Israel’s war in Gaza: Stakes and Prospects

Israel’s continuing assault against Gaza is in many ways linked to the (extremely counter-productive) 33-day war that it maintained against Lebanon and Hizbullah in 2006. There are similarities and differences. In both cases, one of the over-arching war aims has been an attempt to “restore the credibility” of an Israeli military “deterrent” that had been badly eroded– in the minds of many Israeli leaders– since 2000, or before.
That, in a nutshell, is the meaning of the “shock and awe” phrase that’s been widely used to describe the completely disproportionate scale of Saturday’s opening salvo, which left more than 280 Gazans dead.
The 33-day war notably did not succeed in “restoring the credibility of Israel’s deterrent.” (Analysis, here.) In 2006, Ehud Barak, who is currently Israel’s Defence Minister and the head of the rapidly weakening Labour Party, had to sit on the sidelines, as he’d been replaced in both those positions by Amir Peretz (remember him?)
This time around, Barak is in the catbird seat as Defence Minister and must feel a very strong compulsion that this Israeli “war of choice” must succeed where its predecessor failed, for at least two reasons:

    1. It was Barak’s decision, when he was prime minister back in 2000, to execute a “unilateral” (that is, un-negotiated) withdrawal of all Israeli troops from areas of South Lebanon they had occupied since 1978 that in the years that followed was widely blamed by Israeli hardliners for the continuing erosion (or even, collapse) of the “credibility” of Israeli deterrence. So he has a strong personal reason to want to see it “restored.”
    2. He wrested the position of leadership of the Labour Party back from Peretz after Peretz’s inexperience in military affairs was widely blamed for the failure of the 2006 war. But Labour has continued to slide in the Israeli opinion polls. When I heard the experienced Israeli political analyst Naomi Chazan talking in Washington earlier this month, she said the then-current polling would give Labour only six seats in the 120-member Knesset, down from a current holding of 19 and considerably down from Labour’s longheld position as the decades-long ruling party in Israel. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter has an excellent piece in today’s paper, detailing the degree to which the current war effort is really “about” Ehud Barak’s electoral ambitions.

My analysis of Ehud Barak is that, while he may have considerable technical and operational smarts in the military realm, his political skills are next to zero. That applies both domestically and in diplomatic affairs. After he was elected premier in 1999, he alienated the coalition partners which are a sine qua non of governmental survival in Israel at a faster clip than, I think, any preceding Israeli prime minister. He also succeeded in organizing not one but two complete diplomatic debacles– one with the late Syrian president Hafez al-Asad, in Geneva, in May 2000, and the other with longtime PLO chief Yasser Arafat at Camp David later that year.
Today, more than ever before, strategy is about politics, rather than simply military-technical smarts. That has been amply demonstrated in recent years by the failures of the US and Israel to translate their unquestioned military-technical superiority over their respective foes into strategic gains of any lasting value. I see no reason to believe that Ehud Barak has learned this lesson– far less, that he has “suddenly”, overnight, acquired the kind of political-strategic smarts the current international environment requires.
He certainly did not have them during his previous term as prime minister. And it is extremely hard to discern, regarding the present assault against Gaza, what a successful path to an Israeli strategic ‘victory’ of any lasting value would look like.
Of course, we should not ignore the purely petulant/vengeful “expressive” function of Israel’s current outburst of anti-Palestinian violence. That alone might– were the country to be holding its elections, say, next week rather than six weeks from now– have been enough to give Barak and Labour the electoral boost he seeks… (Which is not, of course, the same as “winning” something of lasting strategic value to the Israeli people as a whole. But it could be seen as “winning” something valuable to Ehud Barak’s political ambitions, which are not small.)
* * *
Two important principles of the laws of war are that any belligerent attack be both discriminate and proportional. That is, commanders are under an obligation to discriminate between “legitimate” military targets and those that serve mainly civilian functions, and when in doubt to err on the side of assuming that targets whose real purpose is unclear are civilian, rather than military. Secondly, commanders are under an equally weighty obligation to make their attacks “proportional” to the task at hand.
Violating either of these principles is considered a “grave breach” of the laws of war, that is, a war crime.
In yesterday’s attacks, many of the targets were offices and operations bases for a civilian police force associated with the Hamas-dominated governing authority in Gaza, but not part of the Hamas-affiliated “Qassam Brigades” paramilitary force. Targeting them completely failed the test of “discrimination.” The test of “proportionality” was similarly grossly violated.
But what was Israel’s political- strategic aimin these attacks? To me, it looks very similar to the targets in Ariel Sharon’s attacks against the PA police and associated forces in Gaza and the West Bank in spring of 2002. That is, the forcible dismantling of the governing authority with which the police forces were affiliated. The rhetoric of Israel’s leaders around the attacks certainly seems to indicate that.
In 2006, the Israeli military attacked many facilities associated with the government in Lebanon, including vital roads, power plants, bridges, etc. But I don’t think it actively targeted any Lebanese police stations. At the time, it was trying to prop up Lebanon’s “official” government. This time, it most certainly looks as though it is trying to dismantle the extensive apparatus through which Hamas has tried to govern Gaza. I note that that police apparatus has also been used in the past six months to try to rein in the Palestinian hotheads who were reluctant to go along with the Hamas tahdi’eh.
Ehud Barak is trying with his attacks to make the whole of Gaza ungoverned, a completely and massively failed administration. To this extent, his assault looks very similar to Ethiopia’s 2006 assault against the somewhat moderate Islamist administration that had been slowly consolidating its grip in Somalia, or indeed to the Bush/Bremer dismantling of the entire central state system in Iraq.
Some in Israel have claimed that the goal in Gaza is not to “break” Hamas completely, but simply to “tame” it some more so it becomes ready to accede to Israel’s political demands. Given the scale of yesterday’s assault, I don’t see that.
Is part of the goal, too, to try to prepare the ground for a Fatah restoration in Gaza? Sort of similar to the stated goal in 2006, of strengthening the hand of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, against Hizbullah?
Well, it didn’t work out at all back in 2006, in Lebanon (where earlier this year, Hizbullah engaged in some “cognitive capture” of its own, with respect to Siniora, who effectively rebranded himself as a loyal Hizbullah cat’s-paw ally.)
And it is highly unlikely to work out as a winning strategy in Palestine, where Fatah has already been in considerably more internal disarray than Siniora’s “March 14” coalition ever suffered.
Here are two reasons why “dismantling the Hamas administration in Gaza” will be an unsuccessful– indeed, highly counter-productive– strategy for the Israeli people as a whole:

    1. Having a completely ungoverned chunk of land containing 1.5 million people with zero stake in a continuation of the status quo, that is tucked right into your own country’s heartland, is a recipe for longrunning disaster, not any kind of “stability.” Remember, too, the 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, the 1.2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, and the four-plus million Palestinians in Jordan. All these constituencies have already become considerably inlflamed by the scale and tragedy of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The level of their mobilization will continue to rise so long as Israel’s attacks continue. This would happen with or without Khaled Meshaal’s call, yesterday, for the launching of a :”third intifada” and the resumption of suicide/”martyrdom” operations against Israel.
    2. With this assault, the fallout has already started to spread considerably beyond the constituency of people who are Palestinians… As I noted yesterday, the fallout in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds will be enormous. It has already started, and we can confidently expect that the longer Israel’s assault is maintained the higher the regional stakes will rise.

For these reasons, it is in the interest of Israel and of all the US-backed and pro-US regimes in the region that Israel stop its military attacks as soon as possible.
But how can it climb back down the ladder of the escalation that it itself so recklessly started?
Not easy. And especially, not easy for this small band of people running this Israeli war effort, who seem to be stubborn, politically ignorant, politically ambitious, and vindictive in equal measure.
But not easy for anyone, to suddenly stop this orgy of violence dead in its tracks– more especially so, given that they have now destroyed the very policy instruments through which Hamas has been able to exert a considerable degree of control over the very restless and deprived population of Gaza.
If Olmert, Barak, and Livni want to stop the war, who will they negotiate with, to achieve this?
Has an Olmert-led government once again, as in 2006, painted itself into a completely unescapeable corner?
Remember, too, that the regional dynamics this time are far more favorable to Hamas than they were to Hizbullah in 2006. Back then, many of the pro-US regimes were (a) very scared of Hizbullah, because it was Shiite and seen mainly (if wrongly) as only an arm of Iran’s foreign policy; and (b) able to stir up some anti-Hizbullah propaganda amongst their own predominantly Sunni populations on these ground.
Well, as it happened in 2006, those sectarian “sensibilities” didn’t work nearly as well for Israel and the Bushites as they had hoped. Indeed, the longer the war and the killing dragged on, the weaker those “sectarian” arguments became.
This time, they don’t exist at all.
Also, the US’s actual power in the region is noticeably reduced from what it was in 2006.
Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni have launched the whole of the Middle East on a wild ride. Neither they nor their backers in Washington will be able to shape this outcome. The best we can hope for now is some kind of forceful political intervention from other, more neutral powers.
The Security Council’s passage, this morning, of a resolution calling for an immediate halt of all military activities is a start. But a lot more hard diplomatic work– by the four non-US permanent members and all other responsible parties– needs urgently to be done.
In particular, the Security Council needs to spell out explicitly the terms, based completely in international law and international legitimacy, for a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians and a speedy but realistic timetable of actions to bring this about.
Washington alone, under Bush or under Obama, no longer has any credibility to be the “sole” or even the “main” broker for the final-status peace that Israelis, Palestinians, and all the other peoples of the Middle East so desperately need.

18 thoughts on “Israel’s war in Gaza: Stakes and Prospects”

  1. who effectively rebranded himself as a loyal Hizbullah cat’s-paw ally.)
    Nasserallah call for massive demonstration and condemnation…..
    Nasserallah go do your 2nd mission “Al-Nassar Al-Illahi” (the Win from God) is that what all your rant about…. Palestinian and Israel and all of that….. Instead of hiding in your confort zone calling others like “Hussni Al-Khafif” to open his borders as he is not more than another Puppet in ME as Andrew Tabler precisely noted

  2. The issue is that Israel has turned Gaza into a replica of the Warsaw Ghetto, where enclosed Palestinians starve. Everything was calculated for effect: Israeli leaders made speeches of empathy when people saw through the criminal torment, designed to punish Gazans for voting against Israel’s chosen Arab candidate, President Abbas.
    I hold no brief for HAMAS, it is a group of terrorists that use the faith of others to make them into voluntary bombs. But I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people so oppressed by HAMAS and by foreign Jewish settlers who pushed them into total despair.
    Israel used to support HAMAS back in the days when the PLO popular, deemed a danger to “Greater Israel” because the world was recognizing the PLO. All Israeli peace deals to date are frauds because Israel want more than the Apartheid South Africa wanted for the blacks: Afrikaners wanted the blacks crammed into bantustans, the Israelis want all Arabs out of “Greater Israel” on a lebensraum theory that all the world’s Jews must move to Israel by 2020. According to ex-PM Sharon, unless they do, they “lose their Jewish soul.” But Diaspora Jews were not coming; instead, Israelis were leaving, after getting their degrees, for good jobs in the West. Israel, 60 years old, is still a politico-economic fetus– a work in progress of a state that can’t even settle on final borders for “Greater Israel” (expanding since 1987)– totally dependent on an American $$$ placenta that is indecently generous, given the poverty here at home. Yet so sure do the World Zionist leaders feel about their control of US Mideast policies that they refuse to come to terms with their neighbors. When JFK warned Israel not to go nuclear, Israel said that it’s none of his business, becoming the fourth greatest nuclear power in the world with the help of its ally, apartheid South Africa. Now it wants “protector” USA to destroy Iran because Tehran might be doing the same thing!!!
    Neocons duped Americans into thinking that they spoke for ALL US JEWS. But now, before their man Bush disappears, Israel wants to kill as many Palestinians as it can because it knows that only by putting them under the ground, can it offer Palestinian land to Diaspora Jews to attract them to Israel.
    The neocons and the Israeli Government together are playing with fire at the risk of American Jews. America now is speeding its way to economic depression. At the same time we are losing the neocons’ “World War IV” against the Muslim World we are going broke. Americans are not able to face blame for their foolish re-election of incompetence in 2004. So they look for scapegoats. At the same time professional “anti-defamation” hysterics are turning the Madoff Scandal into an “anti-Semitism” panic so Jews will dig deeper into their pockets to make possibles for those professional panic-makers the same of living they enjoyed before Madoff.
    All these events– going from bad to worse– could well feed an anti-Semitic backlash against imaginary Jewish conspiracies supposedly led by the neocons. Israel doesn’t care because what it needs is more Jews with no place to go but ever expanding Israel. Already, according to the State Dept., 75% of the homes built for Jewish settlers on seized Palestinian lands are EMPTY!
    Israel COULD become a leader of the Mideast, taking its Arab relatives out of the one crop (oil) banana republic economies the West forced on them. But to get there it has to first settle-up with the Palestinians. Standing in the way is the “Greater Israel” greed for land– a greed so great that Palestinians uneilling to leave must be decimated with Israeli weapons made in USA. The GAZA attack is not due to a few rockets fired from Gaza but due to a desire to retake what Israel gave back to the Palestinians, GAZA. To this day, the Palestinians are SECULAR and would support Abbas instead of HAMAS if he were able to produce a clean and able governemnt and wouldn’t do so much hugging at phony American sponsored “peace initiatives” designed by Israel to cover its hightech massacre of Palestinians. It wasn’t HAMAS that violated the truce, it was Israel in trying to kill HAMAS leaders. If you look at how Israel is stealing land from the Palestinians on the West Bank, you would realize that HAMAS is no more the problem than was Nelson Mandella the reason why the Whites murdered so many black in South Africa. The issue is land: SINCE THE ZIONISTS CAN’T LIVE ON THE SHOULDERS OF THE PALESTINIANS, NOR VISE-VERSA, THE ZIONISTS HAVE DECIDED TO PUT THE PALESTINIANS UNDER THE GROUND SO THEY COULD BUILT FANCY HOUSES AT AMERICAN TAXPAYERS’ EXPENSE TO ATTRACT THE DIAPORA JEWS TO EVER EXPANDING GREATER ISRAEL!
    Too much blood has been shed in the neocons’ “World War IV” disguized as Bush’s “CRUSADE” against Islam. If Israel extends the bloodshed, trying to drown the Oslo Peace Accord, Jews all over the world may suffer. AMERICA IS BROKE AND CANNOT LAVISH A MILITARIST NUCLEAR GREATER ISRAEL ANYMORE. Making peace with the Palestinans, Israel can lead the Mideast to modernity. BUT FIRST IT MUST STOP KILLING PALESTINIANS TO GET THEIR LAND.

  3. The futility of Ehud Barak is outlined in the Ha’aretz editorial you referenced in your preceding post:
    “Understanding is no substitute for wisdom, and the inherent desire for retribution does not necessarily have to blind us to the view from the day after. The expression “time for combat” still does not elucidate the goals of the assault…A public that has learned from experience cannot assume once again that the government knows what it is doing, particularly since its leaders have struggled in formulating a consistent stance in recent weeks.”
    It’s a failing that Washington shares with Jersulem: using a bloated, technically sophisticated military inappropriately. In the rush to use their new toys, they constantly forget to ask themselves what it is they are trying to accomplish. Ready, fire, aim!

  4. On the other hand Israel might have been getting its Hamas set back out of the way before President Billary-Obama takes office? No more than that?
    Time frame figured: no further major action likely until 2012 primaries?
    btw – woulda thought it was obvious by now that it is entirely in Israel’s interests to keep Hamas marooned forever trying to govern Gaza, and Palestine permanently divided. Thanks to you all.

  5. I seriously doubt that Israel could lead any country to modernity, much less the entire Middle East. Israel has too much blood on its hands, which will never be forgiven or forgotten. Further, such a statement is steeped in Orientalism, accepting as fact that Israel is the only country that is “modern”, whatever that means. Israel is a resurgent Crusader Kingdom. Similar to Israel, they beat the locals into submission, considered themselves “modern”, and slowly withered into the dust of time.

  6. Israel plans its diplomatic exit:
    I was hoping to hear from KDJ’s link how Israel plans its ‘exit’, only to discover that Israel is only ‘planning’ it. That means they don’t have a way out. Just at some point they will have to stop, with Gaza reduced more to a heap of ruins, and rockets still being fired.

  7. Alex,
    I frankly see no way out for Israel for a very, very long time after this assault on Gaza. Its interesting that Rice has issued an expectation of an immediate ceasefire; as well as David Miliband, UN Sec. General Ban Ki Moon, and Nicholas Sarkozy. Of course, ignored. Israel is fooling itself if it thinks that the repurcussions for this will not be long and deep. Not to mention that the post-Annapolis process is sunk. Israel’s shock and awe tactics are indeed are shocking-for their brutality and for the awe evoked at how Israel’s leadership lives in such denial of how much will have to pass before a climbing out of this abyss will be able to occur. And differently from Lebanon, where elements within March 14 and their supporters welcomed an end to Hezbollah (if in private, as BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas stated as such after the Lebanon war) decimating Gaza will bring more chaos and non-governability….but, then there is no partner for peace no more…hey…heard that before!

  8. I hope Israel wipes out all the palestinians once and for all. They are nothing but a bunch of terrorists anyway. All these palestinians say that they do not promote murder or the terrorists and yet everytime you see them dancing and cheering when Israel gets bombed by terrorists. Why is it that we never see any palestinians standing up against all the terrorists? Because they all believe the same thing! I have live with these types of people in the past and you cannot reason with them at all!

  9. ‘Big D’– You should know that the kind of hate speech you’re expressing here is quite outside the guidelines of this blog, which are designed to facilitate cordial and informative discussion of even very difficult issues.
    Normally, hate speech like this would be deleted as soon as we’ve noticed it. But I’m leaving yours up here as a vivid example of the kind of ignorance-based demonization to which Palestinians are so frequently subjected by westerners. I’m not even going to ask you whether you’ve ever met any actual Palestinians, since from what you write it seems quite clear you haven’t.

  10. Big D,
    Sorry to say your ignorance is showing. It shows anytime you make sweeping generalizations about entire classes or groups of human beings. This nationalist, racial ignorance is no better than the religious fundamentalist ignorance of some Ayatollahs.

  11. This is excellent reporting and analysis, Helena. It is the kind of reporting and analysis one should be able to find on the pages of major American newspapers or magazines like the “New York Times.” The fact that it goes missing so often in those newspapers and magazines is a telling sign of what is wrong with the formulation of US public opinion on Middle East affairs.
    For years I have suspected that the merchants of war inside the American-Israeli partnership have the aim of creating “failed states” around the world wherever they see their strategic interests served. I remember this term “failed state” was popularized shortly before certain American strategic institutes began talking about the rise of a new kind of warfare on the eve of the 21st century, “fourth generation warfare.” At the time, it was said that this warfare originated with international terror groups then targeting the US and Israel, and that it required a change in tactics on the part of the US and Israel.
    There being nothing new under the sun, it was always comical after 9/11 when American and Israeli commanders talked as though they were required to “change war tactics,” in order to “even the playing field” and engage the terrorists on their own terms. It never helped the way the major entertainment industry in film studios and publishing houses portrayed this farce. It was the same farce in Spielberg’s film “Munich” where he left his tragic reluctant war hero standing in front of the twin trade towers silhouetted against the Manhattan skyline.
    After 9/11 Pres. W said the US would need to cooperate with, and even form alliances with, “some shady characters” in order to win the “war on terrorism,” as though the anti-Soviet mujahideen’s war in Afghanistan had never occurred, and the twisted arrangements of the Iran-contra scandal had never existed.
    The folly of actions such as the neo-cons leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the current actions of Ehud Barak in Gaza, is that they are willfully manufacturing disorder in the name of order, war in the name of peace, chaos in the fool’s belief that chaos can be mastered by its human perpetrators. This willingness to act on the basis of an obscene “chaos theory” is a poor sign of where we may be headed in the 21st century.
    This is the polar opposite of what the founding principles of the United Nations call for, just as it is the polar opposite of the principles of Islam. Only the readers of the “New York Times” can enjoy the telling of how this “chaos theory is applied in the world today. All that is required is trying to make sense of the kind of war reports filed by journalists like Ethan Bronner who sits on his high perch in Jerusalem. Do you think George Orwell could ever have anticipated that the politics of war and war journalism could come to this?

  12. After observing the Israeli pattern for decades I am convinced that Israel has no intentions toward peace..until all the Palestines are removed from Palestine…and then they will find new enemies…always new enemies…for more land, more resources, more power, more vengence against ‘all others’. It’s their nature,they are the scorpion on the frog’s back. They are incapable of change on their own accord.
    They will not stop until their actions become so painful for the rest of the world that there is no other choice but to end Israel as it currently exist.
    The only question is who will end it.It won’t be the US, we are far too corrupted by Israel to end it.

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