Israel’s situation today vis-à-vis Gaza, from the bottom up, is quite untenable.
Hamas and other groups have fired some 11,000 rockets at Israel since 2001, according to Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter — 160 or so of them since Saturday evening. Israel’s sovereignty has been violated time and again. The residents of the south have found themselves on the front lines on innumerable occasions. Children have been raised with the undulating alarm and the Color Red alert poisoning their days and penetrating their sleep.
People living in Sderot and Netivot are outraged: They know that if this rocket fire was being directed at Tel Aviv, Israel would be at war. They also know that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak only promised to fortify the houses situated between 4.5 and 7 kilometers from Gaza on October 24, in the midst of an elections campaign. (Homes closer to Gaza are already fortified.) Moreover, they know that for years the IDF and the government decided against investing in short-and-medium-range rocket protection, which is why batteries of the Iron Dome missile defense system, developed against the top brass’s wishes and increasingly vital in these rounds of rocket attacks, have thus far been acquired in insufficient numbers and why the towns and kibbutzim closest to the border, beneath Iron Dome’s range, remain vulnerable to rocket and mortar fire.
The IDF is ready to fulfill whatever mission the government hands down, but the senior officers know it will be hard to claim tangible victories in a ground invasion. The best the IDF can do is probably inflict painful blows on Hamas, as the defense minister has said, perhaps pushing it to a negotiated ceasefire through a combination of targeted killings and the sort of limited operation that forces Hamas and the international community to respond. Toppling the Hamas regime is not a sensible option — the consequences range from chaos, to the rise of a still more extreme Islamist regime, to a draining, vehemently unwanted restoration of Israeli responsibility — and victories against guerilla groups are difficult to attain and nearly impossible to secure.
The government owes its citizens some sort of solution. Speaking with Hamas, however, as advocated by former defense minister Amir Peretz, is not something Netanyahu is likely to do, and least of all while under fire. A limited operation, akin to winter 2008-9’s Operation Cast Lead, is a possibility., But even that means throwing Israel into a small war in Gaza – and, like all wars, one knows where it would start but not where it would end. This is especially meaningful today, with the Muslim Brotherhood presidency in Egypt, the Syrian border heating up and the entire region in a once-a-century sort of flux.
Internationally, Netanyahu has little goodwill to call upon. Prime minister Ehud Olmert won tangible international solidarity during Cast Lead, despite the high Gaza death toll, because he was perceived as doing everything to advance peace efforts with Mahmoud Abbas’ West Bank Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu enjoys no such credit.
It is difficult for the prime minister to commission a report that deems the settlements in the West Bank legal by international law – disregarding the opinion of every Western government – and at the same time to expect full-throated backing from the governments whose support Israel would need for a bloody resort to force. It is impossible to appoint a man such as Avigdor Liberman to the post of foreign minister – a virtual persona non grata in Washington DC and some of the capitals of Europe — and then think that you can count on the leaders of those countries for robust support in Israel’s hour of need. A prime minister cannot reasonably expect to keep both Moshe Feiglin and Angela Merkel happy.
Netanyahu is also a student of history. He knows that the rules for a left wing government and a right wing government are not similar. Internally, time has proven that only a right wing government is capable of pushing through a peace process that requires territorial concessions. The left wing, however, has far more leeway in a time of conflict. Both prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ariel Sharon were shocked when some 400,000 people turned up in Tel Aviv to protest the Lebanon War on September 25, 1982. Never during all the years of Labor rule had the Israeli people come out to protest while the guns were still warm.
The best case scenario for Netanyahu may be to ready the country and the world for war – much as he has done on the Iranian issue – while clandestinely urging and fervently hoping that someone else will intervene in its stead.
But if they do not, if Egypt cannot or will not broker a deal, and if the US is disinclined or unable to help at this time, then however discouraging the circumstances, the Israeli government will have to act.