Did we win? Sunday marked the first anniversary of the Gaza War, alias Operation Cast Lead, and this question fills the public space.
Within the Israeli consensus, the answer has already been given: Certainly we won; the Qassams have stopped coming.
A simple, not to say primitive, answer. But that is how it looks to the superficial observer. There were the Qassams, we made war, no more Qassams. Sderot is thriving, the inhabitants of Beersheba go to the theater. Everything else is for philosophy professors.
But anyone who wishes to understand the results of this war has to pose some hard questions.
Was the real aim of the war to stop the Qassams? Could this have been achieved by other means? If there were other aims, what were they? Is the final balance sheet positive or negative, as far as the interests of Israel are concerned?
I pity the historians. They have to scrutinize documents, peruse protocols, disentangle tortuous texts.
Documents are misleading. If Talleyrand (or whoever it was) was right in saying that words were invented in order to hide thoughts, this is even more true for documents. Documents falsify facts, hide facts, invent facts – all according to the interests of the writer. They disclose a little to hide the rest. Anyone who has been involved in public affairs knows this.
Therefore, let’s ignore the protocols. What were the real aims of those who started the war? I believe that they were as follows, in order of decreasing priority:
- To overthrow the regime in Gaza, by turning the life of the inhabitants into such hell that they would rise up against Hamas.
- To return to the government and the army their self-respect, which had been severely damaged in Lebanon War II.
- To restore the deterrent power of the Israeli army.
- To stop the Qassams.
- To free the captive soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Let’s examine the results, one by one.
This week, hundreds of thousands gathered in the Gaza Strip for a demonstration in support of Hamas. Judging from the photos, there were between 200 and 400 thousand. Considering that there are about 1.5 million inhabitants in the Strip, most of them children, that was quite an impressive turnout – especially in view of the misery caused by the Israeli blockade that has continued throughout the year and the ruined homes that could not be rebuilt. Those who believed that the pressure on the population would cause an uprising against the Hamas government have been proved wrong.
History buffs were not surprised. When attacked by a foreign foe, every people unites behind its leaders, whoever they are. Pity that our politicians and generals don’t read books.
Our commentators portray the inhabitants of Gaza as "looking with longing at the flourishing shops of Ramallah." These commentators also derive hope from public opinion polls that purport to show that the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank is declining. If so, why is Fatah afraid of conducting elections, even after all Hamas activists there have been thrown into prison?
It seems that most of the people in the Gaza Strip are more or less satisfied with the functioning of the Hamas government. In spite of the misery of their lives, they may also be proud of its steadfastness There is order in the streets; crime and drugs are decreasing. Hamas is trying cautiously to promote a religious agenda in daily life, and it seems that the public does not mind.
The main aim of the operation has failed completely.
The second aim, on the other hand, has been achieved. The Olmert government, which lost public confidence in Lebanon War II, won it back in the Gaza War. That did not help Olmert himself – he had to resign because of the cloud of corruption affairs hovering over his head.
The army has restored its self-confidence. It has proved that the military deficiencies, that came to light at every step in the Lebanon War, were superficial. The public believes that in Gaza the army functioned well. The fact that a total of six Israeli soldiers were killed by enemy fire, while over a thousand people died on the other side, has reinforced this belief. Only few people are bothered by moral scruples.
The question whether the third aim – deterrence – has been achieved is closely connected with another question: Who won the war militarily?
In a war between a regular army and a guerrilla force, it is hard to decide what "victory" means. In a classic battle between armies, victory belongs to the side which remains in control of the battlefield once the fighting ends. Obviously, that does not apply in an asymmetrical contest. The Israeli army did not want to stay in the Gaza Strip – on the contrary, it was very keen to avoid such a possibility.
Some argue that Hamas won the war: if a band of ill-armed guerrillas holds out for three whole weeks against one of the strongest armies in the world, that constitutes a victory. There is a lot of truth in that.
On the other hand, the deterrent force of the army has certainly been restored. All Palestinian factions and all Arab forces in general now know that the Israeli army is prepared to kill and destroy without any restraint in any military confrontation. From now on, the Hamas leaders – as well as the Hezbollah chiefs – will think twice before provoking it.
The Qassams have stopped almost completely. Hamas has even imposed its authority on the small, extreme factions, which wanted to continue.
No doubt the newly restored deterrent force of the army has had a bearing on that. But it is also true that the army is taking great care not to cause regular incidents, as was their wont before Cast Lead. At least for now, the deterrence in the Gaza theater is mutual.
It can be asked whether a means could have been found to stop the Qassams short of war. If the Israeli government had recognized the Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip – at least de facto – and maintained businesslike relations with them, and if it had not imposed the blockade, could the missiles have been stopped? I do believe so.
The release of Shalit – a secondary but important aim in itself – has not been achieved. If Shalit is freed, it will happen only as part of a prisoner exchange, and that will look like a huge victory for Hamas.
Taking into consideration all these results, one can draw the conclusion that the war has ended in a kind of draw.
Except for Goldstone.
This war has dealt a fatal blow to Israel’s standing in the world.
Is that important? David Ben-Gurion famously said that "it is not important what the goyim say but what the Jews do." Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, said that no nation can afford to behave without "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Jefferson was right. "What the goyim say" has an immense impact on all the spheres of our life – from the political arena to security matters. The standing of our state in the world is a vital factor in our national security.
The Gaza War – from the decision to throw the army into a densely populated area to the use of white phosphorus and flechette munitions – has raised a dark cloud over Israel. The Goldstone report, coming as it did after the gruesome pictures broadcast throughout the war by all the world’s TV networks, has produced a terrible impression. Hundreds of millions of people saw and heard, and their attitude toward Israel has changed for the worse. This will have a far-reaching impact on the decisions of governments, the attitude of the media, and in thousands of big and small decisions concerning Israel.
Almost all our spokesmen and journalists, from the president down to the last TV talk-show host, keep parroting that the Goldstone report is "one-sided," "vile," and "lying." But people around the world know that it is as honest a report as could be expected after our government’s decision to boycott the investigation. The damage increases from day to day. Some of it is irreversible.
It is impossible to measure the results of the war without laying this fact on the scales. The upshot is that the damage done to us by the war outweighs any benefits.
Some people in our leadership silently accept this conclusion. But there is no lack of voices – both in the leadership and in the street – which talk openly about a "Cast Lead 2" as being just a matter of time.
A saying attributed to Bismarck goes: Fools learn from their own experience, clever people learn from the experience of others. Where does that leave us?