Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Israel Scored a Tactical Victory
But it missed a chance to finish off Hamas.By BRET STEPHENS On the Gaza border Atop a little hill near the beleaguered Israeli town of Sderot, a gaggle of TV crews train their cameras on the Gaza Strip, sentinels to a unilateral Israeli cease-fire that's barely 12 hours old. Earlier the same day, Sunday, Hamas fired 20 rockets into Israel, raising questions about its intentions but causing little serious damage. Later, a pair of Israeli F-15s streak over Gaza City, releasing bursts of chaff but dropping no bombs. And then comes word that Hamas has declared its own conditional, week-long cease-fire. The TV people clear out. All wars eventually end. The question most Israelis are asking is whether this one has merely gone on vacation. So why are the top echelons of Israel's political and military establishment delighted by the war's result? Long answer: They think that Israel has re-established a reputation for invincibility tarnished in the 2006 war with Hezbollah; that they bloodied and humiliated Hamas while taking few casualties; that they called overdue international attention to the tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle its arsenal; and, with the unilateral cease-fire, that they put the onus to end the violence squarely back on Hamas's shoulders. Short answer: They think the war may be a regional game changer. In a wide-ranging interview, a senior military official offers perhaps the most authoritative explanation of his government's war aims and his interpretation of its effects. "We have no desire to go back into Gaza," he says. "We decided we're not going to spend five years [in Gaza] like the five years Americans spent in Iraq." The Opinion Journal Widget Download Opinion Journal's widget and link to the most important editorials and op-eds of the day from your blog or Web page. On the contrary: Far from seeking regime change in Gaza, the official seems at ease that the Palestinians will remain bifurcated between Hamastan and Fatahland for many years more, the way Germany was divided during the Cold War. The idea is that a Hamas state in Gaza -- somehow deterred from mischief -- could become a kind of useful negative example to the Palestinians of the West Bank, somewhat in the way East Germany served West Germany as a monument to everything that was wrong with communism. This leads the official to his second remarkable comment, after I ask whether Israel deliberately chose not to kill Ismail Haniyeh, the elected Palestinian prime minister and Hamas's political leader in Gaza. "Israel tried to target people from the security apparatus and military wing," he answers. "At this moment, we prefer that the less-radical wing will take over." The current divisions within Hamas are not the only ones the official sees as a consequence of the war. Palestinians, he says, no longer look to Hamas as the party of clean and competent government. Instead, they see a group whose leaders needlessly provoked a ruinous war they didn't have the courage to fight themselves. No wonder the third intifada in the West Bank, on which Hamas had counted, never materialized. Elsewhere, Hamas's former patrons in the Arab world have split with the group ever since it became a client of Tehran. A dozen Arab states, along with the Palestinian Authority, boycotted an emergency summit of the Arab League, which had been intended as a show of support for Hamas supremo Khaled Mashal. Then there is Egypt. For years, it took an ambivalent view of Hamas: partly worried by the threat it poses to its own secular regime, partly delighted by the trouble it causes Israel. Now the Mubarak government at last understands that Hamas is also a strategic threat to Egypt. "An Iranian base can play against Egypt the same way it played against Israel," says the official. Almost as an aside, he adds that the timing of Israel's operation in Gaza was dictated in part by the assessment that Hamas was just months away from obtaining longer-range missiles that could reach Cairo as easily as Tel Aviv. In Today's Opinion Journal REVIEW & OUTLOOK The Opacity of HopeHolder for Wiretaps TODAY'S COLUMNISTS Main Street: Bush's Real Sin Was Winning in Iraq – William McGurn COMMENTARY An Inauguration for the People – John Steele GordonHistory Will Remember Bush Well – Marc A ThiessenWill Obama Bring Home the Neocons? – Gabriel SchoenfeldCongress Wants to Restrict Drug Access – Scott GottliebNow the Israeli government is prepared to believe that the Egyptians will finally clamp down on the smuggling. Israel might even allow Egypt to deploy its army in greater force in the Sinai, despite the provisions against it in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Finally there is Iran. "They have drawn a lesson," says the official. "Once again, they saw that Israel has a good air force and good intelligence, and that the combination of the two can be deadly. Unlike in 2006, they saw a well-trained ground force. They found that asymmetrical warfare does not always play for them; that we can use asymmetrical approaches to overpower an asymmetrical threat." All this, of course, could be overturned the moment Iran goes nuclear and attempts to thwart Israel's freedom of action. Nor is it foreordained that Israel will enjoy the relatively favorable international circumstances that facilitated the past three weeks of war, or that Hamas will perform poorly the next time. "Usually, the one who loses does his homework better," observes the official. Bottom line: Israel has scored an impressive tactical victory. But it has missed the strategic opportunity to rid itself of the menace on its doorstep. In the Middle East, opportunities don't always knock twice.