Some observers of Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip are claiming that the Goldstone report, which alleged possible Israeli war crimes in the 2008-2009 operation, deterred Israel from launching a ground invasion this time around. Some, like Uri Avnery (quoted by Robert Fisk in the Independent) and Kevin Bloom in the Daily Maverick, view this development approvingly. Others, like Gerald Steinberg in the Jerusalem Post, are troubled by the Israel Defense Forces' difficulties in dealing with this sort of “lawfare.” All seem to agree that Goldstone was a determinant of Israel's relatively restrained attack against Hamas this time around.
They are, however, overestimating the influence of the Goldstone report on Israel's military actions. Undoubtedly, in opting not to send the IDF into Gaza during Pillar of Defense, Israel recognized that operations against terrorists in heavily populated areas generate civilian casualties and that the world judges Israel very harshly when that happens. But other factors were at work, too.
For one, Israel has learned to avoid prolonged occupation of enemy territory. Its unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005), with all their drawbacks and subsequent complications, attest to this; very few in Israel advocate returning permanently to those places. Hence any ground offensive is of necessity short-lived, with a clear exit strategy. We witnessed this in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-9. Moreover, an objective assessment of the achievements and drawbacks of those campaigns leads to the conclusion that the ground campaign added little to the deterrent effect, if any, achieved by extensive and highly destructive air bombing and targeted assassination campaigns: in Lebanon, deterrence appears to be holding; in Gaza in 2008-9, deterrence was short-lived.
Moreover, ground campaigns prolong wars and Israel has learned that the international community objects not only to civilian casualties but to lengthy wars—at least when Israel is involved in them.
Interestingly, it is not necessarily Israeli hawks who advocate ground campaigns. In 2008-9, a small lobby of Labor-supporters with high-level security backgrounds campaigned for the Olmert government to reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip—obviously, with a huge cost in Palestinian and Israeli lives—and return Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to power in Gaza as well as the West Bank so that Israel could have a viable partner for a two-state solution. How they thought Abbas would be received in a decimated Gaza Strip at the point of Israeli bayonets, and how the world would deal with the losses and destruction entailed by total reoccupation, was never clear. To their credit, Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak rejected the idea.
If a limited ground invasion of Gaza yields little deterrence; if (thankfully) few in Israel have the stomach to go all the way and reoccupy the Strip; and if the threat of a ground campaign this time around appeared to help persuade Hamas leaders to accept a ceasefire, why bother with the messy real thing? Moreover, the Netanyahu government—which is, to say the least, not enthusiastic about negotiating a two-state solution with West Bank-based Abbas—appears to have fewer inhibitions than its predecessors regarding negotiations with Hamas over the parameters of a more stable ceasefire that rewards Gazans with economic benefits deriving from a radically-reduced Israeli economic blockade of the Strip. That's what Israel and Hamas are doing right now in Egypt, albeit "indirectly," with senior Egyptian officers carrying messages between adjoining rooms. The end result, of course, is a stronger Hamas and, at best, a "three-state solution." But a stronger Hamas and more permanent Hamas rule in Gaza are obvious by-products of the "Arab spring" anyway, regardless of what Israeli two-state solution proponents want.
One final comment is in order regarding the Goldstone report and its broader ramifications. Those, like Goldstone, who would criticize Israel over human rights abuses in wartime must keep in mind that their approach to Israel is totally out of proportion to international precedents and realities. Not only does Hamas deliberately target Israeli civilians while Israel seeks to avoid civilian casualties, and not only is this an important distinction that appears to be lost on many. But look at the U.S. army and marine third offensive in Falluja, Iraq, in late 2006. Or the Russian destruction of Grozny, Chechnya, in 1999. What Goldstone writes about in Gaza was child's play by comparison. Where were Goldstone and the U.N. then?