Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally gave the order for a land invasion of the Gaza strip today. The decision—fraught with moral, strategic, and political uncertainties—came after over a week of hesitation and perseveration. But after this morning’s U.N.-brokered ceasefire ended with a volley of Hamas rockets, Netanyahu simply ran out of alternatives.
When the rocket fire from the Gaza fire began a dramatic escalation about two weeks ago, many expected the response from Israel’s hawkish prime minister to be swift and punishing. After all, this is the man who, at the start of Israel’s first extensive offensive against a Hamas-governed Gaza six years ago, declared that "the action that is required is something that removes this Hamas regime from the scene." If his Likud Party came to power, Netanyahu assured the public, he would end Hamas’s control of Gaza “with all the means necessary.” Nevertheless, Netanyahu hesitated to order a full-scale invasion. There were good reasons for holding back.
First, the loss of Israeli life. Since the start of the recent conflict, Israel has only suffered one fatality: a young man killed by mortar while delivering food to soldiers. There have been injuries, property damage, and millions of people forced to sprint for shelter—but body bags are different. And in this tiny country where everyone knows everyone and where military service is mandatory, these deaths would weigh particularly heavily. (Because armchair-analyzing Netanyahu is a favorite Israeli pastime, it is worth mentioning that Netanyahu has a particularly personal understanding of soldiers’ deaths: His brother, Yoni, commanded Israel’s legendary raid on Entebbe—and was the mission’s only casualty.)
Second, the loss of Palestinian life. We tend to think of attack from the air as less precise, and therefore less humanitarian, than operations by ground forces. Indeed, just war theorist Michael Walzer famously questioned the morality of air-powered humanitarian intervention for precisely that reason. But given the geography of Gaza city, and Israel’s refusal to pursue most Hamas targets from the air, a land invasion is likely to sharply increase the number of Palestinian civilian deaths. So far, over 200 Palestinians have died in the conflict.
And third, the toll to Israel’s international standing. As Palestinian deaths mount, and images of Israeli tanks pushing their way through crowded Gaza streets proliferate, Israel won’t look good. Netanyahu, the MIT-educated former ambassador to the United Nations, is acutely aware of these optics—and to their spillover effects: possible attacks on Jews and synagogues worldwide and boycott initiatives against the Jewish State.
But now, things have changed. Some may point to the pressure Netanyahu was facing from his own cabinet. Only days into the recent round of fighting, Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that his Yisrael Beitenu faction would end its partnership with Netanyahu’s Likud party, a partnership that had guaranteed Netanyahu the largest party in the Israeli coalition. Lieberman cited “essential differences” with Netanyahu over the latter’s overly restrained response to Hamas’ rocketfire. And just yesterday, Netanyahu fired his incendiary deputy defense minister, Danny Dannon, over his unrelenting criticism of the Israeli government’s handling of the current campaign—particularly its acceptance of a ceasefire proposed by Egypt. (The ceasefire, unfortunately, was rejected by Hamas.)
But the more likely explanation is that Israel just didn’t have any other options. Israel could have continued its aerial and artillery exchanges with Hamas, but this campaign did not appear to be damaging either the will or the capability of Hamas. It could have loosened its rules of engagement and struck Hamas more effectively—but doing so would have inflicted unconscionably disproportionate civilian damage. It could have capitulated to Hamas’s ultimatums to release hundreds of security prisoners and reopened Gaza to shipments of arms- and tunnel-making materials. Apart from the moral implications of such a concession, doing so would simply have strengthened Hamas and ensured additional fighting. An extended cease-fire would be ideal. But so far, Egyptian attempts to broker such a cease-fire seem to have fallen on deaf ears. So Netanyahu was left with a choice that wasn’t really much of a choice.
Netanyahu probably has a much more modest sense of an invasion’s objectives than some on his right. Lieberman, for instance, has called for Israel to “completely reoccupy” Gaza and topple Hamas. The alternative, he explains, is to “reconcile ourselves to the types of rounds that we see today.” (Importantly, Lieberman has no interest in returning Israeli settlements or day-to-day rule to Gaza; he would prefer to grant the Palestinian Authority civilian control of Gaza and just wants to grant Israelis free access in order “to ensure that all Hamas terrorists run away, are imprisoned or die.”)
Netanyahu, though, will likely adopt the more modest position publicly espoused by Israel’s former director of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, who wrote recently, “the military objective should not be to occupy Gaza for the purpose of toppling Hamas. … [T]urning Gaza into an area without a government that can be held responsible would be a strategic error.” Yadlin and other military commanders have recommended the use of land forces simply to downgrade Hamas’ capabilities. Indeed, this is precisely what Netanyahu’s close confidant and ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer explained yesterday to PBS: “Israel doesn’t have a strategic objective to reconquer Gaza. … The prime minister has been very clear about what Israel’s objective is: a sustained period of quiet. We’re doing that by degrading the capabilities of Hamas in Gaza.” In theory, sending in infantry will allow Israel to strike at Hamas’s extensive network of bunkers, tunnels, and weapons caches. Buried deep under hospitals, schools, and other civilian areas, these targets are simply not accessible from the air. By downgrading Hamas’ operational capacity, Israel might be able to restore calm.
Of course, the “downgrading” of Hamas’ capabilities is an attempt to deal with the symptom rather than the problem. If this ground campaign succeeds, Hamas may lack for rockets for a time, but Gaza will still be ruled by Hamas, and Hamas will still desire Israel’s destruction. But Israel is a small country with small ambitions, and Netanyahu’s invasion is a last resort, not a grand strategy. After all, Lieberman’s delusions notwithstanding, most Israelis realize that if America can’t nation-build, it would probably be best for Israel not to try. So Netanyahu’s reluctant invasion will have modest goals and Gazans’ deeper underlying animosity toward Israel will linger and simmer. And what will Netanyahu do about those deep issues? Not much. Wait and hope, perhaps. After all, he figures, what’s the alternative?