Israel Has Lost the Ability to Think Strategically

Military analysis.
July 17 2014 5:12 PM

Israel’s Deadly Gambits  

The Israeli government has lost the ability to think strategically.

Israeli Army.
An Israeli cannon fires artillery shells into Gaza on July 17, 2014 near Sderot, Israel.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Israeli ground troops are moving into Gaza. From a purely tactical and short-term view, it makes sense. From a strategic and medium-to-long-term view, it’s crazy.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

The short-term outlook has a certain clarity. Hamas militants are firing rockets into Israel. There’s no dealing with Gaza’s government, since its leaders are Hamas militants.  Retaliating with air strikes doesn’t finish the job and leads to horrible errors. So, let the tanks roll.

But let’s say an invasion crushes Hamas, a feasible outcome if the Israeli army were let loose. Then what? Either the Israelis have to re-occupy Gaza, with all the burdens and dangers that entails—the cost of cleaning up and providing services, the constant danger of gunfire and worse from local rebels (whose ranks will now include the fathers, brothers, and cousins of those killed), and the everyday demoralization afflicting the oppressed and the oppressors. Or the Israelis move in, then get out, leaving a hellhole fertile for plowing by militias, including ISIS-style Islamists, far more dangerous than Hamas.

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Either way, what’s the point? In an excellent online New Yorker article, Bernard Avishai, a longtime journalist and business professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, recalls former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telling him “that he launched his 2008 Gaza operation in part to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, with whom he was advancing two-state negotiations.” The tactic didn’t work then, and it certainly wouldn’t work now, given that there are no such talks or even the prospect of any.

In the abstract, it’s shrewd to play Gaza’s radical Hamas against the West Bank’s more moderate Palestinian Authority, but at the moment, Israel is offering the latter no rewards. Abbas would like to play along with this game—he has in the past—but Israel has called off peace talks, continues expanding its settlements, and has not remotely backed away from its humiliating fences and checkpoints. In short, Israel has provided nothing that might lead Gaza residents to envy a West Banker’s life to the point of pressuring or toppling their own leaders. Or, to put it another way: Israel has done nothing that might equate the weakening of Hamas to the strengthening of Abbas.

Seeing his leverage slip away, Abbas took steps in late May to form a unity government joining the West Bank and Gaza. The idea was to co-opt and thus weaken Hamas. But Netanyahu, fearing that Hamas would exploit the arrangement to its advantage, condemned the move and shut down diplomatic forums with Abbas. Netanyahu’s fears might be valid, but by cutting Abbas off (thus making it harder for Abbas to offer his people an alternative to Hamas), he’s helping to make the worst fears come true.

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. For instance, in 2006, when Hezbollah made incursions into Israel from southern Lebanon, the entire Arab League condemned the action—an unprecedented act—and Egypt offered to host a summit where the League would consider actions. But then, Israel escalated the conflict, retaliating with massive, disproportionate air strikes, turning Hezbollah into local heroes and, more seriously, alienating the neighboring Arab states. Egypt called off the summit; the chance for a genuine strategic pivot was blown.

Now they’re blowing it again. Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north—Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements—are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has—at least for now—frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. And speaking of the beleaguered President Obama, the Iron Dome anti-missile shield, whose production he greatly accelerated, has shot down the few dozen—out of several hundred—Hamas rockets that would have exploded in Israeli cities.

As a result, Hamas’ rockets—most of which have landed in the middle of nowhere—have killed just one Israeli, while Israeli air strikes have killed more than 200 Palestinians and wounded another 1,500-plus, most of them civilians, many of them children, including the four children whose deaths while playing on the beach were captured by photographers on the scene.

Fatality ratios mean little up to a point, but a 200-to-1 ratio seems awfully disproportionate. Israeli bombs have struck 1,500 targets in Gaza so far—another remarkable fact: Who knew there were 1,500 militarily legitimate targets in that tiny, impoverished strip of land?

Instead of capitalizing on Israel’s unusually strong strategic position, Netanyahu risks squandering it—destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.

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