Maybe this column would get a better reception if it were titled, “No Endgame for Israel”. Because the quantity of commentary claiming that Israel cannot possibly achieve any kind of successful outcome in Gaza is already approaching pre-surge levels of Iraq defeatism.
The argument that Israel’s assault on Gaza is futile has four main parts. First, say the critics, Israel cannot defeat Hamas by restricting its attacks to the relatively safe distance of air strikes and a limited land incursion. Down that road lies a reprise of the failed 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Next, they say, the human cost of taking physical control of Gaza will be too high in terms of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. Down that road lie memories of the 1982 siege of Beirut. Third, we are told that the only method by which Israel can prevent Hamas from regaining power is by resorting to a full-scale occupation. Down that road lies endless condemnation and, inevitably, another excruciating intifada.
Finally, we hear that by invading Gaza, Israel has further weakened Palestinian moderates and mid-wifed into existence yet another generation of jihadists. Down that road lies the end of the two-state solution and, demography being what it is, the end of the Jewish state itself.
On this point, it would be interesting to know how a two-state solution is supposed to come about by allowing Hamas to rule half of a presumptive Palestinian state. Are we now to endorse a three-state solution of Israel, Hamastan and Fatahland?
Then there is the matter of the war itself. Israel has already demonstrated that it has learnt the principal lessons from the war with Hezbollah. It did not wait too long to begin the ground campaign. It resisted the lure of a premature ceasefire, engineered by others. It did not promise ambitious goals at the war’s outset, only to walk away from them.
On the contrary, the stated goal of a “quiet” border with Gaza has the dual advantage of suggesting a degree of restraint while allowing Jerusalem to preserve its options as the battle unfolds. “Quiet” does not require the destruction of Hamas. But neither does it exclude it.
In other words, instead of being forced publicly to ratchet its aims downward, as it did in Lebanon, Jerusalem can now ratchet them upward, putting Hamas off-balance and perhaps tempting it to cut its losses by accepting a ceasefire on terms acceptable to Israel. Doing so would not quite amount to a defeat for Hamas. But it would be an unambiguous humiliation for a group whose greatest danger lies in its pretension of invincibility.
It is for this reason that Hamas will likely fight on, in the hopes that Israel will flinch. Critics of military action point to this damned-if-Israel-does, damned-if-it-doesn’t scenario as evidence of the folly of the war.
Hamas has been able to arm itself with increasingly sophisticated rockets thanks to a vast network of tunnels running below its border with Egypt. Israel found it difficult to destroy that network prior to its withdrawal from Gaza and will not easily do so now. But by bisecting the Strip, as it has now done, it will have no trouble preventing these rockets from moving north to their usual staging ground, thereby achieving a critical war aim without giving Hamas easy opportunities to hit back.
Israel also has much to gain by avoiding a frontal assault on Gaza’s urban areas in favour of the snatch-and-grab operations that have effectively suppressed Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. A long-term policy aimed squarely at killing or capturing Hamas leaders, destroying arms caches and rocket factories, and cutting off supply and escape routes will not by itself destroy the group. But it can drive it out of government and cripple its ability to function as a fighting force.
Israel will also have to practise a more consistent policy of deterrence than it has so far done. One option: For every single rocket that falls randomly on Israeli soil, an Israeli missile will hit a carefully selected target in Gaza. Focusing the minds of Hamas on this type of “proportionality” is just the endgame that Israel needs.
Edited excerpts. Bret Stephens is a Wall Street Journal columnist. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org