Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not launching an all-out war when Israeli warplanes began pounding Gaza earlier this month. The preternaturally cautious Israeli leader has long avoided major military entanglements, and his initial moves suggested something closer to a repeat of his eight-day bombing of Gaza in 2012. Yet, with 14 days of increasingly bloody fighting and with little discernable international pressure to stand down, Netanyahu now finds himself carried along by the escalating momentum of a war he has avoided for the past five years.
It was Netanyahu's own calls for vengeance on Hamas after the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank last month that set the stage for a Gaza operation without clearly defined and attainable strategic objectives. Publicly explained as an operation to “restore calm” by destroying Hamas’ ability to fire rockets at Israeli cities, “Operation Protective Edge” offered nothing qualitatively different from previous offensives that had simply restored the uneasy truce between Israel and Hamas.
But as long as rocket fire continues from Gaza, Hamas is telling Israelis — and Palestinians — that Netanyahu has failed to achieve even the limited objective of stopping the movement’s ability to fire on Israeli cities.
The intensity of Hamas’ resistance to Israel’s ground invasion has surprised the Israelis, according to that country’s military analysts. And as causalities mount on both sides, Netanyahu faces the danger that Operation Protective Edge could leave him politically weakened at home, while it enables Hamas to reestablish its resistance credentials.
There is no easy way to dismantle rocket-launching capacity hidden in one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas without inflicting massive civilian casualties and without the use of thousands of boots on the ground. But even the limited ground invasion thus far has already brought 13 Israeli deaths and the heightened fear of Hamas once again capturing a soldier and repeating the Gilad Shalit ordeal. As a result, Israel’s leadership suddenly finds itself contemplating a protracted war.
Despite the insulation offered by the Iron Dome missile defense system, Israelis, like citizens of any other country, reject having to live under the constant threat of rockets — and are pressing their politicians to eliminate that threat. Some of those politicians, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are calling for a full-blown invasion to take control of all of Gaza on the ground in order to stop the rocket fire.
Netanyahu is being hounded from the right flank of his own coalition to escalate the offensive on the ground, but that risks the lives of many more Israeli soldiers and an untold number of Palestinian civilians, which will increase the international rebuke. (The U.N. estimates that upward of 70 percent of the more than 500 Palestinians killed thus far have been civilians, and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Israel’s shelling of the Shejaiya neighborhood on Sunday “an atrocious action.”)
Hamas, for its part, may have been struggling to govern Gaza with dwindling resources and regional backing, but Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza has, say Israeli analysts, given the movement what it wants — an opportunity to exact a casualty toll on Israel that can’t be done with rocket fire because of Iron Dome.
Right now, there’s no sign of the two sides fighting themselves to a standstill, nor of any mediator willing or able to call a halt. Taking control of Gaza raises the specter of a long-term occupation in which Israeli troops police a Palestinian urban center, constantly vulnerable to attack by fighters from Hamas and other factions.
For Netanyahu, this round in Gaza was a war of choice. Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the murders of the Israeli teenagers without proving concrete evidence to support the claim and promised to wreak vengeance on the movement in Gaza. Israeli military planners are now questioning their ability to achieve the objectives set out by Netanyahu without a significant escalation. Israel’s decision makers, according to senior Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea, currently have no exit strategy in Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, is willing to fight this war on the ground, well aware that its adversary’s growing discomfort expands the possibility of Hamas achieving its key goal, which is a cease-fire that eases the Israeli-Egyptian economic siege of Gaza.
That’s the reason Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire effort last week: The movement knows that the extension of the conflict, with all its attendant risks of Israeli casualties and international isolation because of Palestinian casualties, improves its prospects for winning key demands in any truce.
When Israeli forces entered Shejaiya, just two kilometers from the armistice line that divides Israel from Gaza, they faced one of Hamas's most advanced battalions undeterred by Israeli military superiority.
Anticipating Israel’s operation to destroy tunnel infrastructure under Shejaiya, Hamas fighters had booby trapped access roads and targeted Israeli armored personnel carriers, killing 13 Israeli soldiers. The operation, which killed more than 70 Palestinians, demonstrated that Israel’s ability to eliminate Hamas through limited military engagement is unrealistic. If Israel’s military casualties and risks continue to rise in Gaza without any immediate prospect of a decisive victory, Israeli public confidence in Operation Protective Edge will erode. The dilemma facing Netanyahu and his cabinet, therefore, grows more acute. “Should the forces move forward, deep into Gaza, and risk losing many soldiers and a mass killing of Palestinian civilians,” writes Barnea, “or pull out while being fired on and give Hamas the victory?”
Netanyahu has built his dominant political position in Israel through delivering “calm”; an open-ended and costly military engagement leaves him vulnerable to challenges from both the right and the center.
On the diplomatic front, Israel is losing the war. While publicly endorsing Israel’s right to defend itself, even Israel’s closest supporters are beginning to question the heavy-handed IDF operation in Gaza. Secretary of State John Kerry, captured in an unscripted hot-microphone moment during an appearance on Fox News, sarcastically questioned Israel’s characterization of its Gaza campaign as a "pinpoint operation," adding that "it is crazy to be sitting around" given the urgency of achieving a cease-fire.
With the death toll in Gaza exceeding 500 and the presences of hundreds of foreign journalists, international public opinion is largely opposed to Israel’s actions in Gaza, regardless of statements by Western governments about Israel defending itself.
Before the current Gaza clash, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been relegated to the back burner of world affairs. The Obama administration had essentially walked away after the failure of Kerry’s effort to restart moribund negotiations, while conflicts elsewhere in the region and beyond demanded more immediate attention. Operation Protective Edge has changed all that, forcing Washington to refocus on achieving a sustainable cease-fire. And it will be Hamas that benefits most from that shift, as the movement forces its demands onto the international agenda — while Mahmoud Abbas is further marginalized.
Netanyahu's political longevity, in a country renowned for rarely letting a government complete a full term of office, has been built on refraining from rolls of the dice and in maintaining the stability of a status quo largely favorable to Israel. If Operation Protective Edge is remembered by Israelis as a botched war, Netanyahu's hold on power will be weakened. When the dust settles, the biggest political loser in Operation Protective Edge could be its author.