I came down hard today on "Israel's Strategic Incompetence in Gaza"; this weblog offers what other analysts are saying along the same lines. To start with here is what Anthony H. Cordesman has just written in "The War in Gaza: Tactical Gains, Strategic Defeat?" After he summarizes events, notes the Hamas attacks on Israel and the costs of the IDF counterattack, Cordesman finds it
far from clear that the tactical gains [by Israel] are worth the political and strategic cost to Israel. At least to date, the reporting from within Gaza indicates that each new Israeli air strike or advance on the ground has increased popular support for Hamas and anger against Israel in Gaza. The same is true in the West Bank and the Islamic world. Iran and Hezbollah are capitalizing on the conflict. ...
This raises a question that every Israeli and its supporters now needs to ask. What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting? After two weeks of combat Olmert, Livni, and Barak have still not said a word that indicates that Israel will gain strategic or grand strategic benefits, or tactical benefits much larger than the gains it made from selectively striking key Hamas facilities early in the war.
In fact, their silence raises haunting questions about whether they will repeat the same massive failures made by Israel's top political leadership during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in 2006. Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel's actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?
To blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes. To paraphrase a comment about the British government's management of the British Army in World War I, lions seem to be led by donkeys. If Israel has a credible ceasefire plan that could really secure Gaza, it is not apparent. If Israel has a plan that could credibly destroy and replace Hamas, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to help the Gazans and move them back towards peace, it is not apparent. If Israel has any plan to use US or other friendly influence productively, it not apparent.
As we have seen all too clearly from US mistakes, any leader can take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that Olmert, Livni, and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced themselves and damaged their country and their friends. If there is more, it is time to make such goals public and demonstrate how they can be achieved. The question is not whether the IDF learned the tactical lessons of the fighting in 2006. It is whether Israel's top political leadership has even minimal competence to lead them.
(January 11, 2009)
Jan. 14, 2009 update: From the Jerusalem Post's invaluable Khaled Abu Toameh, "Analysis: Heavy losses haven't broken the Hamas regime":
Despite the severe military blows that it has been dealt since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, there were still no signs on Tuesday that the Hamas regime was even close to collapsing.
Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip said Hamas lost several hundred of its fighters in Israeli air and ground attacks over the past 18 days. At least 2,500 Hamas gunmen were wounded during the same period, the sources told The Jerusalem Post. But, the sources pointed out, these are only a tiny percentage of Hamas's armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, and other security organizations belonging to the Islamist movement. Altogether, Hamas is believed to have more than 25,000 militiamen and policemen in the Gaza Strip.
And Hamas is not alone on the battlefront. Dozens of Fatah gunmen belonging to the faction's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, are reportedly participating in the fighting alongside Hamas gunmen. ... Hamas is also being aided by other groups such as Islamic Jihad, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Resistance Committees. ...
In addition to the heavy casualties, Hamas has lost all its government installations in the Gaza Strip, including police and security facilities, military training centers and ministry buildings. Israel has also destroyed scores of Hamas-linked charities and organizations that were providing the Palestinians with a vast network of social, economic, health and education services. Moreover, the IDF operation has sent the entire Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip into hiding. ...
The military and political setbacks, nevertheless, have thus far failed to bring Hamas to its knees. Buoyed by the support of the Arab and Muslim street, Hamas appears determined to cling to power regardless of the heavy price. Although Hamas has been hit hard, not a single Palestinian in the Gaza Strip has raised his voice against the movement and its leaders. Hopes that the massive IDF operation would encourage Palestinians to revolt against a weakened Hamas have not materialized.
If anything, many Palestinians agree, the Israeli offensive has actually boosted Hamas's popularity and undermined the so-called moderates in the Arab world.
Jan. 15, 2009 update: I worried in my article on Israeli strategic incompetence that the Olmert government's goal in its war on Hamas is "to weaken Hamas and strengthen Fatah so that Mahmoud Abbas can re-take control of Gaza and re-start diplomacy with Israel." Well, that goal is not being achieved, reports Isabel Kershner for the New York Times in "War on Hamas Saps Palestinian Leaders":
Israel hoped that the war in Gaza would not only cripple Hamas, but eventually strengthen its secular rival, the Palestinian Authority, and even allow it to claw its way back into Gaza. But with each day, the authority, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and its leading party, Fatah, seem increasingly beleaguered and marginalized, even in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, which they control. Protesters accuse Mr. Abbas of not doing enough to stop the carnage in Gaza — indeed, his own police officers have used clubs and tear gas against those same protesters.
The more bombs in Gaza, the more Hamas's support seems to be growing at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, already considered corrupt and distant from average Palestinians. "The Palestinian Authority is one of the main losers in this war," said Ghassan Khatib, an independent Palestinian analyst in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "How can it make gains in a war in which it is one of the casualties?"
Israel is proposing, with the tacit agreement of Egypt and the United States, to place the Palestinian Authority at the heart of an ambitious program to rebuild Gaza, administering reconstruction aid and securing Gaza's borders. But that plan is already drawing skepticism. Mr. Khatib, for example, called the idea of any Palestinian Authority role in postwar Gaza "silly" and "naïve."
Jan. 16, 2009 update: Michael Radu concurs in "Gaza Conflict: Deterrence and the Other Missed Points":
The Israeli government, through Prime Minister Olmert, foreign minister Livni, or defense minister Barak, seems to agree that Israel's goal for the ongoing Cast Lead operation is to deter Hamas from continuing its campaign of regular missile bombings of southern and central Israel. If they mean it—and that is still unclear—they are dangerously misguided and misleading their public. Moreover, they are sending Israeli soldiers to their deaths for an illusory goal. …
Radu then establishes that "Hamas is not deterrable and its supporters are seldom real 'civilians'," and asks why does anyone, especially the Israeli government, pretend otherwise?
The answer, and a disturbing one, is that Israel, or at least its elites, are more "Western" than is good for them or their people. The implicit message of the Israeli officials' claim that "regime change" in Gaza is not an objective of Operation Cast Lead is problematic. If sincere, Tel Aviv is wasting lives—Jewish and Palestinian—for very short-term success. If not, the problem is worse, because it only creates confusion—in Israel, among Palestinians, and elsewhere.
I agree with this analysis but put it differently – not that the Israeli elites are too Western but that they don't know enough about and are not interested in their enemy. Instead, they project their own attitudes onto the enemy – the easy, deceptive way to conduct war.
Radu then offers his own strategy:
Ultimately, the only solution—itself limited in time because of the permanency of dysfunctional Palestinian political culture—is the physical destruction of Hamas in Gaza, by killing most of its militants and leaders, be they "political" or "military" (is there a difference, outside Western artificial legalistic and emotional circles?) … Ultimately, the total physical destruction of Hamas in Gaza and the introduction of PA elements, even and especially if that means renewed intra-Palestinian conflict, is the only stable, if not permanent, solution. Since Hamas cannot be deterred, dealt or "negotiated" with it, a fact Hamas itself admits, is a lost cause—it simply has to be destroyed.
Feb. 16, 2009 update: In "The Futility of Operation Cast Lead" Stuart A. Cohen looks at the recent war from four perspectives - strategic, operational, societal and diplomatic – and concludes that "the operation has not produced any viable results. On the contrary, it threatens to backfire in several ways."
Mar. 12, 2009 update: Martin Sherman gets to the heart of the problem in an article titled "A Reality Check," which looks at both the recent Gaza war and the prior 2006 war with Hizbullah:
The depressingly disappointing results of the campaigns in the north and south are the result of a loss of faith in "Victory" – both as valid cognitive concept and as an attainable military objective. The inadmissibility of victory is in fact the cornerstone of the political doctrine of much of Israel's political elites – for to admit it would be to reveal their entire Weltanschauung (worldview) as the fainthearted, feebleminded folly it really is. Indeed, the real victor in both campaigns was in fact the myth of the "The Impossibility of Victory."
Even without becoming embroiled in the complex intricacies of what in fact constitutes "victory" against the irregular forces of a non-state actor, some unequivocal assertions are still possible. Thus, given the balance of forces in the theater of combat in Lebanon, even if IDF forces were poorly briefed, poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly led, no result is conceivable or acceptable other than ending the fighting with Israeli ground troops over-running Hizbullah's fixed fortified positions, loading them with explosives, and blowing them sky-high, with all Hizbullah combatants manning them on their way to either incarceration or burial. No other scenario is admissible. None should have been countenanced by Israeli decision-makers, even if attaining it may have meant suffering a higher rate of casualties - something which itself is extremely doubtful.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy
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