Gaza Offers Israel A Golden Opportunity
By: Greg C. Reeson
When Israel agreed to the cease-fire agreement that ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006, it suffered a strategic defeat that the Israeli government now has a chance to correct. The ongoing operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip offer an opportunity not only to restore the pre-2006 balance of power in the immediate region, but also to establish conditions conducive to a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
At the outset of the 2006 summer war with Hezbollah, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out specific conditions that would have to be met before Israel would agree to end the fighting. Those non-negotiable conditions included the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and the elimination of Hezbollah’s capability for launching rockets into Israel. Olmert promised that all-out war on Hezbollah would continue until Israel’s demands were met. Not only were the conditions not satisfied at the time of the cease-fire agreement, but Hezbollah survived the war with an intact command structure and a still very lethal ability to strike Israel at will. Hezbollah fought the IDF to a stalemate on the battlefield, shattering the myth of Israeli invincibility that had permeated Arab societies for decades and emboldening other terrorist groups such as Hamas that were hell bent on the destruction of the Jewish State.
The reasons for Israel’s failure in 2006 have been widely debated since the conflict ended. But whether it was tougher-than-expected resistance, an aversion to large numbers of Israeli casualties, a weak government struggling to find its way after losing Ariel Sharon to a massive stroke, or an inadequate war plan that relied too heavily on air power is, in the end, irrelevant. When all was said and done, Israel, which had fought to a draw on the ground, had been defeated in a strategic sense: for the first time Israel had not defeated an Arab opponent, and the Arab world took notice. The current fight with Hamas in Gaza can change the geopolitical reality that has existed in the Middle East for the past two years.
When Israel pulled its troops and settlements out of Gaza in 2005, it did so after years of being advised that the occupation was the reason for the violence. End the occupation, the assertion went, and the violence against Israel would stop. Except it didn’t. Over the past three years, Gaza has become nothing short of a safe haven for terrorists eager to attack Israel. In 2006, Hamas operatives entered Israel and kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, who continues to be held somewhere in the Gaza Strip. Since the withdrawal, rockets have continued to pummel Israeli cities and it has become increasingly clear that the idea of trading land for peace has failed.
After being struck by hundreds of Hamas rockets fired from Gaza in just the past year, it appears that the Israeli government has finally decided that it has had enough. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has promised, as Prime Minister Olmert did two and a half years ago in the conflict with Hezbollah, an all-out war designed to eradicate the threat from Hamas militants. Air and naval strikes have inflicted serious losses on Hamas, and Israeli ground troops and tanks have entered Gaza in what the Israeli government is promising will be a “lengthy” operation. Invading Gaza will likely be very costly for Israel, in terms of casualties suffered at the hands of Hamas militants. But putting boots on the ground is absolutely necessary if the threat from Hamas is truly going to be eliminated.
Now is not the time for weakness or indecisiveness by the Israeli government. There is an opportunity in Gaza to restore the credibility of Israel’s defense forces, shift the balance of power back in Israel’s favor, and pave the way for a lasting agreement with the Palestinians by getting rid of the main obstacle to peace: Hamas. The rejection of a recently proposed 48-hour cease-fire was without a doubt the right decision for Israel and for the region. Hamas will not be persuaded through diplomacy or dialogue to stop its attacks on Israel. But Hamas can be beaten into submission through an unrelenting military campaign designed to protect Israeli citizens and punish terrorists while fostering the conditions for future negotiations with moderate Palestinians willing to accept Israel’s existence.
Operation Cast Lead should be carried out fully and decisively, without hesitation and without reservation. Hamas could and would claim as a victory any premature cessation of hostilities that left intact the group’s ability to strike Israel with rockets or other means. Will Israel take advantage of this moment to do what it could not or would not do in the 2006 war with Hezbollah? Time will tell. But this is clearly an opportunity for fundamental change that should not be squandered.