Defeat in Sderot and the need for strategic learning

The late Ze’ev Schiff (1932-2007) was the outstanding military correspondent of Ha’aretz. We are most fortunate to be able to draw on his analytical ability to understand the present hot war in which Israel is engaged.

The words of Ze’ev Schiff have a ring of honesty and immediacy which makes us feel that he is speaking directly to us. He published his analysis on 8 June 2007, under the title, “An Israeli Defeat in Sderot.” At the time he was writing, it was mainly Sderot that was under rocket fire. At present, Hamas rockets regularly fall on the cities and settlements of the south, the coastal cities, and far beyond. Seven years later, the situation has substantially deteriorated. The scale and force of Hamas aggression has increased dramatically.

Here are some extracts from Schiff’s article. These give a sense of his language and personality. Briefly, Ze’ev Schiff wrote that Hamas defeated Israel in Sderot and laid out his reasons:

  • Even if we declare dozens of times that Hamas is under pressure and wants a cease-fire, it will not erase the fact that in the battle for Sderot, Israel has in effect been defeated.
  • Israel is experiencing something in Sderot that it has not experienced since the War of Independence, if ever: The enemy has silenced an entire city and brought normal life there to a halt.
  • The government has not succeeded in turning bombarded Sderot into a national defense project. That reinforces the assessment that this government is incapable of leading the nation in a major military confrontation.
  • The enemy that defeated Sderot is a terror organization that is militarily weak, yet in spite of its weakness, it has succeeded in achieving deterrence vis-à-vis Israel, just as Hezbollah did. The government and the defense establishment try to explain away the situation with excuses such as the following: This would be a difficult battle in which large numbers of Palestinians would be killed and Israel would suffer many losses; The IDF would be stuck in the Gaza Strip at a time when the Syrian front is likely to flare up; International public opinion would oppose a harsh Israeli response. Meanwhile, when rockets are fired from populated areas. the IDF is not even returning fire at the launch sources.
  • What matters is the final result, not the explanations. And the result is that there is mutual deterrence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel finds itself in a military draw with Hamas. That is a serious national failure, which in my opinion is worse than the failure of the Second Lebanon War.
  • Israel’s strategic (and not only geographic) depth is insignificant. If what is happening in the Gaza Strip were to happen to Israel in the West Bank, we would be back in a situation like that of the War of Independence, and this could include the expulsion of terrorism supporters.

It is obvious that Israel cannot beat the enemy by duplicating the same measures which failed over the recent years. It is necessary to begin a process of “strategic learning” in order break loose from the mistakes of the past. Strategic learning is a process by which a country changes its strategic goals on the basis of continuous evaluation. At the same time, one should remember that in business management the measure of a sound decision is that it solves a problem for the long term, removing the need to put out brush fires.

Today, in 2014, we are fighting the same war that Schiff described in 2007. This proves that Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert failed in their decision-making. Therefore, we cannot hold the present government completely accountable for the current situation and for the mistaken doctrine which it inherited. The accepted thinking of the Israel defense establishment has been that the situation in the south of Israel was essentially manageable. There would be periodic battles with the Hamas, but in the quiet intervals both sides would use the opportunity to prepare for the next round of violence. Israel developed the Iron Dome, and the Hamas dug tunnels. This is not a solution, and if the present government really seeks an improvement, it must break away from the trap of mistaken thinking, the “conceptsia” it inherited.

What matters is the final result, not the explanations. We must enter a process of strategic learning that will result in long-term political and military solutions. It has become obvious to the Israeli public that improvisation has failed. The time has come for some clear thinking.

First published on the Hebrew website Mid’a, August 26, 2014

About the Author
Dr. Joel Fishman is a historian and fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He received his doctorate in modern European history at Columbia University. His area of research is political warfare.