This is a guest post from Alex Stein of falsedichotomies.com
A reader on the Abu Muqawama blog gets it: “If Israel doesn’t perform up to expectations, talk is about how poorly Israel performed. When Israel routs an opponent, then Israel is the bully, and everyone talks about that.” Israel can’t win. Citizens of the world call for Israel, but not Hamas, to cease its fire. Israel does so, and the rockets predictably continue, now with an added justification, namely the continued presence of Israeli soldiers on Gazan territory. If Israel does nothing, Hamas and its cheerleaders will claim that the resistance has won. In a conflict which is often dominated by perception, this is crucial. Who’d be an Israeli policymaker?
These difficulties shouldn’t mean we let Israel’s current crop of leaders off lightly. It was never going to be difficult to improve on the mistakes of the Second Lebanon War. Our leading trio, though, disappointed. At the beginning things looked more promising, although I suppose they always do. A concise operation with clearly defined objectives, an understanding that there was only so much we could do at this stage in time, with the military and political echelons working in tandem to stave off drift. But drift is what we got; the soldiers left aimlessly in the field without a diplomatic plan for their removal. Ehud Olmert, who looked remarkably statesman-like at the beginning (when’s the last time we were able to say that about an Israeli Prime Minister?), ended up foolishly boasting about how he got Bush to scupper Rice’s Security Council resolution. With the world already obsessed over the idea that Zionists control American foreign policy, this wasn’t a clever move.
Israel predictably lost the battle for hearts and minds. This was inevitable from the outset, following the government’s decision to prevent journalists from entering Gaza. Hamas duly shaped public perception. As if that wasn’t enough, our artillery unit once again excelled itself, with its final criminal blunder of the war resulting in the death of three children of a makeshift Israeli television correspondent, live on air. If you’re consoled by the thought that this abject stupidity gives lie to the notion that we deliberately target civilians, imagine what you’d be thinking if your kids were lying under the rubble.
As the famous American soldier John Paul Vann writes, “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle – you know who you’re killing.” There is an unintended irony in his words, written long before this conflict: carrying out an operation like this less than two months before an election politicises the fighting even further. The brutal truth is that we fought callously hard, which is why there have been so many civilian casualties. As Haaretz noted at the weekend, the ‘Buchris’ method has reigned supreme, with Barak and Livni terrified of the electoral consequences of a high Israeli bodycount (Ehud Olmert has no such worries; hence his greater enthusiasm for taking the fight deep into Gaza City). This, I suppose, is a case of trying to have your cake and eat it, which will be of little consolation to the Palestinians whose lives have been ruined. Still, given how the world reacted to Operation Defensive Shield (with its “disproportionate” ratio of 29 Israel soldiers dead to 50-60 Palestinians, most of them militants), the incentive to ease up was never great to begin with.
On the bright side, we’ve managed to stop everything in time for Obama’s swearing in, although no-one thinks the ceasefire will last for long (it’s already been broken, of course, but if we counted these transgressions the word ceasefire itself would soon fade from the lexicon). Greater mechanisms – at least on a technocratic level – are being put in place to stop the arms smuggling, but without a deal to ensure the steady supply of humanitarian goods to Gaza, not to mention a prisoner exchange, there is no hope of a real long-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas. As for a real peace, while Hamas maintains its rejectionism, this remains an impossibility.
All that’s left is to ask is who won, a less callous question than it might at first appear. Of course, the real losers are – once again – Palestinian civilians. But in asking who won between Israel and Hamas, we can begin to make some assessments regarding what might happen the next time around. “But did Hamas really lose much?” another reader on Abu Muquwama asks. “That seems to be all that Hamas needed to do, is not be wiped off the map, and let public outrage harm Israel’s reputation and keep support going for them. Then, when Israel leaves, Hamas reemerges.” Or, “Israel keeps losing more and more moral credibility with every step it takes, Hamas doesn’t have any credibility to begin with so it can’t lose that.” Hamas is deep in its pit, luring us in. All we have is a military policy, which means we’re not aware of the tremendous political damage our actions are doing on the ground. As I said at the top of this piece, our dilemmas are acute, awful even. But they are not irresolvable. When we finally elect a government that will present a political plan that gives clear and present promise to everyone living between the river and the sea, the evil decree may be averted. If not, all is gloom.