Commentary on the Israel-Hamas war has tended toward partisan pleading, making the moral case for or against Israel. That's a crucial debate but not the only one; there's also a need for a cool strategic assessment; who is winning, who is losing?
Hillel Frisch argues that Hamas (which he calls "a small isolated movement that controls a small strip") has "grossly miscalculated" by antagonizing the Egyptian government and making war on Israel. He concludes Hamas has embarked on "strategic suicide."
Perhaps, but scenarios exist in which Hamas gains. Khaled Abu Toameh notes the powerful and growing support for Hamas around the Middle East. Caroline Glick offers two ways for Hamas to win: a return to the status quo ante, with Hamas still in charge of Gaza, or a ceasefire agreement whereby foreign powers form an international monitoring regime to oversee Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt.
As this suggests, an assessment of Hamas' war record depends primarily on decisions made in Jerusalem. Those decisions being the real issue, how well has Israel's leadership performed?
Disastrously. Jerusalem's profound strategic incompetence continues and heightens the failed policies since 1993 that have eroded Israel's reputation, strategic advantage, and security. Four main reasons lead me to this negative conclusion.
First, the team in charge in Jerusalem created the Gaza problem. Its leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immortally explained in 2005 the forthcoming unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza: "We [Israelis] are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."
Olmert had a vital role in (1) initiating the Gaza withdrawal, which ended the Israel Defense Forces' close control of the territory, and (2) giving up Israeli control over the Gaza-Egypt border. This latter, little noted decision, enabled Hamas to build tunnels to Egypt, smuggle in matériel, and launch missiles into Israel.
Secondly, Olmert and his colleagues failed to respond to the barrage of rockets and mortar shells. From the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 until now, Hamas has launched over 6,500 missiles into Israel. Incredibly, Israelis endured nearly eight attacks a day for three years; why? A responsible government would have responded to the first rocket as a casus belli and immediately responded.
Thirdly, a committee of the French parliament published an important technical report in mid-December, establishing that "there is no longer doubt" about the military purposes of the Iranian nuclear program, and that it will be up and running in 2-3 years.
The waning days of the Bush administration, with the current president nearly out the door and the president-elect yet in the wings, offers a unique moment to take care of business. Why did Olmert squander this opportunity to confront the relatively trivial danger Hamas presents rather than the existential threat of Iran's nuclear program? This negligence has potentially dire repercussions.
Finally, from what one can discern of the Olmert government's goal in its war on Hamas, it seems to be to weaken Hamas and strengthen Fatah so that Mahmoud Abbas can re-take control of Gaza and re-start diplomacy with Israel. Michael B. Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi captured this idea in a recent article title: "Palestinians need Israel to win: If Hamas gets away with terror once again, the peace process will be over."
Bitter experience, however, invalidates this thesis. For one, Fatah has proven itself a determined enemy intent on eliminating the Jewish state. For another, Palestinians themselves repudiated Fatah in 2006 elections. It strains credulity that anyone could still think of Fatah as a "partner for peace." Rather, Jerusalem should think creatively of other scenarios, perhaps my "no-state solution" bringing in the Jordanian and Egyptian governments.
More dismaying even than Olmert's ineptitude is that the Israeli election a month from now pits three leaders of his same ilk. Two of them (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak) currently serve as his main lieutenants, while two (Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu) failed badly in their prior prime ministerial stints.
Looking beyond Olmert and his potential successors comes the worst news of all, namely that no one at the upper echelons of Israel's political life articulates the imperative for victory. For this reason, I see Israel as a lost polity, one full of talent, energy, and resolve but lacking direction.
Jan. 11, 2009 update: For further analysis, see my weblog, "Other Critics of Israeli Strategy in Gaza."
Jan. 28, 2009 update: I reply to readers who responded to this column at "Explaining Israel's Strategic Mistakes."
Feb. 28, 2009 update: What was Israel's purpose in fighting the Gaza war, exactly? Here is a news item from today documenting the latest attacks eminating from Gaza:
Palestinian fire on the Negev continued Saturday, [Feb. 28,] with terrorist groups making use of more advanced weaponry. Experts say the two Grad rockets that landed in Ashkelon Saturday morning were new and improved models, capable of greater destruction than those usually fired from Gaza.
One of the rockets hit a school in the southern city, and succeeded in penetrating the fortification used to protect it from projectiles. Police said Saturday evening that since the end of Israel's offensive in Gaza 63 rockets and mortar shells have hit the battered South, lightly wounding four people and causing 14 to suffer from shock.
The Grad rockets that hit Ashkelon were two of only five or six locally manufactured 170 mm rockets ever fired at Israel, experts say. The rarely used rockets have a range of 14 km (8.6 miles) and are capable of massive damage, evident from the destruction witnesses described on the scene of Saturday's attack. Two tractors were required to pull the rocket from the ground in which it had become lodged.
Two Qassam rockets were also fired at the Negev Saturday. The first landed in open spaces near a kibbutz in Shaar HaNegev Regional Council, and residents reported that the Color Red alert, set to warn against incoming projectiles, was not sounded in the kibbutz. It was sounded in another town in the area, however. Another Qassam rocket landed in Eshkol Regional Council in the evening. No injuries or damage were reported in either of the attacks.
Ashkelon Municipality has planned an emergency meeting for Saturday night regarding the city's schools, and whether they should continue to function regularly despite the frequent attacks. Ashkelon Parents' Committee Chairman Yinon Jibli said a final decision would be reached at the meeting's end. "We will respect the municipality's decision but it seems the entire city should be halted tomorrow and not just the school system. Today was proof of that," he said.
Last weekend the Parents' Committee sent a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak demanding to fortify more of Ashkelon's education facilities. "For a number of years now the children of Ashkelon have been serving as hostages in the hands of Hamas' reign of terror," the letter said in an allusion to kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza.
Is this not the same situation that existed before the war began, just slightly worse because of the more destructive rockets?
Jan. 19, 2012 update: News about 'Hezbollah's long-range surface-to-air missiles compels me again to berate the Israeli leadership. As Yaakov Katz writes in the Jerusalem Post today, Hezbollah has taken advantage of choas in Syria to obtain advanced weapons systems, including long-range rockets (SA-8, Khaibar-1, M600) and air-defense systems (SA-8, SA-17). The M600, in particular, has a range of about 300 km and can carry a half-ton warhead.
Comment: How can the Israelis fuss about the Mavi Marmara and let this sort of materiel reach their border?