There has been an awful lot of nonsense written about Gaza from both the left and right. There are those on the left who simply believe that Israel does not have the right to defend itself against a terrorist enemy that relentlessly attacks its civilians and refuses to acknowledge its right to exist. There are those on the right–my beloved neoconservatives–who think a clear-cut “victory” is possible against Hamas, which is ridiculous, or that real enemy is Iran, which should be attacked forthwith (by the United States)–which is criminally foolish.
My own feeling was, and has been, that Israel had the right to wage a limited campaign against Hamas’s military capability. The most valuable targets were probably hit in the first few days–a clear defeat for Hamas–and that, as Ehud Barak desired, the French cease-fire should have been accepted when it was first proposed, with an international force established to block the tunnel-smuggling of new weapons across Gaza’s southern border (and with the understanding that Israel would pursue similar, limited bombing campaigns in the future if the rockets from Gaza persisted). The current ground campaign seems destined for failure, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a very astute observer of military actions. Here is his conclusion:
This raises a question that every Israeli and its supporters now needs to ask. What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting? After two weeks of combat Olmert, Livni, and Barak have still not said a word that indicates that Israel will gain strategic or grand strategic benefits, or tactical benefits much larger than the gains it made from selectively striking key Hamas facilities early in the war. In fact, their silence raises haunting questions about whether they will repeat the same massive failures made by Israel’s top political leadership during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in 2006. Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?
To blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes. To paraphrase a comment about the British government’s management of the British Army in World War I, lions seem to be led by donkeys. If Israel has a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel has a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to help the Gazans and move them back towards peace, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to use US or other friendly influence productively, it not apparent.
As we have seen all too clearly from US mistakes, any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni, and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends. If there is more, it is time to make such goals public and demonstrate how they can be achieved. The question is not whether the IDF learned the tactical lessons of the fighting in 2006. It is whether Israel’s top political leadership has even minimal competence to lead them.
I think he’s a bit unfair to Barak here, lumping him in with Livni–who is overplaying the tough card for electoral purposes–and Olmert, who is in this to expunge his perceived failure in Lebanon. Barak was a reluctant warrior, and he had the sense to understand that the campaign should have ended after the first few days. But Cordesman is right about the larger picture. One hopes the Israelis will understand that the military utility of this campaign is most likely over and a profound regional political defeat looms.