Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Bret Stephens: An Endgame for Israel
Maybe this column would get a better reception if it were titled, "No Endgame for Israel." Because the quantity of commentary claiming that Israel cannot possibly achieve any kind of successful outcome in Gaza is already approaching presurge levels of Iraq defeatism.
The argument that Israel's assault on Gaza is an exercise in futility has four main parts. First, say the critics, Israel cannot defeat Hamas by restricting its attacks to the relatively safe distance of airstrikes and a limited land incursion. Down that road lies a reprise of the failed 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Next, they say, the human cost of taking physical control of Gaza will be too high in terms of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. Down that road lie memories of the 1982 siege of Beirut.
Third, we are told that the only method by which Israel can prevent Hamas from regaining power is by resorting to another full-scale occupation. Down that road lies endless international condemnation and, inevitably, another excruciating intifada.
Finally, we hear that by invading Gaza, Israel has further weakened Palestinian moderates and midwifed into existence yet another generation of jihadists. Down that road lies the end of the two-state solution and, demography being what it is, the end of the Jewish state itself.
On this last point, it would be interesting to know how a two-state solution is supposed to come about by allowing Hamas to continue to rule half of a presumptive Palestinian state. Are we now to endorse a three-state solution of Israel, Hamastan and Fatahland? Are Israelis supposed to support a peace deal by looking at Gaza as the model for what they should expect in the West Bank? Is Mahmoud Abbas's hand strengthened by the mockery Hamas makes of his claims to presidential authority? And, speaking of Palestinian moderates, shouldn't the test of their moderation be a willingness to stand up to Hamas, if only rhetorically?
Then there is the matter of the war itself. Israel has already demonstrated that it has learned the principal lessons from the war with Hezbollah. It did not wait too long to begin the ground campaign. It resisted the lure of a premature cease-fire, engineered by others. It did not promise ambitious goals at the war's outset only to walk away from them amid military and diplomatic complications.
On the contrary, the stated goal of a "quiet" border with Gaza has the dual advantage of suggesting a degree of restraint while allowing Jerusalem to preserve its options as the battle unfolds. "Quiet" does not require the destruction of Hamas. But neither does it exclude it.
In other words, instead of being forced publicly to ratchet its aims downward, as it did in Lebanon, Jerusalem can now ratchet them upward, putting Hamas off-balance and perhaps tempting it to cut its losses by accepting a cease-fire on terms acceptable to Israel. Doing so would not quite amount to a defeat for Hamas. But it would be an unambiguous humiliation for a group whose greatest danger lies in its pretension of invincibility. Burst balloons aren't easily reinflated.
It is precisely for this reason that Hamas will likely fight on, in the hopes that Israel will flinch. Critics of military action point to this damned-if-Israel-does, damned-if-it-doesn't scenario as evidence of the folly of the war.
In Today's Opinion Journal
Yet by no means is it obvious that the Israeli army needs to walk directly into a Gaza City Götterdämmerung in order to achieve its military aims. Hamas has been able to arm itself with increasingly sophisticated rockets thanks to a vast network of tunnels running below its border with Egypt. Israel found it difficult to destroy that network prior to its withdrawal from Gaza and will not easily do so now. But by bisecting the Strip, as it has now done, it will have no trouble preventing these rockets from moving north to their usual staging ground, thereby achieving a critical war aim without giving Hamas easy opportunities to hit back.
Israel also has much to gain by avoiding a frontal assault on Gaza's urban areas in favor of the snatch-and-grab operations that have effectively suppressed Hamas's terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. A long-term policy aimed squarely at killing or capturing Hamas's leaders, destroying arms caches and rocket factories, and cutting off supply and escape routes will not by itself destroy the group. But it can drive it out of government and cripple its ability to function as a fighting force. And this, in turn, could mean the return of Fatah, the closest thing Gaza has to a "legitimate" government.
All this will be said to amount to another occupation, never mind that there are no settlers in this picture, and never mind, too, that Israel was widely denounced for carrying out an "effective occupation" of the Strip after it imposed an economic blockade on Hamas. (By this logic, the U.S. is currently "occupying" Cuba.) If Israel is going to achieve a strategic victory in this war, it will have to stand firm against this global wave of hypocrisy and cant.
Israel will also have to practice a more consistent policy of deterrence than it has so far done. One option: For every single rocket that falls randomly on Israeli soil, an Israeli missile will hit a carefully selected target in Gaza. Focusing the minds of Hamas on this type of "proportionality" is just the endgame that Israel needs.
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