By James Lewis
Every government action in Israel is the result of endless debates and committee negotiations. The current punitive campaign against Hamas in Gaza has so many military and political levels that it seems like Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But the one thing it will not do is wipe out radical Islamist control of Gaza.
That does not mean the pinpoint attacks on Hamas are useless. But consider a simple number: Hamas is estimated to have 15,000 trained gunmen in Gaza. Another 5,000 belong to other radical jihadist groups. The Second Lebanon War showed that Hezbollah, a deeply dug-in Iran-type militia, which glorifies death to its people from childhood onward, cannot be wiped out by air attacks alone. Such wars require costly boots on the ground, and plenty of time and patience to clear every bunker, every tunnel and every house. That basic military fact has not changed since the Civil War, World War I and the US Marines at Okinawa. It has always been immensely costly in lives.
To drive Hamas out of Gaza Israel would therefore have to put at risk enough infantry and armor to uproot 20,000 deeply bunkered Iran-trained, suicidal defenders, much like the Imperial Japanese in World War II. It cannot afford to do that strategically, because Gaza is only one out of four dangerous fronts — Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are all potentially more dangerous. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Further, Israel cannot afford to put thousands of lives at risk in an optional war, because it is a democracy and its army is one of the last citizens’ armies left in the world.
Finally, the timing of this punitive campaign suggests at least three political layers, all of which happen to coincide at this particular moment in time. No political or military benefits would accrue if thousands of IDF soldiers were put into the meat grinder of dug-in Hamas bunkers, in combat situations where the defense always has the edge.
All that suggests that the Gaza action will be a long-distance campaign, using air and artillery, along with some armored and special forces strikes, all ending before January 20 — the inauguration date of the next US president. The president-elect has been conspicuously silent so far, and the Bush White House has actively accused Hamas of sabotaging peace negotiations — which is obviously true. It looks like a tacit agreement between the US and Israel to allow a period of punitive strikes against the most radical Palestinian die-hards in power.
Here are some of the apparent calculations.
The US-Israel connection
The United States accepts Israel’s right to strike back under international law, after many months of passivity in the face of primitive but still lethal missile attacks on the little town of Sderot and its surrounding areas. Kassam and Grad rockets look like minor news only if you’re not in the line of fire. No nation can accept constant harassing missile strikes on its civilian population from a sworn genocidal enemy, in a decades-long war of endurance. A ‘proportional response,’ as recommended by the fat and secure busybodies at the UN and the world media, has never led to peace with a fanatical enemy, who is ready to sacrifice thousands of civilians and gunmen just for propaganda advantage.
In the last few years the Bush Administration has held out high hopes for peace negotiations, based in good part on Saudi and Arab League gestures toward Israel, and the shared danger of Iran, which threatens the Arab world as much as it does the Jewish State. That hope for a comprehensive peace agreement has not been realized, and Israel is essentially re-asserting its right to self-defense, as it has no doubt told the US it must do at some point.
The incoming Obama Administration can point out that it is not yet in charge of foreign policy. The die-hard jihadis in Gaza are being punished, and every sane person in the Arab world understands that. Many secretly approve. They have seen what Al Qaida does in Iraq. That fact may strengthen the hand of the Hillary-Obama State Department next year. But nobody really believes this campaign will defeat the jihadi die-hards in a final and conclusive way.
The Israel-Palestinian connection
Israel’s policy is always to strengthen Palestinian “moderates,” those who are willing to postpone their genocidal hopes to a remoter future. That means the Fatah organization run by Mahmoud Abbas and his fabled corruptocracy on the West Bank, which would dearly love to overthrow Hamas in Gaza. Abbas is leaving office soon, and the next prime minister of the PA will be strengthened vis-a-vis the radicals by the IDF campaign. The Gaza campaign therefore fits the Fatah agenda as well. Whether it will end up strengthening the pragmatists is anybody’s guess.
The Iranian threat
Since 1979 the IDF has viewed Iran as its biggest military challenge, and has constantly built up means to face a fanatical Iran with long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. That moment of truth will come in the next US administration. By importing Clintonistas into the State Department, the US is at least aware of that reality. By now Obama must be fully briefed on the state of Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps even with Russian intelligence information. (The Russians want to sell dangerous stuff to Iran, but they don’t want a nuclear maniac regime next door. Russia and Eastern Europe have long been a barrier against jihadi fanatics, including the Chechnyans whom the Russians brutally repressed. So Putin will try to play both sides, and hope that somebody else will neutralize the Iranian threat. Briefing Obama about the reality of Iran’s nuclear program would serve Putin’s purposes.)
Bottom line: mullahs with nukes are a lethal threat to everybody. What we are seeing in Gaza, and two years ago in Lebanon, were proxy campaigns designed to scare and if possible neutralize a dangerous local enemy in order to face the genocidal strategic enemy if push comes to shove. Like any skilled military force, the IDF is constantly probing its opponents to assess strengths and weaknesses.
Gaza is therefore a test-bed for lessons learned after the Second Lebanon War. If IDF probes reveal weaknesses in the Iranian-style Hamas defenses, they will push and push and push until they meet a hard wall. Then they will add up lessons learned, and apply them wherever Israel (and US armed forces) might confront Iranian military tactics. Even the bunker-penetrating bombs being used by the IAF in Gaza today originally were made by the US Air Force, to hit deeply bunkered positions in Iraq while minimizing civilian casualties. Iran’s bunkered nuclear installations may fit the Gaza and Hezbollah pattern as well.
The domestic Israeli connection
The Obama Administration wants a Leftist prime minister in Israel, someone who is pliable and willing to make major territorial concessions to the Palestinian Authority. That means either Ehud Barak, who led the retreat from Lebanon in 1992, or Tzipi Livni. They represent two parties of the Left, which could form a majority coalition in the Knesseth. One reason why the punitive Gaza strikes are taking place right now is that Obama and Hillary don’t want a Bibi Netanyahu right-of-center coalition. The Gaza campaign will strengthen the Left in Israel, or that is at least the calculation.
The kicker in all the political and military calculations
Both the US and Israel have been engaged in a truly painful learning curve against Iran and its proxies. Chances are that the IDF is more effective today against Hamas fortifications than it was in 2006 against similar Hezbollah bunkers and tunnels. But the enemy always gets a vote, and no rational military can risk over-confidence. That is why rational military campaigns perform “reconnaissance in force” at many levels.
The big unknown is the outcome of this punitive campaign, both politically and militarily. Already it seems that Ehud Barak is promising more than the IDF is likely to achieve, “a war to the bitter end.” Such a war would be foolish, in view of the fact that the real strategic enemy is not in Gaza but in Tehran. Barak’s apparent overstatement is justifiable as strategic disinformation to confuse the enemy, forcing Hamas to keep men and materiel in reserve for a prolonged ground attack. But it also raises the possibility of a major disappointment among Israel’s voters, as occurred after the 2006 Hezbollah campaign.
If the Israeli public is disillusioned by the Gaza campaign, it may vote Netanyahu into power rather than the Left. In that case, the Obama Administration may have a harder time trying to arm-twist Israel into making big territorial concessions.
This is a political-military campaign. That is not inherently wrong, since it is defensive in nature, it demonstrates the lawful will of a democratic nation to defend itself in the face of endless (if rather random) missile strikes against its civilian population, and it will kill some of the Hamas leadership and force the rest to hunker down. The Gaza campaign has already destroyed many of the visible symbols of Hamas pride and show. It might strengthen more pragmatic Palestinian factions enough to enable them to make a public deal with Israel — at a hefty price — in the next few years.
In the face of real danger to the civilized world from mad mullahs with nukes, it is to the advantage of sane nations to tamp down the fires of any other conflict that threatens to split the opposition to the mullahs. That may be an achievable goal. It will no doubt come under the glorious banner of Peace Eternal, hyped up by the PR team of Barack Obama and David Axelrod, with the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo doing the background jive and rhythm.
With real luck and sacrifice, we will see a period of greater stability — but as Michael Ledeen keeps pointing out, real safety for the entire world, including the US, the Middle East and Europe, can only come if the Black Widow Spider in Tehran can be defanged for good.