Be wise and not right, goes the commonly heard Israeli phrase. That would seem to appropriately sum up PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon’s management of Operation Protective Edge over the past fifty days. Both leaders have refrained from giving in to popular public sentiment and pressure from within the government to take the battle to higher level, and bring Hamas to its knees even when that would have seemed to be the most righteous thing to do. Indeed even the most rational of all decision makers would have had a hard time stopping themselves from giving the IDF a free hand especially after the humiliating, non-stop barrage of rocket fire on cities in the south and center of the country.
PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon certainly need to be commended for sticking to their plans and view of the conflict. Realizing it would not be possible to eliminate all of the rockets and launchers in a densely populated area such as the Gaza strip, they turned their attention to the next achievable target which was the destruction of the tunnels of terror leading into Israel and demolishing the Hamas infrastructure as much as possible to reach a ceasefire under terms in Israel’s interest. Achieving ‘realistic’ goals was the primary objective of the operation as PM Netanyahu made evidently clear in the press conference Wednesday night.
The decision not to foray into an all-out offensive may also have to do with the fact that the rocket fire was not enough of a casus belli for a large scale ground operation. Thanks to the effective functioning of the Iron Dome system mass casualties have been prevented, but that has also served to restrain the leaders from taking military risks to rout the threat of rocket fire completely. Hamas rockets have caused relatively limited number of fatalities even though the loss of even a single life is too precious to ignore. While essentially serving as weapons of terror to disrupt normal life, they have become widely regarded as more of a horrible menace than an existential threat to Israel or its citizens. Taking the decision to authorize a ground assault within such a strategic framework would then prove detrimental given the potential for significant loss of soldier lives in the complex Gaza battlefield.
Thus goes the theory of rational thought which does make sense when seen through a cold, calculated decision making process. But human beings are not known to be highly rational creatures. At the emotional level, the disruption of daily life and the embarrassment of living from one warning siren to the next have caused people to push for a military solution. This also has to do with the issue of prestige and national pride, critical considerations of the strength of a nation. A bloodthirsty terrorist organization forcing half of the population to spend most of their time in bomb shelters is a clear blow to the national psyche. Hamas has no doubt been hit badly. But unfortunately air strikes do not win the war in the minds of the people. Ultimately it is the picture of ground forces victoriously returning home that strikes a chord anywhere in the world. This subjective expectation of the general population at large was out of sync with the objective choices based on systemic gains and losses made by PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon..
Only time will tell if Operation Protective Edge and the war against terror has been successful or not. Even the United States has not been able to wipe out the Al Qaeda threat completely, as PM Netanyahu mentioned signaling that it would be an ongoing process. Even India with one of the largest armies in the world has been facing a low-intensity conflict on its border with Pakistan for decades now, and has been unable to eradicate the threat totally.
But Israel does not have the same strategic depth enjoyed by other countries, and it cannot sustain a protracted conflict for too long. It is okay to win by points and not by a knockout. But at the end of the day the decision makers will have to strengthen their sense of resolve that the next time around they will need to make tough calls right from the start of the conflict. It is not only Hamas but the perceptions of the enemy in the north as well as new entrants to the region that need to be taken into account very seriously.