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Op-Ed: Bibi Lost the Battle - But Israel can Win the War

Despite Hamas losing the military battle, the Israeli government turned victory into defeat. And yet, there is a glimmer of hope amid the darkness, if only the Israeli people will take on their political elite.
Published: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 8:57 PM


As yesterday's "open-ended ceasefire" between Israel and Gazan terrorist groups finally took effect, it was clear that the Islamists, led by Hamas, had suffered a serious humiliation.

From the rubble of Gaza, all the false and painfully predictable bravado could not disguise the fact that Hamas had gone from brazenly rejecting a return to the terms of the 2012 ceasefire which followed Operation Pillar of Defense, to running back to the negotiating table with its tail between its legs to accept an identical proposal just weeks later.

Those familiar with the comical propensity of Arab leaders to miraculously convert military defeat into glorious success know that even if he had been the only man left standing in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar would have given the very same victory speech - and his boss, Khaled Meshaal, would still have maintained his stubborn insistence that Hamas keep on fighting, sitting far from the battlefield in the comfort of Qatar.

50 days of fighting cost the lives of 2,144 Gazans (according to Hamas's own estimates), roughly half of them terrorists, and in a ground operation which lasted just two weeks the IDF succeeded in destroying more than 30 "terror tunnels" into Israel which had taken Hamas two years, and a huge price in both blood and treasure, to construct. Not to mention the massive damage wrought to the military and civilian infrastructure in Gaza - which were often one and the same thing thanks to Hamas and Islamic Jihad's cynical use of human shields - by a blistering campaign of airstrikes.

The extent of Operation Protective Edge - which surpassed both Pillar of Defense and Cast Lead in its scope and severity - took both groups by surprise, as did the effectiveness of the Iron Dome missile defense system, which was nothing short of miraculous. But what shook them the most was Israel's ability to assassinate some of their top leaders (that is, those who weren't cowering under Shifa Hospital in Gaza). 

Just how shaken they were could be seen in the aftermath of Israel's strike, late last week, which eliminated three senior leaders of Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. The assassination triggered a hysterical response, with Gaza's Islamist rulers summarily executing more than 25 suspected informants and arresting at least 150 others in a desperate bid to discover how on earth Israel had managed to locate and kill them as they met in a top secret bunker some 30 meters underground. And yet, just days later, Hamas's top financial official was eliminated as well.

And even if al-Qassam Brigades' head, Mohammed Deif, survived the airstrike which targeted him, as Hamas is alleging (though providing suspiciously little evidence of), Israel's ability to track him down despite his best efforts to remain in the shadows revealed just how much of an edge Israeli intelligence has over Hamas.

In contrast, after firing or otherwise losing roughly three quarters of their rocket arsenals, and after effectively sending dozens of operatives to their deaths in futile "commando-style" attacks into Israel, the Islamists did not succeed in bringing Israel to its knees. Without minimizing the tragedy of the 70 Israelis killed - most of whom were soldiers who fell bravely during fierce house-to-house fighting inside Gaza - it is clear that Israel was capable of standing strong for much, much longer than they had expected. Far from crumbling as Hamas had hoped, public support for the war never faltered.

Indeed, the Prime Minister's Office is correct in stating that Hamas came away with nothing. Perhaps Meshaal, Haniyeh and co. should have taken a lesson from Israel's folly during the Second Lebanon War, during which the Olmert government set an unrealistic target of "destroying Hezbollah" that it didn't even bother formulating into a coherent strategy, and as a result, despite the effective deterrence achieved in the north following the war, came out looking like losers.

Similarly, Hamas's absurd demands, including a total lifting of the blockade on Gaza (which it didn't get), the building and opening of sea and airports (which it didn't get), and the release of hundreds of terrorist prisoners (which it didn't get) were always a recipe for failure.

In contrast, this time the Israeli government did not talk about "destroying" or "overthrowing" Hamas from the outset. Limited objectives were set which granted the political and military leadership the time and space to both get the job done in the first place without undue pressure, and have time to spare to decide on its next steps.

And yet, the ceasefire is chiefly an Israeli failure precisely for that reason.

The valiant residents of southern Israel have endured an unimaginable measure of suffering for the past decade, and this current flare-up, like those before it, threatened to push them beyond breaking point. But it was a suffering they were willing to endure, if only the government would commit to finally performing its duty to them and ending the rocket menace once and for all.

Similarly, the courageous soldiers of the IDF fought valiantly, and 64 of them gave their lives to ensure that Jewish life could continue in the land of Israel and the people of the south could finally live in peace.

Instead, by agreeing to a ceasefire, Netanyahu snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in pursuit of the one thing he treasures most: the status quo.

The working-class residents of southern Israel have once again been treated like second class citizens and, worse, mere cannon-fodder for the "stability" which the elites so dearly treasure. A "stability" and "status-quo" which alleviates the dreaded "international pressure", and all but guarantees that the "drip-drip" of rocket fire will begin once more in months, a year, three years, or maybe a little longer - but only on Sderot, Netivot and Be'er Sheva, not Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. No, that won't happen for even longer still and when it does, the elites will relieve their guilty consciences by deluding themselves that they are experiencing even a fraction of the suffering they perpetuated for their brethren in the south.

What's more, you can be sure that Hezbollah, Iran, the Islamic State and various other regional foes will be paying close attention to how this conflict has played out. Some days ago, one government insider insisted to me that the entire conflict was a "test-balloon" for Iran to both probe Israel's defenses and political resilience in the face of attack, as well as the loyalty and effectiveness of its proxies in Gaza. If that is the case they will have looked on with astonishment and glee at how a government backed by a remarkably resilient people, a brave army and exceptional military and intelligence capabilities caved in to international pressure to avoid winning.

Of course, the price of "winning" would have been high, potentially costing the lives of hundreds of soldiers. It would also have posed tough questions about what to do with Gaza's civilian population once the terrorists had been comprehensively wiped out, and dealt a death-blow to the failed "two-state" paradigm which drove Israel to withdraw from Gaza in the first place. 

But here's the thing: victories don't tend to come cheap.

And let's dismiss for a moment the option of invading Gaza to root-out terrorism there for good: why wasn't the government even able or willing to leverage its position of military strength to gain the return of the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul?

By perversely shunning victory out of fear, simply to preserve the status quo as soon as possible, Netanyahu and all those who pushed for a ceasefire were simply echoing the sentiments of that iconic Israeli failure, Ehud Olmert, who set the tone for post-Zionist sentiment by (in)famously declaring that "We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."

There is, however, one silver-lining to all of this.

It can be seen in the unprecedented national unity and resilience of the past few months. It can be seen in the plummeting popularity of the prime minister after agreeing to the truce. It can also be seen in the frustrated response to Bibi's decision by the residents of southern Israel in particular who, in a remarkable show of defiance, are refusing to return home despite empty guarantees of security and more promises of "economic incentives", exhibiting their utter mistrust and contempt for their would-be "guarantors".

Most of all, it can be seen in the way the best of the best of Israel's men were willing lay down their lives, transcending the myopic politics of their leaders for the sake of their land and their nation. 

The people of Israel were robbed of victory, but they can take it back by rejecting those who - now as so many times in the past - have led this country aimlessly and without vision, desperate to survive just one more day but without recognizing that in a region where only the strongest survive they are dragging us, inch by painful inch, towards defeat.