Israelis are still smarting from the less than satisfactory outcome of this summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas that left the terror group still ruling Gaza and capable of firing rockets on the Jewish state whenever they choose. The discontent about who won the war and, as Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out yesterday, Israel’s limited ability to win any such conflict in such a way to conclude it, is to be expected. But it also misses the point about what Israel’s primary objective is in the now century-long war being waged to extinguish the Zionist project.
In his insightful take on the just concluded round of fighting, author Yossi Klein Halevi writes in the New Republic that the Palestinian talking point that the conflict was caused by Israel’s siege of the Islamist-run enclave in Gaza has it backwards. It wasn’t the siege that caused the war between Israelis and Palestinians; it’s the war Hamas—and other Palestinian groups—have been waging to destroy Israel that caused the siege. In other words, rather than focus so much on the lack of a war-winning strategy that would finish Hamas, it is necessary for both disgruntled Israelis and those seeking to either console or to lecture them about their predicament to place these events in a historical perspective that is inevitably lacking in any debate about a specific battle.
This is difficult thing to ask of people who spent 50 days going back and forth to bomb shelters as Hamas rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities, towns, and villages and were threatened with murder via terror tunnels that were being prepared for future mayhem. Netanyahu was right to assert that Hamas had been defeated on the battlefield as its rocket offensive did relatively little damage and its tunnel project was destroyed. But the prime minister was also forced to admit that despite the severe losses suffered by the terrorist group and the Palestinian population it used as human shields, he could not say for certain that he had obtained the quiet along the border that was one of the country’s objectives in the conflict.
As David Horowitz writes in the Times of Israel, that disappoints the overwhelming majority of Israelis who supported the war effort. Many think Netanyahu was wrong to stop short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza that would eliminate Hamas once and for all. Though it’s not likely that the country would have tolerated the enormous losses that choice would entail for both Israel and the Palestinians or be happy about governing Gaza again, this complaint is logical. So long as Hamas is still in possession of the strip, any cease-fire will be only temporary and a two-state solution to the conflict between the two peoples is impossible.
But the point here isn’t whether Netanyahu, whose cautious conduct of the recent fighting may be better appreciated in the long run that it is today, made the right decision about pursuing what may well be an illusory chance for military victory. It’s that this particular war is merely another short chapter in a very long war for Israel’s existence whose end is nowhere in sight. Going into Gaza further might satisfy a current need but in the long term, Israel’s defense and its political position might be better served by waiting until a future round to settle with the Islamists.
That’s a bitter pill for the people of southern Israel, especially those who live in kibbutzim and towns adjacent to Gaza, to swallow. Many wonder whether it is wise for them to stay in places that are essentially battlefields. They know that the calm that prevails there today will, sooner or later, return to the perilous situation of the previous weeks. They are blaming Netanyahu for that since they had hoped that he would use the rockets and the tunnels as a reason to reverse Israel’s 2005 decision to withdraw every last soldier, settlement, and settler from Gaza. While even today most Israelis wouldn’t be happy about resuming the occupation of the strip, there’s no doubt that Ariel Sharon’s decision was a disaster of monumental proportions that has cost Israel dearly.
But what Israelis and those who care about it must acknowledge is that no matter what Netanyahu chose to do, no action, including a re-occupation of Gaza, would have ended the long war in which they are engaged for the Jewish state’s survival.
This is frequently forgotten, especially by those who accept the false premise that the “occupation” or the plight of Gaza is the reason the conflict continues. Unfortunately, as the frequent rejection of peace offers that would have given the Palestinians a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and even a share of Jerusalem has proved, the conflict remains an existential one, not one about borders or settlements. Hamas’s goal remains the elimination of the Jewish state and the eviction of its population not to change Israel’s borders to accommodate limited Palestinian ambitions. Even if the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas claim to be willing to end the conflict, it, too, has consistently balked at every opportunity to do so since such an agreement would be considered a betrayal of a Palestinian sense of identity that is inextricably tied to opposition to Zionism and little else.
As Halevi points out, the Hamas offensive was designed as much to demoralize Israelis as to kill them. For them, this round was just one more step toward weakening the Jewish state until the day when Israelis are too tired or isolated to resist them.
Yet for all the characteristic pessimism and political venom that is currently pulsing through the Israeli body politic this week, those who believe that time is on the side of the Palestinians and that the Jews must act quickly to save their country from imminent peril, either through military action or more foolish diplomatic initiatives, are wrong.
If there is anything that we should have learned from all these decades of conflict, it is that despite the constant predictions of Israel’s doom, it has only gotten stronger with each passing year both from a military and economic point of view. Though the conflict continues and will persist until the day when a sea change in Arab and Muslim opinion will allow the emergence of a Palestinian peace movement that is truly committed to two states for two peoples, Israel can afford to wait until that happens.
It is instructive to note, as Halevi does, that despite the constant talk of demoralization and of the country losing its soul, its response to the Hamas assault was remarkably strong. Neither the trauma of war nor the rising tide of international anti-Semitism in response to the insistence of the Israelis on defending themselves weakened the nation’s resolve or the readiness of its people to do what was necessary to ensure their country’s survival. Despite their grousing, they appear ready to answer the same call when it inevitably goes out again. Persisting in a war of generations rather than days and weeks isn’t easy for any democracy, as America’s recent experience in the Middle East proved. But as difficult as it is for Israelis to accept Netanyahu’s caution this week, his position may reflect the patience needed to win a long war better than his more strident critics.