It was Israel at its best. In response to random attacks aimed at its civilians, Israel launched precise attacks aimed at terrorists. In place of political schism, Israel suspended election campaigning, and initiated coooperation between government and opposition. Instead of illusions about an imminent peace agreement with Bashar Assad or about half a negotiated peace agreement with half of the Palestinian leadership, we exhibited sobriety and a willingness to defend ourselves. And instead of military confusion and ineptitude, as we displayed in Lebanon two years ago, we showed the most impressive display of our intelligence, air power, and psychological warfare in decades.
But what’s next? Here are some of the possible consequences to watch for in the coming days and weeks.
The Jihadist Response: Hamas will almost certainly try to resume suicide attacks. And more East Jerusalem Arabs are likely to emulate the two lone terrorists who, earlier this year, seized tractors at city building sites and went on killing sprees. The years of suicide bombings were the worst time for Israelis since the 1948 war, and Israelis will not tolerate again being turned into a nation of shut-ins, fearful of congregating with their fellow citizens and ceding their public space to terror. Given that the IDF has transformed itself into the world’s most effective anti-terrorist force, Hamas’ attempts to launch what its leaders are calling a “third intifada” will fail. Diaspora Jews, though, may be more vulnerable to jihadist retaliation. Upgrading security at Jewish institutions around the world should become a top communal priority.
The return of terrorism to Israel’s streets will likely mean the resumption of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, all of whom are now in hiding. That policy was effective in the past: When Israel assassinated Hamas’s spiritual leader, Sheykh Yassin, in 2004, Hamas didn’t respond, despite apocalyptic warnings from Israel’s critics. The lesson Israelis learned then was that terrorists can be deterred by force.
The greater danger comes from the northern border. Despite its current restraint, no doubt prompted by internal Lebanese opposition to another Hezbollah adventure against Israel, Hezbollah will be keenly tempted to open a second front in solidarity with Hamas if the fighting deepens. In recent weeks, Hezbollah leaders have threatened attacks against Israel for imposing a siege on Gaza; now Hizbollah’s credibility is being tested.
The Israeli Home Front: During the first Gulf War in 1991, when Tel Aviv was hit by Iraqi Scud missiles, residents fled to the Galilee in the north. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when the Galilee was hit by Hezbollah katyushas, residents fled southward to Tel Aviv. Now, there is nowhere to run to. For the first time in Israel’s history, two terror enclaves exist on its borders. And they are armed with short- and medium-range missiles capable of hitting almost all of Israel’s population centers. Israeli industrialists are planning to move shipments from the port of Ashdod, which is within Hamas missile range, to Haifa’s port in the north. But if Hezbollah opens a second front, Haifa too will be within missile range.
Since the war of the suicide bombers, Israel’s home front has become its actual front. The end of the illusion of safety explains, in part, the near-total support among Israeli Jews for the IDF operation in Gaza this month.
Israel’s Options: There are three possible scenarios for how this operation will evolve. The first is that the government will opt for a limited attack whose goal isn’t the overthrow of the Hamas regime but merely the attainment of better terms in the next round of ceasefire--such as supervision over tunnels linking Gaza with Egypt and through which Hamas has smuggled in missiles. The argument for a limited operation is that Mahmud Abbas’s men aren’t ready to secure the Strip from Hamas--and even if they were, they would bear the mark of collaborators if they took control of Gaza courtesy of Israel.
The second scenario is the overthrow of Hamas and turning the Strip over to a foreign power--ideally Egypt, as the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has suggested. It’s doubtful, though, that Egypt will agree to relieve Israel of its Gaza burden. And NATO is on record as refusing to commit peacekeeping troops in the Palestinian territories.
The third option is to begin with the first option of a limited operation but, as fighting intensifies, find ourselves reluctantly implementing the second option of all-out war against Hamas. That may well be the least desirable option of all, leaving Israel vulnerable to events beyond its control. But given previous Israeli experience, that could be the most likely scenario.
The Iranian Bomb: The countdown to a nuclear Iran is now being measured in months rather than years. Few here in Israel believe that President Obama’s diplomatic efforts will succeed; and if those efforts fail, there won’t be enough time to galvanize the international community to adopt effective sanctions. The danger of the current conflict in Gaza, then, is that Israel will be too preoccupied with fighting Hamas and perhaps Hezbollah to effectively respond to the Iranian threat.
The Gaza conflict, though, could also have the opposite effect, especially if the IDF loses focus and finds itself immersed yet again in a no-win battle. Israeli policymakers may begin asking themselves what the point is of fighting Iran’s proxies every few years rather than confronting Iran itself, especially given the urgency of stopping a nuclear Iran.
The Fate of a Two-State Solution: The future of the West Bank may well be resolved in Gaza. If the international community forces the IDF to end the operation before the missile threat against southern Israel is resolved, Israelis will inevitably conclude that, even when we withdraw to the 1967 borders, as we did on the Gaza front in 2005, the international community will not allow us to protect ourselves. And the likelihood then of convincing a majority of Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank--within easy rocket distance from our major population centers--will be close to non-existent. Ultimately, then, the creation of an independent Palestine depends on neutralizing Hamas.
The Moderate Arab Response: About six months ago, during a meeting with a senior Palestinian official, I was stunned when he asked me matter of factly, “So when are you Israelis going to invade Gaza already?” “You mean you want us to?” I asked. “If you want a peace agreement,” he replied, “you will have no choice.” I never expected that position to be made public. But some Arab leaders--including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and even the feckless Abbas--have both come as close as any Arab leader can dare go in expressing support for the Israeli attack by condemning Hamas for inviting it.
In the 1990s, there was hope that a “new Middle East” would emerge through peace talks. For Israel, that turned out to be a near-fatal illusion. Now, though, a new Middle East may actually be emerging--not through peace but conflict. And in this new Middle East, moderate Arabs are siding with Israel against Iran and its proxies. That is the reason why several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, condemned Hezbollah rather than Israel in the initial phase of the Second Lebanon War. And it’s the reason why most of the Arab world failed to condemn Israel’s air strike last year against the Syrian nuclear reactor--intended, according to one intelligence report, as an eventual nuclear bomb factory for Iran.
Arab Israelis: The fragile but enduring web of decency that connects many Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis is once again being put to an almost impossible test. Even now, Arabs and Jews continue to work together, and Arabs continue to shop in Jewish areas. The anguish among Israel’s one million Arab citizens regarding the fate of Palestinians in Gaza needs to be respected by the Jewish majority. But Arab Israelis also need to understand the desperation of their Jewish neighbors. Instead, Arab members of the Israeli parliament have placed the entire blame for the conflict on Israel, in effect siding with Hamas and Iran.
For those of us committed to Arab integration into Israeli society and national identity, these are depressing times. The extremists among Israeli Arabs and Jews are setting the tone, and reinforcing each other’s argument about the impossibility of coexistence. Without strong countering voices on both sides, the big winners will be the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which sees Arab Israelis as a fifth column, and the pro-Hamas Islamic Movement, which is inciting some Arab Israelis to violence. In the Arab Israeli town of Um El Faham, several hundred people threw molotov cocktails at a Jewish couple who pulled into a gas station there and barely escaped a lynching.
Israeli Elections: As of now, Israel is scheduled to hold elections in February. But though no one is saying so out loud, those elections will probably be postponed if the conflict escalates. The good news is that a national unity government will almost certainly be formed, allowing a measure of consensus to compensate for the thinness of this generation’s Israeli leadership. The bad news is that we may be stuck with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Ehud Barak: So far, the Gaza operation is being conducted above the the political fray: Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, readily approved the attack even though his opponents in Kadima and the Labor Party will likely be rewarded by voters for their military resolve. Still, nothing in Israel, even war, is ever entirely immune to political considerations. It’s likely just a matter of time before Kadima’s Olmert and Tzippi Livni and Labor’s Ehud Barak begin arguing over who deserves the most credit for the war on Hamas.
As it now appears, Barak is the big beneficary among the public. Only days before the operation, Israeli television’s leading satirical program, “It’s a Beautiful Country,” ran a scathing routine portraying Barak as a poor imitiation of Yitzhak Rabin, singing in the public square for “calm”--the term used for the ceasefire with Gaza--the way Rabin sang for peace. “Bring calm upon us,” Barak sang, mimicking a Hebrew prayer for peace. Barak’s image in the public not only as a failed defense minister but as a deeply flawed human being was so total that Labor had to resort to a campaign of negative advertising about its own candidate--“He’s not nice,” read one Labor poster, “He’s not friendly” read another--but, both added, “He’s a leader.” Now Barak has proved himself a competent defense minister. He’s still not nice, but that may work to his advantage.
Gilad Shalit: At a recent mass rally in Gaza, Hamas put on a play about Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier. The character playing Shalit pleaded to be returned to his mommy and daddy, as members of the audience laughed. For Israelis, it was one of those formative moments of resolve, a reminder of the nature of the enemy Israel faces.
Still, one reason why Israel may refrain from all-out war against Hamas is concern for the fate of Shalit. It’s difficult to overestimate how sensitive the issue of Israeli POWs remains in Israeli politics. Livni provoked a demonstration outside her home when she said recently that Israel may not be able to bring Shalit home. Gilad Shalit is everyone’s son. In any argument over whether Israel should pay the exhorbitant ransom demanded by Hamas--the release of hundreds of Hamas murderers in Israeli jails--inevitably someone will say, “And what would you do if he were your son?”
So long as the operation remains limited, Hamas will keep Shalit alive. And if there is a new cease-fire, Israeli leaders will insist on including Shalit in the deal--and without emptying Israeli prisons of the terrorists responsible for the worst atrocities of the second intifada.
Israel and the international media: Israel cannot afford to lose another public relations war with jihadists, as it did during the Lebanon war. And so the first point Israeli spokespeople need to emphasize is that this is not just a war between mighty Israel and a ragtag militia, but part of an ongoing war with shifting fronts between Israel and its jihadist enemies, directed from Teheran.
The second point Israeli spokespeople must make is that the accusation against Israel of using disproportionate force is intended by many critics to prevent Israel from protecting itself. Tens of thousands of Israeli citizens have been terrorized for eight years by Hamas’s rockets--and it doesn’t matter if those have mostly inflicted only physical and psychological wounds rather than fatalities. In allowing the attacks to continue for so long--even after Israel withdrew to its 1967 border with Gaza--Israel has risked losing its deterrence against its enemies and the faith of its citizens in the country’s viability. One recent cartoon in the newspaper Ma’ariv showed an Israeli family lighting the menorah and singing a Hanukah song extolling the heroism of the Macabees while outside their window Qassam rockets fell with impunity. For Israelis living within rocket range from Gaza, it is the government’s shameful non-response to attacks that was disproproitionate.
Next, Israel’s spokespeople must challenge the easy notion that the conflict in Gaza is the latest expression of a “cycle of violence.” Israel has accepted the principle of a two-state solution; Hamas’s goal is the destruction of Israel.
Finally, Israel’s spokespeople need to be firm in the face of the sentimental journalism that empowers the jihadists by placing accidental civilian Palestinian casualties at the heart of the story. Dead civilians are not an Israeli interest but a Hamas interest: In Hamas’s calculation, the more Palestinian victims, the more the world pressures Israel to stop its operation. Israel’s greatest fear is an accidental shell fired at a Palestinian hospital or school--and that’s precisely Hamas’s fondest hope. Journalists are obliged to tell this story in all its anguished detail. But they aren’t obliged to reward Hamas’s cynicism by turning the story of Israel’s war against genocidal jihadism into a contrived Israeli war against Palestinian civillians.
As I am writing this article, a ground operation appears imminent. That may be necessary to prevent Hamas from firing rockets at southern Israel, but it will also result in growing casualties in Gaza. And that will increase international pressure against Israel and undermine the Israeli domestic consensus on which the success of the operation depends. The Israeli Zionist left, which so far supports the government, has resricted its backing to a limited operation. We still don’t know what the government wants to achieve, and what the army believes is achievable. What constitutes victory? Will we know how to translate military success into political gain? Will the government be strong enough to resist world pressure, even in the event of a disastrous accident that results in Palestinian civilian casualties? Most of all, what’s required is patience, and the realization among Israelis and our friends abroad that this battle is part of the larger war against jihadism that shifts from one part of the world to the other, and whose outcome will define our generation.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
By Yossi Klein Halevi