01.04.09

How Israel Can Win the Ground War

Israel should define its targets carefully—and finish the job before Obama takes office.

One full week after Israel started pounding Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, the lopsided war—where it’s indisputable that the Jewish state is far more powerful than the radical Islamists of Hamas—got even fiercer when Israel’s army crossed the border into Gaza. Is the ground invasion a brilliant move, a foolish fiasco, or something in between?

Here’s a checklist for Israeli decision-makers, especially if they want to keep official US support rock solid:

  1. Keep the invasion narrow and specific. Be highly selective in where your ground forces attack. Israel’s military intelligence agency, Aman, is providing the most precise intel that any army could ever want: home addresses of Hamas leaders, coordinates where missiles were fired, and other details that should enable quick and narrowly targeted raids.
  2. Kill or capture Hamas leadership. Shoot or arrest as many top Hamas men as you can (two having been killed by aerial bombing in the past week), because the highly disciplined militant organization could be rendered confused and rudderless. Don’t kid yourselves, however, that Hamas will be destroyed, because its grassroots support in Gaza has been very strong for years. A society that hails suicide bombers is not easily deterred by deaths.
  3. Avoid urban warfare. There are targets to raid without entering some of the world’s most crowded alleyways, in the city of Gaza and some of the densest refugee camps. House-to-house and door-to-door combat is not going to help anybody, and the entire citizenry of Israel will turn against this (now popular) war if any Israeli soldiers are captured by Hamas, which has already held one, Corporal Gilad Shalit, for almost three years.
  4. Talk up your case. Keep explaining to foreign governments and foreign media that Israel is claiming a legitimate right to self-defense. In an overheated news environment including more websites and blogs than ever, there are countless ways to affect public opinion. But because Israel’s power is so much greater, and the attacks on Gaza are not even trying to be “proportional” to the Hamas rocket strikes that have killed Israeli civilians, don’t expect that most people around the world will take Israel’s side.
  5. Limit TV coverage. There are hardly any foreign reporters in Gaza, and, much as I personally would prefer a lot more information about what is really happening on the ground, the lack of coverage has been good for Israel—as the consequences of Israeli attacks could appear much uglier than they look so far.
  6. Keep Washington informed. The Bush administration has been so totally supportive of Israeli aims and tactics in Gaza that it’s clear Israel’s Ehud Olmert, still prime minister, kept George W. Bush, still president, in the loop throughout. Bush has consulted with Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the two King Abdullahs—of Jordan and of Saudi Arabia—but Bush has decided that Israel is right and it’s that simple.
  7. Keep your eye on the prize. Focus on eliminating the rocket threat to Sderot and other towns in southern Israel. Don’t dream of destroying Hamas, in part because Gazans’ respect for the Islamic party’s incorruptibility, religious orthodoxy, and verbal bluster seems genuine.
  8. Don’t stay. The last time Israel entered Gaza, it was under Egyptian control at the start of the Six-Day War of June 1967. The Israelis stayed for 38 years and accomplished nothing. Now only a wild optimist would predict that a weakened Hamas will fall from power, moderate Palestinians will take over in Gaza, and negotiations toward a peace treaty will proceed. That certainly won’t happen if Israeli occupation troops are in Gaza, as the focus of everything from UN resolutions to suicide bombers.
  9. Finish by January 19 if you can. You know that Bush agrees with you completely, but how about Barack Obama? Do you really want to discover quickly whether Obama changes Washington’s tone, perhaps pushing for dialogue even with Hamas? Wouldn’t it be smarter not to hand an ongoing crisis to America’s new president on the 20th of this month? If there is any prospect of a new cease-fire being mediated by Egypt’s Mubarak, or French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who arrives in Israel on Monday, grab it by the 19th.

Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, is co-author of Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israeli Intelligence and Friends In Deed: Inside the Israel-U.S. Alliance.