For Israel, limited goals bring limited results

For Israel, limited goals bring limited results

Jerusalem can take comfort from solid US support and Egyptian pragmatism in this round of battle, but it knows it didn't fight, much less win, a war

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A damaged residential building in Rishon Lezion is seen after it was hit by a rocket fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. (photo credit: Oded Balilty/AP)
A damaged residential building in Rishon Lezion is seen after it was hit by a rocket fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. (photo credit: Oded Balilty/AP)

Everyone in Israel knows that the ceasefire announced Wednesday does not mean the conflict is over, or even that the rocket attacks from Gaza will now cease. Yet the country is broadly split into two camps: one is happy that, after eight days of fighting, a ceasefire has been announced and Operation Pillar of Defense has come to an end. The other is frustrated that Jerusalem ostensibly caved into international pressure and “didn’t finish the job.”

Wednesday’s bus bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv, which dredged up memories of a deadlier, not-too-distant past, did little to assuage fears among many who thought that Jerusalem should be taking the opportunity to rid Gaza of all terrorists, whatever the costs and consequences.

So was it worth it? In the days preceding the launch of the campaign, rocket fire from Gaza had made life almost untenable for Israelis in the target zone. But did Operation Pillar of Defense achieve its goals?

Speaking in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman hailed the offensive as a great success, a resounding victory. But so did Hamas.

There can be no doubt that the Israeli Air Force inflicted great harm to terrorist infrastructures in Gaza. In 1,500 air strikes, it targeted nearly 1,000 underground rocket launchers and 140 smuggling tunnels. But despite all efforts not to harm noncombatants, some 60 Palestinian civilians were killed, at least 18 of them children. On the Israeli side, four civilians and two soldiers were killed by rocket fire, and 240 were injured.

Looking at the bigger picture, Hamas gained in influence and some say in international legitimacy. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood showed that it can put pragmatism ahead of ideology. And US President Barack Obama showed to the declared satisfaction of Netanyahu that, all previous bickering notwithstanding, his administration stands steadfastly by Israel’s side.

The rockets on the South might have tailed off. But Hamas is still in power, and the residents of the South aren’t the only ones who fear that the calm could be over as soon as Hamas feels emboldened enough to pick another fight. A snap survey on Channel 2 Wednesday night found only 7% of Israelis think the truce will hold for long.

Everyone in Israel is doubtless happy some level of quiet will return to the South, if the ceasefire holds. But many people are frustrated that Israel “didn’t go all the way” — did not attempt to topple Hamas or at least deal it a much stronger blow.

Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, accused the government of being unwilling to take a bold decision and root out terrorism once and for all. “The IDF must not be prevented from fulfilling its mission,” he said Tuesday night, when it seemed a ceasefire was immediate. He made similar statements on Wednesday night, after it had become a reality.

Right-wing politicians, unsurprisingly, also sounded betrayed… by a right-wing dominated government. “The residents of Israel will suffer from the results of this shameful surrender for years to come, because it will only increase our enemies’ motivation to attack Israel — from both outside and inside our international borders,” National Union chairman MK Uri Ariel said.

In several cities in southern Israel, rumors of the imminent ceasefire had sparked spontaneous demonstrations, with small huddles of protesters chanting, “The people want quiet in the South.”

Last Wednesday, hours after the Israel Air Force killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari as the opening shot of Operation Pillar of Defense, Defense Minister Ehud Barak outlined the offensive’s goals at a press conference: “Strengthening our deterrence; to inflict serious damage on the rocket launching network; to deliver a painful blow for Hamas and the other terrorist organizations; to minimize damage to our home front.”

He added that there was “no ‘quick-fix’ solution” to the rocket fire from Gaza, “but we will achieve these aforementioned goals throughout the course of this operation.”

Since the mission’s stated goals were “reasonable,” as one official called them — in that Israel did not vow to hunt down every single terrorist hiding in the Strip, or to smash Hamas — the government can declare a job well done. The troika of Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman avoided a potentially protracted and bloody ground invasion, which would have gradually cost the government international support.

“We achieved all our goals and more,” a senior government official said shortly before the ceasefire was finalized. Jabari was killed — which some commentators compared to Obama taking out Al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden — and so were some other terror heavyweights. The Air Force destroyed most of the Fajr long-range rockets that threatened Israel’s population centers. And more than 1,500 air strikes in Gaza wiped out much of Hamas’s infrastructure, including gas pipelines and government offices.

Did Barak and Netanyahu succeed in restoring Israel’s deterrent capability? This will become clear only in the coming weeks and months. But Hamas and other hell-bent Islamist terror groups, say some analysts, will not likely sit back for long. On the other hand, other pundits argue, the northern front has been surprisingly quiet since Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Some observations can be definitively made.

First of all, Egypt, which played a central role in brokering the ceasefire, proved itself a rational player interested in containing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is no Zionist. And the fact that he withdrew Egypt’s ambassador in Tel Aviv “for consultations” is regrettable, especially since the envoy had arrived in Israel just three weeks ago and brought with him “a message of peace.” But the fear that an Egypt ruled by Islamists would sever ties and take every opportunity to side with Israel’s enemies proved unfounded.

In the middle of efforts to end the conflict, Morsi actually pronounced the word “Israel” for the first time in public. He did so whilst condemning the Zionist aggression, but Israeli officials and pundits still took it as a positive  sign — a sign that for Morsi realpolitik trumps ideology.

Hamas comes out of Operation Pillar of Defense weakened military, but with apparent gains in status and international importance. By provoking Israel to escalate its response to incessant rocket fire, the Islamists returned the Palestinian question to the center of world attention. That is something Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was never able to achieve, not with threats to step down or to dismantle the PA, and not with his plan to ask the United Nations for upgraded nonmember status.

The world — including Israel — had to talk to Hamas, directly or indirectly, to end the crisis. “Right now Israel [is] having more intensive indirect negotiations with Hamas than it has with Abbas’s PA for most of [the] last 2 years,” the BBC’s Gaza and West Bank correspondent observed on Wednesday.

“When Israel wanted a ceasefire, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas,” Aaron David Miller wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy entitled, “How Hamas Won the War.”

The PA, on the other hand, has become nearly irrelevant. “Since the crisis began, President Obama seems to have talked to every other Middle Eastern leader except Abbas,” Miller noted. The world leaders who traveled to the region over the last few days all stopped by Ramallah, but those were courtesy calls.

Israel’s conduct of Pillar of Defense may reflect conclusions drawn from Operation Cast Lead, which lasted from December 27, 2008 until January 18, 2009.

Cast Lead began 45 days before the 2009 elections, while Pillar of Defense was launched 68 days before the 2013 elections. Cast Lead lasted for over three weeks and involved a substantial ground operation. More than a thousand Palestinians were killed, among them hundreds of civilians. Israel pulled the plug on this battle much earlier, after one week, without getting lost in a protracted and potentially costly ground operation.

Remembering the harsh diplomatic aftermath of Cast Lead, with allegations of war crimes and disproportionality, the government this time made a concerted effort to maintain international legitimacy.

In the days before Israel launched the Pillar of Defense, the government worked hard to create understanding for Israel’s need to act. Jerusalem’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, sent several letters to the Security Council complaining about the rockets. Netanyahu gathered some 50 foreign ambassadors in Ashkelon two days before the campaign started, telling them that “we’ll take whatever action is necessary to put a stop to [the rockets on the south]… This is not merely our right, it’s also our duty… Any fair-minded person in any fair-minded government in the world would understand that it’s our right to defend our people, and this is what we shall do.”

This preemptive pro-Israel advocacy seems to have had some beneficial impact.

When the first reports of Palestinian civilians came in, Western governments called on Israel to exercise “maximum restraint,” but there was no outrage at Israel’s offensive.

Press coverage was also relatively positive, an Israeli official said. While some media outlets, especially in the UK, portrayed Israel’s action in a generally negative way, most newspapers and TV stations were rather fair in their reporting. The Spanish press, known to be staunchly pro-Palestinian, this time was “surprisingly supportive,” the official said.

Most importantly, perhaps, Israel’s relationship with the US seemed firm. So much had been written about the bad chemistry and political differences between Obama and Netanyahu. Some of the president’s opponents claimed he was liable to “throw Israel under the bus” and argued that in his second term, Obama would “show his true face” and be extraordinarily tough on Israel. No longer needing the Jewish vote, he would seek revenge on Netanyahu for disagreements and pro-Mitt Romney interventions.

In the event, the White House stood firmly behind Israel’s right to defend itself with no ifs, ands or buts, the prime minister indicated.

“President Obama asked me to come to Israel with a very clear message: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering,” US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told Netanyahu when she arrived in Jerusalem Tuesday night.

In fact, the US was the only nation that commented on the operation without publicly urging Jerusalem against a ground operation. Netanyahu, in Wednesday’s press conference, hence made a point to “particularly” thank Obama for his “resolute support for Israel’s actions, for this operation and for Israel’s right to defend itself.”

“If this constitutes the US throwing Israel under the bus,” quipped one pundit this week, “I wish they’d throw us under a train.”

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