I published an article review of two articles that dealt with the 2008-09 battle between Israel and Gaza. The articles are Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Israel’s War in Gaza: A Paradigm of Effective Military Learning and Adaptation,” International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012): 81-118, and Jerome Slater, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza,” International Security 37:2 (Fall 2012): 44-80.
In this piece for Open Zion, I argue that, not withstanding his announcement to retire, Ehud Barak is needed at the Defense Ministry as a necessary balance against other ministerial hawks. The full piece is below.
In a surprise move, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has announced he’ll be leaving politics after the election on January 22. That doesn’t mean his political career is done: in an Israeli political constellation of large egos, Barak’s outshone all the others. Despite improved public opinion surveys for his Independence party after Operation Pillar of Cloud, though, it’s clear that the party won’t be a vehicle for a grand re-entrance. Labor won’t have him, after he cannibalized the party for personal gain. Likud doesn’t want him either: he’s a threat to prominent individuals’ own positions and to many he still represents the left and its delusions about peace. He has no viable political home.
But Israel, the Palestinians, and the rest of the world should hope that Barak somehow finds his way back to Defense, even if that means Benjamin Netanyahu, still likely to remain at the head of a coalition government, has to appoint him to the position. This would entail a fight: there are others in Likud who covet the position, particularly Moshe Ya’alon, and while Avigdor Lieberman says he’ll retain the Foreign Ministry, rumors persist that Netanyahu offered him his choice of ministries to run on a joint ticket with Likud; the second most powerful office in Israel has got to be a real temptation. The price of incurring those figures’ anger is worth it.
his isn’t because Barak’s a pacifist who will avoid war with Hamas or Iran, or because he has a grand plan for Israel that will bring peace to the region. It’s because he’ll be needed to balance out the hawkish, even reckless, preferences of Lieberman, Eli Yishai, and others.
In Haaretz’s account of decision-making behind Operation Pillar of Defense, Barak cautioned against widening the air war into a ground invasion while Lieberman pressed for one. Netanyahu was uncertain—he could have gone either way. It was Barak’s convincing explanation and insistence on the correctness of his analysis—backed by his real security credentials—that eventually swayed Netanyahu.
In the larger ministerial security forum, Yishai, Yuval Steinitz, and others also thought a ground invasion was a good idea. While Benny Begin and Dan Meridor opposed it, their influence is at an all-time low, and it’s not even clear they’ll be around come January 23. Without Ehud Barak to balance the unreconstructed hawks, Netanyahu is more likely to follow their advice.
Barak would have gone into Gaza with ground troops if he thought it was necessary, but he was well aware of the costs of doing so, and he was comfortable taking Israel’s gains and moving on. This is his modus operandi: during his own tenure as Prime Minister, he shifted easily and rapidly between pursuing talks with the Syrians and the Palestinians as he saw fit. At Camp David, he broke the sacredness of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided and eternal capital. He doesn’t chase a military or diplomatic goal out of ideology, pride, revenge, or justice—he does it out of necessity.
Barak will do what he thinks is right for Israel. Of course, so will Lieberman and Yishai. But they have a hard time separating their perception of what’s right from what’s achievable and what is costly. Barak doesn’t. Israel could use that kind of clear thinking as the challenges of Hamas, the Palestinian bid at the U.N., Egypt, Syria, and Iran converge
My first reaction of who comes out stronger and who comes out weaker from the Gaza conflict was posted at Open Zion. It is reprinted in full below.
A ceasefire was announced between Israel and Hamas and came into force an hour ago. It’s early yet, but an initial glance at potential winners and losers gives some insight into how the ceasefire came about, and how it might play out in the region—if it holds.
Some short-term losers: Turkey and Egypt, both of whom claimed to be staunch supporters of Hamas but failed to press for anything that might resemble a Hamas victory. Turkey was at first extraordinarily quiet, pretty much abdicating any responsibility for Hamas and Gaza after spending a few years damaging relations with Israel for their sake and thus undermining its effort to enhance its appeal to the Arab world. Then, once he got going, Prime Minister Erdoğan ruined any chance in the near future for a reconciliation with Israel by calling it a “terrorist state” and condemning the US for supporting it. (See Michael Koplow’s excellent discussion of this.)
For its part, Egypt, despite President Morsi’s declarations, didn’t do anything that hadn’t been done under the Mubarak regime. It’s true that Morsi’s rhetoric was far more supportive of Hamas, and reports are that his ideas for a ceasefire annoyed the Israelis because it so overtly favored Hamas. But the outcome was the same as under Mubarak: the status quo ante, with Hamas getting no promises from Israel to lift the blockade (though Israel seems to have said it would ease up on attacks on Hamas).
Long term losers: Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. Jonathan Schanzer asked whether Hamas was upstaging the PLO. Abbas displayed total impotence during the conflict; more, he was pushed completely to the side. Hamas’s strategy of sticking to its “resistance” guns and gathering increasing legitimacy and recognition from others makes Abbas/Fatah/the PLO/the PA less and less relevant in Palestinian politics. As far as I can see, the only things that can save them are a successful bid at the U.N., or tangible progress in negotiations with Israel.
The other long-term loser is Israel. As I’ve argued before, Israel has no long term strategy regarding Gaza. Its victory in a limited military campaign will only strengthen the perception that its tactical-military emphasis works and doesn’t need to be changed. This means it’ll be harder for Israel to accept a new formula for maintaining security and achieving peace. It also means we’re likely to see a repeat of November’s events again.
Winners: The obvious one is Netanyahu, for pulling off a clear military victory and moving past his blunder in the Western Wall Tunnel riots of 1996, and for now having a clear foreign policy victory to point to during the campaign; Ehud Barak for showing he still matters (first polls give his Independence the greatest numbers of seats since the campaign began, though I’m not sure it will last to January); Qatar for inserting itself into this arena; and missile/rocket defense systems.
Steven Cook argues the U.S. was in a very difficult position during the conflict, but I think President Obama also comes out a winner. I’d argue he handled the crisis extremely well, by hanging back and letting local actors—especially Egypt—take the lead, thus giving them a stake in the post-war system. He also provided continual encouragement and prodding, through phone calls to Morsi and Netanyahu and with Secretary of State Clinton assuring Netanyahu in person that this was a good idea and the US supported Israel’s right to self-defense.
On second thought, we might consider putting Egypt in this category instead. It navigated very well the shoals of public opinion, Muslim Brotherhood pressure, Hamas’s demands, its own strategic interests, and Israel’s actions. That Morsi was able to pull off a Mubarak-style outcome, even under changed conditions, suggests Egypt remains a regional player, and the outside player when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The more things change…
The concept that Israel has no choice but to use military force or go to war has a long history in Israeli strategic and popular thinking. Again today, one hears Israel has no other option but to attack Hamas and Gaza. I beg to differ. Here are two options:
1. Given a cease-fire and de-escalation from the last few days, Hamas and Israel could talk about a long-term truce. At this point, I’ll quote @doranimated from a twitter change today: “You totally misread Hamas, IMHO. There’s no deal to be had.” But why not test the waters and see if some of the leadership of Hamas would like to move away from violent resistance, as has often been claimed? (see here too for Brent’s take) The status quo is unstable (both on the Israeli-Palestinian and regional front), deadly, and insecure. Millions of civilians are suffering. So start small and build toward a longer cease-fire; if it fails, Israel and Hamas are just back to the same confrontation and major flareups every few months. Hamas clearly does not need a long-term cease-fire to be in a position to do Israel harm.
Egypt would likely welcome an effort to mediate a more substantial Israeli-Hamas relationship. Any betterment of the situation in Gaza would take pressure off the Egyptian government. It would reduce the centrality of deciding how open to keep Rafah. It might help address the chaos, smuggling, and insecurity in Sinai. It would be an opportunity to demonstrate to the United States that Egyptian-US ties (and aid!) are worth protecting.
2. OK, fine, you think that the Hamas-Israel route is bankrupt? Israel could take a political process with President Mahmoud Abbas seriously. Build up political relations with the West Bank, take Fayyadism* seriously – not just economically but also politically – and get back to high-level negotiations. By moving toward a two-state solution with Abbas, Israel could try to marginalize Hamas; this is not a new idea. Arab states, like Egypt or Qatar, that saw a real two-state solution developing might even lean on Hamas to jump on the bandwagon.
To pursue this second alternative, Israel has to do a few things. It needs to jettison the “no partner” talk. In 2000-01 (Camp David/Taba) and again in 2008 (Annapolis), Israel and the PA held serious negotiations that solved many but not all issues. Crucial, hard sticking points remain but that is what negotiations are for. Yes, Israel withdrew civilian settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it intentionally did so without a negotiated agreement and it followed the withdrawal by taking steps that guaranteed a negative outcome. In addition, Israel needs to stop focusing on tactics (freeze, not freeze) and recognize that for strategic reasons it needs this process to get a full work-out. If you will it, it is no dream.
In this context, a move by the PA for a status upgrade at the UNGA later this month is an opportunity not a threat. Here is a chance for Israel to encourage a political step and, by engaging, perhaps to help define the meaning and parameters of that step.
There are deeper factors potentially at play here. If the Palestinian people have something to lose – as in statehood, sovereign territory, access to Jerusalem – they will act in ways that protect such gains. If the PA has something real and meaningful to show from using politics, politics will get a better name. Politicians will be able to credibly argue, as they cannot right now, that politics can deliver substantive achievements.
Of course, this assumes the PA and Israel both want a two-state solution. I think Abbas and the Fatah leaders do. I have my doubts that the current Israeli government supports a Palestinian state in 95%+ of the West Bank and Jerusalem as a shared capital of two states. If they do not, scratch this option off the list. Then Israel is back to the waiting game, as in waiting until the Palestinians give up. Just contain or police (h/t Joshua Rovner) the Palestinian problem. I’d speculate that such waiting ends up highlighting the religious and generational aspects of the conflict because there is no way nationalism will just fade away. So people have to fall back on faith and the sweep of history to help them imagine what is likely impossible in reality.
Both political options have problems. But the way is which the past (e.g. Camp David, Gaza withdrawal) has been used to discredit them is deeply flawed. There is no military solution. Let politics have its day and see if there is a political one.
*It may be too late but you get the point.
Update: “The End of Deterrence” is also directly relevant here.
At this point it looks increasingly unlikely there will be an Israeli invasion of Gaza. It’s still possible—and a complete breakdown of ceasefire efforts or a major development in the fighting (such as the killing of large numbers of Israeli civilians, or resumption of suicide attacks) would all but ensure one. Possible, but unlikely.
I’d been skeptical from the beginning that Israel was working toward a ground invasion of Gaza, though as events unfolded (Hamas rockets fired toward Tel Aviv then the Jerusalem area, Israel’s call-up of tens of thousands of reservists) I did think chances for one were increasing, even while it seemed Israel might be looking for a way to wind things down.
Israel was coming off of two campaigns (Gaza 2008-2009 and Lebanon 2006) that, while they may have been ostensible victories, entailed several deeper costs to Israel in financial terms, international goodwill and legitimacy, domestic politics, lives lost, public discontent, and military reputation—all primarily due to the ground invasion, and all of which was known to the current prime minister who was already risk-averse. I thought that under these conditions, Israel’s interest in a ground invasion was far less than assumed.
In addition, if it remains on the trajectory it’s currently on, Israel will have had no choice but to invade Gaza. Such a small country cannot afford, politically or economically, to maintain tens of thousands of citizens in military waiting-mode. It’ll either have to use the troops it called up (i.e., an invasion), or send them back home. But if Israel does the latter, it will signal to Hamas that it had all been a pretense. Poker in Middle Eastern politics doesn’t leave room for all that many bluffs. Using ground troops would, unfortunately, be the only way out.
I believe the government is aware that the costs of a ground invasion outweigh the benefits it’s reaping from the air war than. I imagine an incomplete version of the balance sheet looks something like this:
Benefits of air war
• Degrade Hamas’s capabilities by killing more of its operatives and rockets
• Smash Hamas infrastructure with less risk
• Enforce extended period of “quiet”
• Restore deterrence
• Control the violence without having to destroy large swaths of Gaza to clear the way for ground troops
• Make Hamas seem impotent
A ground invasion (even combined with the ongoing air war) would have the same benefits. Yet short of the overthrow of Hamas and re-occupation of Gaza, there isn’t much more to be accomplished with ground troops. But a number of costs that didn’t exist with the air campaign would appear on the ledger.
(Extra) Costs of ground invasion
• Endanger Israeli soldiers’ lives, or risk them being captured
• Put soldiers in the position of treating Gazan civilians harshly, even immorally, raising the possibility of legal prosecution at home or threat of it abroad
• Earn opprobrium of international community for treatment of civilians and causing widespread damage and casualties
• Give Hamas the opportunity to demonstrate more of its military capabilities
Remember, too, that Benjamin Netanyahu is at the helm, and running for re-election. Until the campaign, public opinion surveys gave Likud Beiteinu less seats than it currently holds in the Knesset. First polls out give the ticket a slight boost, though not back up to its 42 mandates. More importantly, they also give Ehud Barak’s Independence the best results since the election was called. If Bibi wants to retain Barak as Defense Minister, this will certainly help.
Supporting this calculation is also the fact that right now, according to a Haaretz poll, over 80% of the public supports Pillar of Defense. But a significant minority (30%) opposes a ground war. That first number will drop, and the second one will rise, pretty quickly with a ground operation and all its costs.
Israel is also running out of military targets “easily” struck by air. Finally, growing international attention—including heavy pressure from US President Obama—can provide the necessary cover for Israel to claim it achieved its objectives (though they have been only vaguely defined).
Given all, we shouldn’t be surprised if Bibi decides against putting boots on the ground.
This article by Aluf Benn struck me as containing important comments by Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak:
Speaking at the annual memorial for Moshe Dayan at Tel Aviv University, and in private conversations reported by my colleague Yossi Verter, Barak presented as the casus for the current belli the fact that Hamas “broke the rules” by firing an antitank missile at a military jeep on the Israeli side of the border last weekend, and blowing up a “tunnel with half a ton of antitank explosives that was partly in our territory.”
He implied that Israel could not agree to the new game rules, which in effect created a Palestinian security zone on the Israeli side of the fence that could mean death for anyone entering it. That is what the IDF did on the Palestinian side of the fence, enforcing a “special security zone” there. But what’s good for the goose is prohibited to the gander.
This kind of information helps answer the question of “why now?” (Neither example is about missiles, by the way.)
As we consider the course of the Israel-Hamas conflict, I asked whether targeted killings–which is how Israel began its military action–really work in stopping rocket fire. My answer was first posted at Open Zion, but it’s reprinted here in full:
Israel began its current attack on Hamas with a tactical surprise, by killing Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari on November 14. The previous day, Israeli leaders were already publicly musing about a return to this policy of “targeted killings” as a relatively cost-free way of responding to Hamas’s barrage of rockets.
But does the policy actually work in stopping Hamas from continued rocket attacks? Yes—but only in the short term, and only because today Hamas also has an interest in avoiding a battle to the death.
Israel has a long history of assassinating (or, in the more sanitized analytical term, “decapitating”) leaders of militant and terrorist groups. As a policy, it began in earnest in the 1970s, as Israel both killed off individuals in the PLO and tracked down the murderers of the Munich Olympics athletes.
In 1988, top PLO official Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) was assassinated. Throughout the 1990s, Israel targeted other groups, killing Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi in 1992, Islamic Jihad chief Fathi Shikaki in 1995, and then focusing mostly on Hamas and, as the Second Intifada raged, Fatah and Fatah offshoots. The later 2000s saw more assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, culminating in March-April 2004 with the deaths of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
The scholarly literature is divided on whether assassinations of leaders of terrorist/militant groups work or not. Bruce Hoffman argues that the policy only incites groups to work harder to kill, while Bryan Price contends that in the long-term, decapitation leads to instability in and then collapse of the organization. For his part, Dan Byman suggests the overall balance sheet is just very difficult to assess.
In Israel’s case, killing off leaders and operatives of Hamas has a mixed record. The assassination of Yehiya Ayyash in 1996 led to an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. On the other hand, the spate of assassinations during the Second Intifada put Hamas on the defensive and undermined its capacity and will to operate as aggressively.
We don’t have enough evidence to know if this would also be the case for rocket attacks. Moreover, Israel has successfully used other means to stop rocket fire. It launched a major air and ground assault on Hamas in 2008-2009 to stop heavy rocket fire, and that certainly convinced Hamas to contain the violence coming out of Gaza.
But we can extrapolate from previous experience that decapitation does incentivize Hamas to ease up on its attacks. What makes it harder to gauge the utility of the policy is that Hamas’s raison d’être is no longer the destruction of Israel (or at least that’s not its only position). As a major player in the Palestinian Authority from 2006 until its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, and as the governing power in the Strip since then, Hamas has a stake in staying alive and relevant. It’s increasingly recognized by other states as legitimate, giving it the chance of becoming more powerful in Palestinian politics.
Its own internal politics suggest it’s struggling to reorganize in the wake of the Syrian civil war and efforts by Fatah to take the initiative at the UN. To fend off its rivals, Hamas can’t be more open to negotiation than Fatah, but it can’t be less committed to “resistance” than the smaller Gazan groups.
Hamas isn’t looking to go out in a blaze of glory anymore, if it ever was. It wants to carefully balance out its actions.
What this suggests is that targeted killings degrade Hamas’s capabilities in the short term, forcing its officials underground, making it harder to exert leadership over the group, and promoting greater caution about antagonizing Israel. But Hamas’s goal to remain relevant makes it rely on rockets as well as other means, and sometimes its need will be greater—prompting heavier rocket fire—while at other times it will be lesser—leading to restraint on its part.
Assassinations, then, are likely to work in the short term, but can only work long-term in conjunction with other carrots and sticks. Israel, then, should first determine what its strategic and tactical, and political and military, objectives are, before using them as a policy tool.