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‘The Fog of Cease-fire’

Who won the Gaza war?

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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How much will change henceforth is impossible to know, because the energy and courage—and strategy—of many parties, including Israel, would have to be estimated. When Israel left Gaza in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that any rocket fire out of Gaza would instantly be met with a tough military response. After all, Israel was getting entirely out, the occupation was over, and there was absolutely no justification for one single rocket. But Sharon did not do it. Prior to his first stroke in December 2005, rocket and mortar fire had resumed, at low levels, but Sharon did not act. In 2006, 1,247 rockets and 28 mortars were fired at Israel from Gaza. 

That’s a lesson Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should keep in mind: Zero tolerance must be enforced or it will quickly erode. Speaking soon after the cease-fire was announced, Netanyahu pledged as much: “We won’t tolerate even a sprinkle of rocket fire at any part of Israel. We would respond even more vigorously than before.” He should keep his word. On the civilian side, many international actors will be seeking compromises rather than strict enforcement of any deal that’s made. “After all,” we will hear from many governments, “the crossings into Gaza can’t be policed as if they were Zurich and Singapore; end-use inspections can’t be done as if this were Toronto; UNRWA does such important work and complaints can’t be allowed to interfere.” Down that road lies Hamas rebuilding and another round of war.

But if the objective facts suggest that Hamas gained nothing from this war and suffered great losses, that’s not to say Israel paid no price. International criticism of Israel has been fierce, especially in Europe. The death toll, mostly IDF soldiers, is 70. The mobilization of 85,000 reservists disrupted the Israeli economy, as did the cancellation of many visits by tourists. Ben Gurion Airport was briefly abandoned by almost all international carriers (and whether one blames Hamas for that or the American FAA, the war was the occasion). Israel suffered the perplexing blow of being unable to stop Hamas rocket and mortar fire. And even if almost all the rockets that might have done damage were shot down by Iron Dome, mortar fire meant that many border towns became ghost towns and repeated alerts had hundreds of thousands of Israelis running to shelters day and night. The fact that there is a serious debate about who won the war means that Israel paid a price many Israelis think was far too high.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz never recovered from the Lebanon war in 2006. Speaking a year later of the fact that the war had lasted a whole 34 days, Halutz said, “Without a doubt I recognize that at the end of the day that was the most blatant nonachievement or failure.” The Gaza war of 2014 lasted more than two weeks longer. Halutz resigned just months after the war with Hezbollah ended; Olmert hung on for several years but his popularity ratings remained in single digits. That’s a bad portent for Netanyahu, and a recent survey showed a gigantic drop in his own numbers. On July 23 his approval rating was 82 percent; last week it was 38 percent in one poll.

This is not surprising. Netanyahu avoided the trap Olmert created for himself in 2006 by announcing fantastic war aims (crushing Hezbollah and removing it from southern Lebanon); instead Netanyahu said what he wanted was quiet, meaning an end to rocket fire. Still, the war lasted far longer than Israelis anticipated, the IDF death toll was six times higher than in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, and Hamas survived to hold street celebrations and claim victory. Netanyahu will pay a price, especially because there was another path and he rejected it.

The Israeli journalist Haviv Gur put it best:

At the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, it is fair to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocally won the war he set out to fight—but not, perhaps, the war the Israeli public expected him to fight. .  .  . Netanyahu’s strategy has much to commend it. It recognizes and addresses the challenges posed by terrorism and irregular conflict—the civilian toll, the political traps, the importance of the psychological battlefield.

But it may suffer from one overwhelming flaw: in the minds of Israelis, it doesn’t look like war. It is hard to explain to millions of Israeli voters under rocket fire, to the families of dead children and dead soldiers, to a nation that expects decisive action from its leaders in wartime, why an enemy as derided and detested in the Israeli mind as Hamas can sustain rocket fire on a country as powerful as Israel for 50 days.

This gap is starting to have political consequences for Netanyahu. The growing chorus of critics, and the plummeting of Netanyahu’s approval rating, show the extent of the disparity between the government’s Gaza strategy and the nation’s expectations.

Several members of Netanyahu’s coalition cabinet, led primarily by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, urged a massive ground attack on Gaza that they said would destroy Hamas once and for all. Israel would reoccupy and rule Gaza and root out the terrorists. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yaalon (a former IDF chief of staff) chose instead to prosecute an air war with minimal ground elements. It’s possible to say that the “reoccupy and crush” route would have been nuts, that ruling Gaza would have been an endless headache and cause of IDF fatalities, and that the damage done in Gaza while conquering and ruling it would have elicited a tidal wave of international criticism, but you can’t prove it because Israel did not take this route. Lieberman, Bennett, and many in Netanyahu’s own Likud party will continue to claim that he has proved to be a weak leader, unwilling to crush Hamas when he had the chance. Netanyahu didn’t put this new cease-fire to a vote in his cabinet, perhaps for fear he wouldn’t have a majority. Even if most Israelis disagree with the hard-line criticism, Netanyahu is the leader of Israel’s right, not its left or center or center-left, and he will now have plenty of trouble with his own base. Sharon faced similar difficulties when he left Gaza, and in the end he quit Likud over them.

Polls in Israel today are mixed, and if one showed Netanyahu at 38 percent, several others put him above 50 percent still. This won’t help him sleep better if all the “yes” responses are coming from supporters of the left while his own base is unhappy. But polls taken before the war showed that if Bibi was not widely loved, no other figures got within hailing distance of him when Israelis were asked who should be prime minister. That remains his ultimate strength: no really credible challengers. The interesting political question is whether the war changed that, and changed it permanently.

From the left in Israel, Netanyahu is being attacked not because he didn’t prosecute the war fiercely enough, but on the ground that had he reached a peace agreement with the Palestinians the war would never have happened. Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog is calling for new elections and arguing that Netanyahu must show the “diplomatic courage” to negotiate peace with the PLO.

But if Netanyahu faces possible political danger from the outcome of the war, one other casualty is less debatable: the “peace process.” A comprehensive peace requires, after all, that Israel pull out of the West Bank—or at least most of it. Considering the ability of Hamas to launch rockets into Israel from Gaza, how many Israelis are willing to risk Hamas control of the West Bank—from which it could easily lob rockets and mortars into Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem? It’s about 11 miles from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, about 5 miles from the border to Ben Gurion Airport, and basically zero miles from the West Bank to Israel’s seat of government in Jerusalem, where the Knesset and prime minister’s offices are.

Why would it be easier to negotiate peace now, after the Gaza war, than it was when Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts collapsed? Are issues like the future of Palestinian “refugees” and the so-called right of return easier now, or is the future of Jerusalem? Is PLO chairman (and PA president and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas more likely to accept compromises he and Yasser Arafat have been rejecting since the Camp David talks in 2000? In fact, the end of the Gaza war may present some opportunities, but those would be to jettison such utopian hopes and work on realistic opportunities to improve life: in Gaza, if Hamas will permit it, and in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority conducted itself responsibly during the war, engaging in a rhetorical contest with Hamas at times to see who condemned Israel more fiercely but doing all it could to prevent violence from erupting in the West Bank. Could this be the predicate for better political, security, and economic cooperation between the PA and Israel? There are plenty of steps that could be taken, if the Israeli left (or what remains of it), the EU, and the Obama administration could turn away from dreams of comprehensive peace deals and toward practical improvements.

For now, it’s clear that Hamas achieved nothing of value in this war while imposing a huge cost on Gaza. It may be possible to help Gazans, and help the PA, while preventing Hamas from rebuilding its military strength, if the relevant parties make up their minds to do that. We can pretty much count on Egypt and Israel to be committed to that outcome. The real worry is Paris, Berlin, London, and Washington. Will we in the West be tough enough to demand that UNRWA be unwrapped from Hamas’s clutches, crossings closely watched, travelers and cargo in and out of Gaza closely inspected, construction materials carefully recorded and kept out of Hamas hands—month after month, year after year, despite Hamas pressures and demands and crocodile tears on behalf of the poor Gazans?

That’s unclear. So the best answer to “who won the Gaza war of 2014”—Hamas, Israel, the PA, Palestinians, Gazans, Abbas, Netanyahu, the IDF, terrorism—is probably “ask me in six months and then again in six years.” For now, that “fog of cease-fire” is impenetrable.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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