Israel’s operation in Gaza is reaching a critical point. While talking heads will debate grand strategy, the options are limited. Behind the headlines is the crucial issue of how Israel’s national security process works (or doesn’t – in light of the weaknesses revealed in the 2006 Lebanon war). The next moves will demonstrate whether or not Israel has successfully incorporated the lessons from the failures of the 2006 Lebanon War. This is crucial to re-establishing Israeli deterrence.
A true peace agreement with Hamas is not realistic. A quick scan of clips from Hamas’ al-Aqsa network or of statements by Hamas leaders from the Middle East Media Research Institute - particularly horrible are these scenes from Hamas produced children’s television - should disabuse all but the most useful idiots of any notions of a moderate Hamas.
Fatah is theoretically an alternative to Hamas, but has been eliminated from Gaza and has little credibility or capability.
Military options also do not offer definite solutions. Re-occupying Gaza would require tens of thousands of Israeli troops and likely lead to hundreds of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian casualties. The Israelis do not want to pay this price. It also might not work. Hamas might be able to maintain an ongoing, costly insurgency against the Israelis, which would be perceived as a victory. (Hamas has taken lessons from Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel and has prepared and is hoping for an IDF ground campaign.)
Hamas’ supply lines are the tunnels into Egypt. The tunnels themselves are only the endpoint of a vast smuggling network that extends throughout the Sinai and into the heart of Egypt. Egypt is a poor country, the smuggling opportunities are lucrative, and law enforcement is weak. In Kashmir, criminal networks in an impoverished environment have fostered a self-sustaining insurgency. The same situation could occur Gaza.
Ultimately, there are no solutions in Gaza on the immediate horizon. This is a problem Israel will have to manage.
Applying the Lessons of 2006
The Lebanon war of the summer of 2006 revealed shortcomings up and down the Israeli national security system – from inadequately prepared reserve infantry units up to the prime minister’s office. While Hezbollah and its supporters worldwide celebrated the defeat of the vaunted Israeli soldier, the more substantial problems were farther up the line, particularly at the top.
The political and military leadership never defined its goals. Prime Minister Olmert spoke of destroying Hezbollah, but did not consider what it would require to achieve them. The prime minister and the defense minister had limited security experience and the chief of staff was an air force officer who was overly wedded to the efficacy of airpower. The IDF wielded tremendous influence on decision-makers – shutting out Israel’s national security council and other institutions.
There were other problems up and down the chain of command – such as the impact of policing the Palestinians on IDF war-fighting capability and the effects of nouveau military philosophy on the officer corps. But poor decision-making and a lack of clear objectives, combined with Hezbollah’s knack for tactical surprise, created a situation in which Israel appeared to not know what it was doing. This contributed heavily to the image of an Israeli defeat.
In the fighting in Gaza, it is essential that – at the very top – the Israelis establish that they know what they are doing. There are many signs that lessons from Lebanon have been applied. The Gaza operations have been more systematically planned than the Lebanon war, including extensive war-gaming and an effective disinformation effort accompanied by massive intelligence gathering.
This still raises the question of whether or not Israel knows what it is doing. Reportedly, Ehud Barak, the former Chief of Staff and Prime Minister, called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hours after the Lebanon war began and warned: "It's very important to define how and when you'll end [the war], because the more time goes by, the greater the potential for complications."
Barak is now the Defense Minister and his key statement is that he wishes “to totally change the rules of the game.” That his publicly stated goal is vague does not mean that goals are not established. It likely refers to establishing a framework in which Hamas knows that as rocket fire increases, Israelis will counter with overwhelming force. There will still be some rockets, but they will be a relative few. This would re-establish Israel’s deterrence.
A key part of re-establishing deterrence is showing that Israel can manage its security affairs and not get pulled into disadvantageous situations. This management will be put to the test if, as appears likely, Israel engages in ground operations in Gaza. This ability to manage the national security process (an interest of mine) is essential, as Gaza will not be the last crisis that Israel is forced to manage.