At the outset of Operation Cast Lead, Israel had two immediate precedents in front of it. The happy precedent is Operation Defensive Shield launched in 2002, after a month in which 130 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks, culminating in the Seder Night Massacre in Netanya. At that point, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon realized that Israel’s citizens had come to feel like ducks in a shooting gallery – an untenable situation. In the face of overwhelming international condemnation and a constant stream of wild, atrocity stories in the mainstream European press, claiming that Israel had slaughtered thousands of Palestinian civilians in cold blood, the IDF took control of Judea and Samaria once again. Even an order from an initially sympathetic President Bush for the IDF to halt its military operations went unheeded.
Operation Defensive Shield resulted in a dramatic transformation of Israel’s security situation. With the IDF now able to enter Palestinian cities at will and with the kind of intelligence that is only possible with an on-the-ground presence, the IDF brought terrorism from the West Bank to a virtual halt. That situation continues until the present.
The other, less happy precedent is, of course, the 2006 Second Lebanon War. At the outset of that war, I wrote in these pages that if Hizbullah leader Nasrallah could plausibly claim victory at the end of the fighting, then Israel would have suffered a defeat with long lasting repercussions for its deterrent capability. After 34 days of indecisive fighting, Nasrallah’s claim was more than plausible. On the last day of fighting, prior to a ceasefire going into effect, Hizbullah still fired 300 missiles at Israel. And the ineffectual U.N. Security Council resolution that terminated the fighting resulted in Hizbullah being able to double the number of missiles it possessed at the outset of the fighting in 2006 and dramatically increase their range over the past two years. Hizbullah has also become the dominant power in the Lebanese government.
AFTER HAMAS ANNOUNCED that it was ending its six-month ceasefire with Israel, and followed up that announcement by firing 140 missiles at Israel over two days, Israel had no choice but to respond with force, particularly after Hamas taunted Israel’s leaders for their cowardice in the face of the Hamas missile barrage. Operation Cast Lead began well enough. Israeli bombers and helicopters, furnished with pinpoint intelligence, hit a large number of high value Hamas targets in the first days of fighting.
But the Second Lebanon War also began well with the Israel Air Force destroying Hizbullah’s Beirut headquarters and taking out almost all of its long-range missiles in the space of 38 minutes. Already by the third day of Operation Cast Lead, an unhappy feeling of deja vu had already set in. Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly mulled a two-day humanitarian ceasefire, prior to Israel having attained any tangible goal and with Hamas’s military capabilities undiminished. IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi issued an unprecedented statement that the IDF did not seek a ceasefire in response to Barak’s peace overtures. By day four, Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni was already on her way to France to discuss a European-sponsored ceasefire, which would have resulted in tangible concessions to Hamas, still before Israel had any lasting achievements to which it could point.
Meanwhile, the reserves were called up and ground troops and tanks gathered on the Gaza border, but without any indications of an imminent ground operation. Former National Security Advsisor and Head of the Military Planning Branch, Gen. Giora Eiland, charged at the end of the first week of military action that the government was repeating the mistakes of Lebanon by failing to clearly define its goals or the means to their achievement.
His reaction was mild compared to firebrand columnist Caroline Glick, Israel’s most gung-ho journalistic warrior, who wrote in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post that the public should demand that there not be any ground operation so that no troops place their lives in jeopardy in a war that the Olmert-Livni-Barak government had already decided to lose.
ON MOTZAEI SHABBOS, just a little over a week after the first air sorties, IDF troops entered the Gaza Strip in force. What the outcome of the ground operation will be it is still far too early to determine. But the ground operation to date is clearly no repeat of the bumbling stop and start campaign in Lebanon in 2006. Israeli troops have clearly been well-trained and prepared for the operation, and their military objectives have been well-thought out in advance. On the basis of the evidence so far, the IDF has removed at least part of the stain of the Second Lebanon War, which the Winograd Commission determined to be a military failure, as well as a failure of the the civilian leadership.
At the outset of the ground operation, there were rumors that it would be a quick one, winding down in advance of Monday’s visit of French President Nicholas Sarkozy to Israel. France has labeled Israel’s military response disproportionate and called for an immediate ceasefire. That early cessation of fighting on Israel’s part has not occurred
Indeed Israel has shown no inclination to stop fighting before it has seriously degraded Hamas’s military capabilities and has proven itself the clear winner. Perhaps having noticed that Labor Party leader Barak’s standing has shot up in the polls in response to the success of Operation Cast Lead so far, Kadima head and Foreign Minister Livni told a group of European Union foreign ministers in Jerusalem that “the days of Hamas firing rockets and Israel showing restraint are over.” She vowed that Israel intended to change the regional equation in favor of moderate, peace-seeking governments.
In the long-run, the test of Operation Cast Lead will be whether Israel is able to retake the Philadelphi Corridor, under which Hamas’s Iranian-produced missiles are smuggled, or achieve other arrangements dramatically reducing Hamas’s ability to smuggle in new weaponry. While there is no taste in Israel for reoccupying Gaza, it is possible that Israel will retain control over the northern Gaza Strip from which most of the missiles aimed at Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Beersheba have been fired. (Dovish former Deputy Chief of Staff Uzi Dayan recommended at the time of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza that Israel should retain the four northernmost communities, as a protection against just what has happened.)
PREDICTABLY, SEVERAL MAJOR WESTERN EUROPEAN cities witnessed last week anti-Israeli demonstrations decrying Israel’s alleged war crimes and brutality. Britain’s The Guardian whined that President-elect Obama had not condemned Israel and warned that he was risking his credibility with Arab countries by not doing so.
But the news on the international front was not all bad. Though issuing ritual calls for Israel to cease and desist, both Fatah and Egypt were outspoken in laying the blame for the outbreak of hostilites on Hamas.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made no bones about Hamas’s responsibility for the fighting. The Czech Foreign Minister, who is the current head of the conference of European Foreign Ministers, described Israel’s actions as purely defensive. Something about the still fresh memories of living under the Soviet jackboot causes Eastern European countries to place a higher value on freedom and to identify with other little countries determined to preserve their own. Even the left-leaning Italian press condemned Hamas for breaking the ceasefire and acknowledged that no country can tolerate being bombarded by terrorists without responding. And Canada’s foreign minister put the matter bluntly, “[Hamas's] rocket attacks are the cause of this crisis.”
Most stalwart of all was American President George W. Bush. He called Hamas a group of “thugs,” and staunchly defended Israel’s right to self-defense. When Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice started working with her British counterpart David Milliband on a ceasefire resolution, the President ordered her to stop. Bush’s full support for Israel’s actions is one more reminder of why he will be badly missed by most Israelis.
The most worrisome international reaction was in the United States itself. CNN interviewed Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti, who claimed that Israel, not Hamas, had broken to the ceasefire in a November 4 raid into Gaza, in which it destroyed a tunnel being dug into Israel for the purpose of abducting another Israeli soldier. Then CNN purported to “fact-check” Barghouti’s claims and found that there had indeed been an Israeli raid on November 4. But what CNN neglected to mention was that prior to that raid Palestinians had fired dozens of rockets into Israel since the onset of the ceasefire. Nor did it mention that the November 4 raid followed discovery of a tunnel that had already been dug into Israel proper. Finally, Hamas itself declared it was terminating the ceasefire on December 19 and proceeded to do so. CNN’s reporting increasingly resembles that of the BBC and other European stations.
But even more disturbing was a Rasmussen poll on the reactions of Democrats and Republicans to the Gaza fighting. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans, but less than half of Democrats, blame the Palestinians for the outbreak of fighting. While 62% of Republicans backed Israel’s response to being bombarded, only 31% of Democrats did so. Fifty-five per cent of Democrats felt that Israel should have first tried to find a diplomatic solution. Apparently that 55% of Democrats are unaware that Israel has endured thousands of missile strikes over the last seven year, and that they increased by 500% in 2005 after Israel fully withdrew from Gaza.
No great act of imaginative empathy is required to understand Israel’s situation or to place oneself in the position of living in a city in which two or three lethal missiles may land in a single day. The fact that over half of Democrats cannot find that empathy, or place themselves in the position of 800,000 Israeli citizens in Hamas missile range, indicates either a decided antipathy to Israel or else a rejection of the use of force in any circumstances and an exclusive reliance on talk.
The Rasmussen poll indicates how far in the direction of Europe the Democratic Party has moved. It also demonstrates that American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the most recent elections, and who claimed ad nauseum that the Republican and Democratic parties are equally pro-Israel (despite a spate of earlier Gallup polls showing the same thing as the Rasmussen poll), were either duped or do not care very much about Israel.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on Wednesday, January 7, 2009.