It is too early to assess the outcome of the just ended Operation Pillar of Defense. For one thing, we do not know whether the ceasefire will hold or for how long. Nor do we know what commitments were made by the Americans to Israel in return for not embarking on a full-scale ground operation. Nor do we know what undertakings, if any, were made by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government to interdict the smuggling of additional Fajr-5 missiles and weaponry into the Gaza Strip.
But it is not too early to assess the strategic consequences of Israel’s 2005 evacuation from Gaza. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wrote a powerful mea culpa last week for his earlier support, for then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal plan.
Though the arguments for withdrawal raised by Stephens and others at the time were not self-evidently wrong, there is little gainsaying Stephens’ current assessment. “Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza yielded less security, greater diplomatic isolation, and a Palestinian regime even more radical and emboldened than it had been before. As strategic failures go, it was nearly perfect.”
At the time of the withdrawal, Prime Minister Sharon insisted that if rocket fire continued from Gaza, Israel would strike back with full force. It is doubtful, however, that even such a tough warrior as Sharon would have acted on that threat had he not been felled by a stroke. First, any major military operation against Gazan terrorists would have been a de facto admission that critics of the withdrawal were right when they charged that Gaza would become a terrorist haven.
Second, the withdrawal was largely designed to curry international favor. At each juncture, the question would have been asked: Is the situation so unbearable that it merits sacrificing all the goodwill which Israel supposedly gained by withdrawing from Gaza? And the almost inevitable answer, barring a rocket hit on a school or hospital, would always have been no.
Rockets fired from Gaza increased from 281 in 2004, the last full year of an Israeli security presence, to 1,777 in 2006. Four or five crude but lethal rockets a day fired at civilian residents of the southern Negev town of Sderot came to be seen as a normal part of life. Seventy-five per cent of the children in Sderot suffered from post-trauma stress; families regularly slept together in their basements. And so rocket fire at civilians that no country in the world would have tolerated became a regular part of life for the Jews of Sderot.
Once Israel accepted the new norm – one which no country in the world would have tolerated — the rest of the world gladly followed suit. So that when Israeli patience finally wore thin in December 2008, with the launch of Operation Cast Lead, Israel was almost universally portrayed as the aggressor and condemned for having broken the status quo.
What happened with respect to rocket fire from Gaza – the intolerable becoming the norm — is a perfect replication of how Chazal describe the workings of the yetzer hara. The first time we sin, we experience guilt. The second time, not so much. And by the third time, the sin becomes in our eyes a mitzvah – a normal part of life.
IT IS UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT the just concluded operation in Gaza will not be the last. We have relearned the lesson of the Second Lebanon War: Even overwhelming air power is insufficient to fully suppress missile fire. In Lebanon, the Israeli government blustered for a full month threatening a ground invasion of southern Lebanon. None ever came, until the U.N. Security Council was already convened to vote upon a ceasefire resolution, and even then only to save the face of the Olmert government – at the cost of more than thirty Jewish lives.
Again last week, the government repeatedly threatened to launch a ground operation if the Gazan missile fire did not stop. But the longer Israel waited the more international pressure mounted against such an operation. The ground operation never came and the missile fire never stopped, ensuring that Israel and Hamas will fight it out another day, on terms more favorable to Hamas.
Lesson two: When you go to fight the yetzer, once you have determined your strategy, act immediately. Delay is fatal.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.