless, there remains the danger of false euphoria. Despite the severe battering taken by Hamas, it has not lost its fighting capabilities, nor control of the Gaza Strip.

Triumph was a hairsbreadth away from failure, or at least widespread recrimination. A booby-trapped house killing a platoon of soldiers, Hamas ambushing and destroying a couple of tanks, a Kassam missile scoring a direct hit on a kindergarten, and the mood could have been so different.

Luck, however, favours the well-prepared. And Israel was well-prepared. The Gaza operation was meticulously planned, with new policies for civilian defence and media management as well as military procedure.

But one other decision taken in advance had deeper implications. The tactic of going into Gaza with an unprecedented degree of force, destroying every building that might be used to launch an ambush, returning massive fire on every spot from which missiles were launched, was chosen in the clear knowledge that it would lead to hundreds of civilian deaths. Many commanders admitted this behind closed doors.

This calculation was based on the realisation from the 2006 war that the Israeli public has low tolerance for its own casualties. When the number killed reaches double-digits, the public mood turns ugly very quickly.

In Gaza, it was as if the Israeli military and political leadership entered into a silent agreement with the Israeli people: “We will bring your sons home as safely as possible but this will mean the human cost for the other side will be horrendous.”

Many Israelis believe that, given Hamas’ tactics, such a policy has full moral justification. Others, who have their doubts, tend to keep quiet.

The fact is that the high civilian death toll in Gaza was not necessary. The IDF could have put its soldiers at greater risk and reduced the toll on the Palestinian side. The great majority of the Israeli public went along with its government’s policies as the fighting raged. Whether or not a debate on this policy does now begin, will perhaps indicate the future conduct of Israeli policy.

Netanyahu can keep up the tough talking

Jeff Barak
Former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post and Jewish Chronicle editor

Even though he took no part in Operation Cast Lead, Binyamin Netanyahu seems set to be its main victor. In polls taken immediately after the ceasefire began, the Likud leader had a comfortable lead over his main rivals in next month’s Knesset elections; Kadima’s Tzipi Livni and Labour head Ehud Barak.

A poll for the Channel 10 television station predicted 29 seats for the Likud, 26 for Kadima and 14 for Labour, with a clear majority in the 120-seat Knesset for the right-of-centre bloc headed by Netanyahu. Other polls showed similar results.

On the face of it, these findings are surprising because both Foreign Minister Livni and Defence Minister Barak had a “good war”.

One of Livni’s potential weaknesses when she took over the Kadima leadership (but, crucially, not the premiership) from Ehud Olmert was that she had no experience as a main player in a war-time situation.

Her role in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 was one of a frustrated bystander as Olmert steadfastly ignored her advice.

But this time around she was part of the decision-making “troika” alongside Barak and Olmert and she consistently provided the Israeli media with meaty soundbites as to the need to strike harshly at Hamas.

The IDF’s impressive performance in Operation Cast Lead, in terms of it surprising Hamas, suffering few casualties and following a carefully scripted plan, meanwhile allowed Barak to cement his mantle as “Mr Security”.

Before Operation Cast Lead, the Labour party had been floundering in the polls, thanks in no small part to Barak’s unpopularity among the Israeli electorate following his short but traumatic premiership at the turn of the millennium.

Indeed, Barak had even been reduced to sending himself up on a popular TV satirical show in the week before Operation Cast Lead, in the hope of improving his tarnished image.

It’s doubtful he’ll need to do that again in the near future and Labour’s figures have improved in the polls, thanks to the fighting in Gaza. But the best Barak can hope for, and even that seems most unlikely, is for Labour to overtake Kadima as Israel’s second-largest party. So why are the spoils of victory going to Netanyahu? First of all, in times of crisis, the Israeli electorate looks for a tough leader and Netanyahu is perceived as tough. Long before Operation Cast Lead, he called for the IDF to enter Gaza and confront Hamas. And should the ceasefire break down before the elections, Netanyahu will also be able to argue that he had advocated toppling Hamas and not stopping the fighting before this had been achieved.

During the fighting itself, Netanyahu behaved impeccably, joining the government’s hasbara effort and avoiding any temptation to make political hay out of the campaign.

Secondly, Livni had hoped to fight an election campaign centred on the issue of corruption, in which she could place herself as Ms Clean and differentiate herself from Netanyahu in a positive manner. But with the echoes of the guns and Kassams still ringing in Israeli ears, this election, like that in 1996, which Netanyahu also won, will focus on the war against terror and Hamas.

Our brutal methods do damage to our future

Menachem Klein
Professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv

At the opening of the Gaza war, Israeli ministers put forward three goals: to abolish the Hamas regime or at least destroy its ability to function; to destroy its very will to attack Israel with rockets; and to create a “new security order”.

The first goal was unachievable, despite the claims of Binyamin Netanyahu, the hawkish Israeli opposition leader, that it could have been reached. Israel, together with Britain and France, failed to abolish the regime of Gamel Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1956, failed to change the regime in Lebanon in 1982, and failed to bring down Hamas through the closure on Gaza Strip imposed since the 2006 elections. Now, as the war ends, Hamas is still there despite losing fighters in this conflict. The great number of civilian casualties and the massive infrastructure destruction by Israel only helps Hamas in winning over Palestinian hearts and minds.

No matter how far the most powerful side goes in an asymmetric conflict, the underdog can show its mere survival as a victory and turn civilian anger towards the brutal aggressive side.

The second goal was counterproductive and immoral. Managing a disproportional punishment campaign that ends with killing 100 Palestinians — half of them innocent civilians —for every Israeli fatality does not amount to a policy. Of course, Israel has the right to protect itself against the rocket terror of Hamas. But the right to react does not give carte blanche for any type of retaliation.

The counter-productivity of this method has been shown by the worldwide anti-Israel demonstrations and the political damage to Israel’s foreign relations with Muslim partners such as Turkey and Qatar. Israel’s behaviour even pushed the US State Department to cooperate with European leaders to impose a ceasefire against the usual White House policy of following Jerusalem.

Moreover, the need to help the people of Gaza and to reconstruct their infrastructure will end the closure that Israel — with the help of the US — had imposed on Gaza since Hamas came to power. Some of the funds for Gaza projects will even have to be channelled through Hamas.

The third goal was and remains unclear. Israel could have achieved a new security order by agreeing with Hamas on the extension of the ceasefire and opening Gaza crossings, countered by Hamas stopping its launching of rockets. These are the outlines of the current ceasefire.

Israeli society has paid not only the price of dead and wounded people but also in further developing its bunker mentality. And it has become almost indifferent to the unjustified suffering it imposed on people with whom it will have to co-exist.

A more demanding America but a more compromising Hamas are set to emerge

Sir Lawrence Freedman
Professor of War Studies at King’s College London

Did Operation Cast Lead achieve anything? There is no evidence that Hamas has been politically undermined and the movement denies that it was badly hurt militarily. In any future power struggle with Fatah in the West Bank, Palestinian anger may strengthen its position.

Nonetheless, its leadership is bound to reconsider its strategy. The starting point will be that instead of putting pressure on Israel to make concessions on the border crossings, as was intended, ending the ceasefire and the rocket attacks had the opposite effect, provoking a ferocious Israeli retaliation.

Other than making a symbolic point about resisting Israel, it is hard to see what strategic value these rockets now have for Hamas. They provoke rather than coerce.

Nor were they able to make the IDF suffer by drawing it into their urban strongholds. Israel’s ground assault was cautious, thereby avoiding the level of casualties suffered against Hizbollah. While this meant that the bulk of Hamas’s fighting strength was left intact, boasts about turning Gaza into a ‘graveyard’ for the IDF were left sounding hollow, and they had no obvious military means of forcing the Israelis to leave Gaza.

The most striking aspect of the campaign from Hamas’s perspective was its political isolation. Iran and Hizbollah refrained from joining in while Egypt and Jordan refused to absolve Hamas from blame.

Politically this leaves Hamas with two worries: first, that their own people will also start to blame them; and second, that their links with Iran are harmful because they add to the suspicion with which they are viewed by Arab governments.

Logic is not always followed in the Middle East, but in this case it would argue for Hamas to develop a strategy that is more politically subtle and less dependent on military gestures. Last November, an Egyptian attempt to broker a deal to form a power-sharing arrangement with Fatah was snubbed. Now Hamas may have to go along.

In Israel, while there is general satisfaction that the harsh response to the rocket fire restored a degree of deterrence and the reputation of the IDF, there are more critics dismayed about a supposed missed opportunity to take Hamas apart than about the human cost of the operation. The country is now in the final stages of an election campaign, to be followed by the tedious process of coalition formation. This process rarely makes diplomacy any easier.

Israel will face intense pressure to ease the restrictions on Palestinian life and to revive the peace process. The main pressure, even if lightly applied, will come from President Obama, a man whose political career has been built on the possibility of transcending historic differences. He has already said that he will engage early and seriously with the Middle East.

No Israeli government, even with Binyamin Netanyahu at its head, can ignore a popular President at the start of what could be eight years in office. There are a range of ideas circulating around Washington about broader peace deals involving the whole Arab world as well as specific ideas on a two-state solution. The current government has expressed interest while avoiding being specific on hard choices. The recent round of fighting has left Hamas with more questions on its military strategy but will not allow Israel to avoid difficult questions on its political strategy.

The pressure must be kept on Hamas

Emanuele Ottolenghi
Director of the Transatlantic Institute

From the perspective of history, Operation Cast Lead no doubt will be seen as a minor tiff in the broader regional showdown pitching Iran and its ideological proxies against pro-Western governments. Presently, moved by images of human suffering, Western leaders and pundits mistook a sideshow for the real story.

Breaking the truce was more likely a Hamas decision than Tehran’s. But Hamas’ Iranian puppet masters reaped some benefit — at the very least because they enjoyed a month of quiet on the nuclear dossier while Western publics were beating their chests on Gaza. Iran will now help Hamas regroup to fight another day.

The background noise meant, most of all, that Israel could only go so far. Regardless, Israel’s foray into Gaza was a resounding success.

Militarily, Israel inflicted significant losses to Hamas’ fighters and arsenals. Rebuilding Hamas’ military stockpiles will take time — and if an effective international mechanism is put into place to fight the smuggling, a diplomatic success will only cement the achievements in the field.

From a security standpoint, Israel also restored its deterrence in the south — by the own admission of Hamas leaders in Damascus, they never expected Israel’s response to be so hard and painful. Before Hamas launches the next round it will consider its likely consequences — for the sake of its own rule in Gaza and of its own citizens, on whose support to some extent it depends to remain in power.

This does not mean that Israel’s military success can now pave the way to diplomacy. The essence of Hamas’ worldview bars any possible dialogue with Israel above and beyond a short-term truce, one that Hamas will always use to strengthen itself. Israel on the other hand cannot finish off Hamas — Israel cannot do to Gaza what Russia could do to Grozny. The moral and political price of such an action means that Israel must now settle for a new fragile balance, which a decision by Hamas to launch a new barrage of rockets would terminate.

To limit Hamas’ ability to shatter this calm, the short term gains of Operation Cast Lead must be translated into long term political achievements. Israel thus needs the international community to ensure — beyond rhetorical niceties — that two objectives are met.

First, Hamas cannot be allowed to benefit politically from international efforts to rehabilitate Gaza. And secondly, Hamas cannot be allowed to rebuild, and even improve, its military capabilities.
Whether effective arrangements can be put in place in coming days and weeks towards these objectives is yet to be seen. Much depends on Egypt’s willingness to step up to the challenge — not a likely development.

It should be clear to all that a failure on either account will, sooner or later, lead to a new round of violence between Israel and Hamas.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010