The ceasefire which brought an end to Operation Pillar of Defense either signals yet another temporary hiatus in the ever-escalating spiral of violence between Israelis and Palestinians or heralds a critical turning point in the quest for genuine security. Much depends on whether the post-campaign analysis centers not on identifying the winners and the losers or on arguing the advisability of eschewing ground action, as it has in the past few days, but on attempting to unravel the reasons for the inability to achieve Israel’s most important objective: the attainment of comprehensive security for itself and its citizens. Failure to draw the necessary lessons from the latest round of violence and suffering will only thicken the pillar of cloud (the Hebrew name for the latest military initiative) covering the region and invite a further occlusion. Here are some starting points for such a reassessment.
Lesson #1: Expand the scope of public deliberation
For eight full days, while a large portion of the residents of southern Israel and Gaza were traumatized by rockets and bombardments, Israelis were treated by the media to a non-stop procession of talking heads who debated everything from the next military moves to how to deal with the psychological effects of screeching sirens. These men (women were largely absent from the conversation) produced quite a bit of seemingly supportive noise, but very little real discussion. Indeed, the few alternative viewpoints that penetrated this verbiage were greeted by a mixture of ridicule and disdain, when not dismissed out of hand as disloyal or unpatriotic.
The limitations placed on public discourse did not allow for a serious exchange either on the roots of the operation, its conduct, or, for that matter, on its consequences. But if ultimately the goal is to prevent a recurrence of such harmful and essentially meaningless cycles of violence, then the door must be opened to ideas and voices that go beyond the existing self-imposed verbal and mental straitjacket. The encouragement of out-of-the-box thinking and the incorporation of diverse opinions into the public domain can help to produce a much more meaningful discussion on a desirable vision than that promoted by what has become a uniform, monolithic and dangerously uncreative chorus of ostensibly cheering refrains.
Lesson #2: Abandon conceptual paralysis
The stated objectives of the latest Israeli operation in Gaza were to deter the Hamas and to defend the civilian population against further rocket attacks. It was the latest in a series of Israeli military initiatives dating back to the beginning of this century that confuse the concept of security with that of defense. While the physical protection of citizens is the incontrovertible duty of any sovereign state, successive governments have, by entrenching a defensive paradigm, made the mistake of assuming that such actions will bring about a durable security.
The experience of recent weeks highlights the pitfalls of such a conflation. The barrage of rocket fire which extended to the country’s major urban concentrations merely accentuated the overwhelming sense of vulnerability of broad segments of Israel’s population.Israel’s “targeted” killings, “surgical” strikes, carefully planned “shavings” and ground “exposures” (a bizarre lexicon for various types of military actions) added substantial fodder to the sense of victimhood prevalent in Gaza as well. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the real hero of this operation for many Israelis (although hardly for their counterparts in Gaza) was the Iron Dome – advanced by the only minister of defense with no professional military experience in recent years – which offered technological respite and hence a modicum of protection.
The emphasis on defense (especially when employed to rationalize military action) is perhaps the best indicator of the lack of security. Indeed, this operation proved yet again that the use of force has built-in limitations. The key takeaway from recent forays can no longer be ignored: protection is but one component of prevention; military offensives alone cannot ensure security. This requires the employment of political and diplomatic tools as well.
Lesson #3: Determine the Endgame
Ostensibly,Israel’s strategic goal has always been the achievement of true security by becoming a legitimate part of the region. But Operation Pillar of Defense, like its predecessors in Gaza and Lebanon during the past decade, focused more on reducing real and perceived threats than on advancing this objective. As a result, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, successive governments have contributed to the already widespread popular suspicion of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. Ironically, the central role played by President Morsi of Egypt (and indirectly by King Abdullah ofJordan) in attaining the current ceasefire has not dispelled this preconception.
In fact, the Netanyahu government, by engaging the Hamas politically while simultaneously assailing the diplomatic moves of Mahmud Abbas, has actually perpetuated a crude and undifferentiated view of Israel’s immediate neighbors. It has also transmitted a message that rewards violence and shuns accommodation, thus doing a disservice to Israel’s long-term security.
This can yet be rectified by the unequivocal reaffirmation of Israel’s overall strategic purposes and by the setting in motion of policies that will promote these outcomes. This means that Israel must distinguish between the PLO and the Hamas, withhold punitive measure in the wake of the Palestinian bid for non-member state status in the UN, and initiate serious diplomatic discussions. It also implies careful consideration of the still vital Arab Peace Initiative. Such measures will not only promote Israel’s credibility, they will also enhance its true security.
Lesson #4: Redefine the components of security
The recent Gaza operation was predicated on minimalistic, militaristic, interpretations of defense, deterrence and security. If, externally, genuine security requires sustainable political moves, it is now also apparent that internally the meaning of security extends far beyond purely military matters. In an era of asymmetric warfare, where civilians are the key victims of ongoing violence (4,717 Gazans and 59 Israelis in the last decade alone), it is not possible to divorce military security from civil security. The last few days have underlined the extent to which welfare, health, economic sustainability and free movement of people and goods are an integral part of the concept of security in the 21st century.
A growing number of Israelis are reframing the notion of security to incorporate a comprehensive set of ingredients which together constitute their daily, human, security. These include housing as well as safe rooms; personal as well as collective safety; employment as well as increased military budgets. Taking a chapter from the discourse of women, factoring in the needs of diverse segments of the population can go a long way towards achieving meaningful human security. That is what the forthcoming elections should be about: deciding on what security means for Israelis in the years ahead.
Lesson #5: Revive hope
Eight long days of escalating violence, pain and fear – on top of over a decade of military escalation and diplomatic stagnation – seem to have yielded little but hopelessness. The most elusive and simultaneously tangible result of the latest round of fighting is a growing sense of fatalism: a feeling that there is a sort of inevitability to the conflict and its human byproducts. But extracting sane and constructive lessons from this experience offers a great deal of hope. By signaling to Israelis that they have the capacity to define their security and to delineate anew the ways by which it can be obtained, it is possible to lay the foundation for civic re-empowerment, regional accommodation and reconciliation.