As far as wars are an extension of a government’s policy, this one suggests a policy of unfocused aggression. The Israeli government slipped into it either irrationally or to undermine the previously signed Palestinian unity agreement. The stated goals seemed to have been tacked on after decisions to launch airstrikes, were unachievable from the get-go, changed mid-way through – and still remain unachievable. Given that this has been Netanyahu’s big moment to prove himself as a wartime leader, he’s so far surprised me by leading a conflict that lurched from goal to goal and was notable for seeming to be poorly managed.
With the beginning of the most-recent 72 hour cease-fire, it now seems that we’re finally entered the final phase of the conflict. With it’s double-ended approached of unilaterally withdrawing while seeking an agreement, Israel seems to be trying to navigate a thin middle road in the apparent realization that a withdrawal leaves them in the best place vis-à-vis Hamas, while a negotiated settlement is crucial in order to stop rockets and being able to stand on any claim that the month-long operation did indeed deliver a modicum of security and deterrence.
The messy truth is that, as it stands, the Israeli government has delivered neither of these for any more than a short period. Hamas and other factions still retain the capability and desire to fire rockets (one of the things this conflict has demonstrated is the limits of deterrence), and no one in the military or political establishment will commit to saying they’ve destroyed 100% of the tunnels (and wisely so), leaving residents in the south with the lurking sensation that terror lies just beyond the next bush and beneath their feet.
Then there’s the mess of IDF casualties. When Israel couldn’t stop the rockets via airstrikes it was left with raising the stakes and initiating a ground assault. They did so knowing that Hamas would have been waiting for such a move, hoping for such a move and as a result we’ve suffered something in the area of 70 dead soldiers – likely a far greater number than analysts would have estimated prior to the operation. And for the dead bodies, what do we have to show for it? Mostly, unconvincing speeches by Netanyahu that they’re heroes. It’s important that the tunnel infrastructure be destroyed, but it’s ridiculous to think that we had to send IDF soldiers into Gaza to do it. It’s doubly unconvincing when the stated goal of destroying tunnels only materialized after the ground assault began and at the end of the war we’re left with statements from Netanyahu indicating that “there’s no such thing as a 100% success rate”.
There’s also the mess involving the formerly-kidnapped-then-declared-dead soldier. The initial reports seemed to confirm what most people probably suspected was inevitable – Hamas had gotten their hands on a living soldier to hostage. But after a heavy bombardment of the area where he was taken from, his status was changed to confidently dead. I read two reports in Haaretz that raised the specter of the controversial Hannibal Directive, the military doctrine that (put simply) suggests the rules of war can be stretched in order to ensure that a soldier not be taken captive. Paired with the bombardment yesterday on Rafah (where the event occurred), and the messy narrative… well, no one else is coming out and stating conspiracy theories and I won’t either, but there are ominous gaps in the official accounts.
Let’s see, what else? There’s the timing of the withdrawal, with reports stating that Netanayhu would be making a statement on the evening of the kidnapping attempt that there would be a unilateral withdrawal… except that when the time of the presser arrived, it kinda of sounded like the end of something – there was lots of thanks and praise – and then vague statements that the operation would continue until the goals were reached. Israelis, still under the impression that there was a kidnapped soldier, felt the optics of the situation presented a backing down, which turned out not to be the case, not from the reality of the kidnapping or from Netanyahu’s actual announcement…. I mean, just a confusing mess.
There’s more messiness – Kerry’s first ceasefire attempt that seemed utterly one-sided (I can only assume there was more going on behind the scenes than the public is aware of, otherwise it’s just completely without sense), the parallel ceasefire attempts that are seemingly ongoing right now – one led by Egypt and one led by the US with Qatar. Israel has a delegation in Egypt, and basically all the main parties are snubbing the Americans (which is worth another blog post in itself), who may or may not still be working with Qatar.
In terms of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement, Israel has been making half-assed noises at promoting a demilitarized Gaza, which I assume are half-assed because it knows that standing on that particular point is a non-starter for Hamas. Hamas and Fatah seem to have included Islamic Jihad in negotiations, which will provide some legitimacy for that group (and if Israel and the West wanted to avoid lending legitimacy to Hamas, then they can’t be happy about IJ being on the ticket).
Unless the Gazan public somehow comes out against Hamas, Hamas is in a much better position than they were a month ago – and they have Israel to thank for it. Perhaps having clued in to the fact that Israel wanted to undermine Palestinian unity, Hamas and Fatah are continuing to work together – which again strengthens Hamas’ negotiating position, as well as unity between Palestinian factions.
The overall sensation is a clear lack of clear tangible victory on either side. It’s just an exhausting sensation that it was a month of stress, fear and death (and for the Gazans, utter, abject terror and misery) that will deliver nothing in the long run. With the Americans excluded from the process, the only thing pushing for an agreement that will fundamentally re-shape the realpolitik is that failing to show such a change will appear to average Israelis as a failure by Netanyahu. Barring such a big change (and that can really only refer to a demilitarization of Hamas and the Strip), look for a dissolution of Netayahu’s coalition and new elections.
Actually, given that necessity, there might need to be some compromise that does loosen the militarization of the Strip – Fatah forces returned there, maybe… I don’t know, it’s wild speculation. Guess we’ll find out in the coming days.
But even if Fatah does return to the Stripe and Hamas sees it’s military hold weakened, the group will still have come out of the conflict somewhat rehabilitated, having previously been on life support. It’s a sure bet that the border crossings, at least with Egypt, will be opened. Hamas salaries will be paid. Fishing groups will be increased. Rehabilitation money will come in.
Israelis will be left with the knowledge that Hamas rockets can reach nearly the entire country and that tunnels are still likely to exist from the Strip – and from Lebanon in the North.
Israel will hold a commission at some point to exam the mistakes of the war. At that point in time, blame for this failed campaign must be assigned – and from my perch the lion’s share must go to Netanyahu.