Escalation in Gaza

Politics or Bad Decision-Making?

Brent E. Sasley on what went into the Israeli decision to escalate fighting in the Gaza Strip.

It wasn’t inevitable, but it was likely: today Israel has attacked Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, in retaliation for tens of rockets having been fired on southern Israel in the last couple days—which in turn built on a previous round of cross-border violence. As of this writing, the head of Hamas’s military, Ahmed Jabari, has been killed, and a number Hamas facilities—including police stations and rocket sites—have been struck. Seven or eight other Gazans have been killed, including two young girls, while in response Hamas has continued shooting rockets at Israeli civilians.

The violence is by no means over. Hamas itself has threatened to open the “gates of hell” on Israel, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have said that Operation Pillar of Defense (the name given to the assault) will continue for some time, and may include a ground invasion.

What do we make of this? Some have argued that it’s about politics: Dimi Reider contends Barak was the prime mover behind the Israeli attack, while Michael Koplow reasons that because Netanyahu has made his career on assuring Israelis their security, he had painted himself into a corner.

It’s hard to argue politics wasn’t somewhere in the back of the minds of the elected leaders when they decided to go ahead with the military campaign. But such an assault is a very risky move: while so far, the Israel Defense Forces has successfully minimized civilian casualties, there was no guarantee this would or will be the case. There is even less guarantee that Israel will be able to avoid a ground invasion in response to whatever Hamas does—which would in turn raise real questions about the ultimate military objective and exit strategy, and the associated costs of not having these.

Another consideration is that the political, military, and security leadership decided these risks—and other ones, such as Egypt and Turkey’s reactions—were worth it not because the political payoff was huge, but because that’s what governments do. I buy it. Regardless of where blame lies for the violence, no government could afford to do nothing while dozens of rockets struck its civilian population. There is an instinctive element to such decision-making that shouldn’t be downplayed. This doesn’t mean it was a good decision, but that it was the most likely decision in the short-term.

The bigger problem is the lack of long-term thinking. Yossi Alpher has already mentioned in these pages he doesn’t see Israel having any clear goals, and Jeremy Pressman leans toward the belief that Israel’s security won’t be—indeed, can’t be—enhanced by this military operation. I share these concerns. As I’ve argued, Israeli decision-making in security affairs is tied to a historical pattern that emphasizes tactical efforts for short-term gain—not strategic thinking for the long-term.

In other words, the operation itself and the immediate benefits are less about electoral politics than the potential uncertainties inherent in the way Israeli went about deciding how to respond to the rocket attacks are. We don’t yet know what course the violence will take in this case, but the likely escalation that is to come will make it about politics.

Right now, Israel is managing the attack fairly well, and Hamas has not yet begun a response different from what it had already been doing. Damage and casualties are limited on both sides. Because of this, most of the Israeli political class is more or less supportive of the attack. All of these certainly helps Netanyahu and his Likud-Beiteinu.

But should the operation go badly and civilian casualties in Israel increase, or should the IDF be forced to engage in questionable tactics in Gaza, that political consensus will fade quickly and Netanyahu will have a harder time arguing he made the right decision—as happened to Ehud Olmert in 2006 in Lebanon.

Given the emphasis on short-term tactical goals, it’s more likely the military operation won’t end neatly, which will in turn cause considerable electoral problems for Netanyahu and Likud-Beiteinu—who are otherwise persistently polling at less seats than they currently have. If this happens, perhaps Kadima—whose otherwise tired image doesn’t bode well for it in January—will have been proven prescient after all: that Bibi really is bad for Israel. In this case, the bad decision-making will become the politics.