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.