Interim lessons of Operation Summer Rains

In terms of immediate results and consequences, there are ostensibly two logical reasons for the Israel Defense Forces to invade, bombard, "boom" and blockade the Gaza Strip and arrest Hamas politicians on the West Bank: to recover Corporal Gilad Shalit, the soldier abducted just over a week ago, and to stop once and for all the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel. These are the declared objectives of Operation Summer Rains.
At the broader strategic level there are two additional, more complex rationales for the operation. One, undeclared and tentative, is to destroy the Hamas infrastructure and eliminate the Hamas leadership, thereby presumably bringing down the current Palestinian Authority government. Some Israeli security circles defined this objective shortly after Hamas was elected on January 25, reasoning that the rise to power of a fundamentalist, anti-Semitic movement dedicated to Israel’s ultimate disappearance justified an Israeli decision to preempt at the earliest opportunity.

A second, fairly obvious strategic rationale is to strengthen Israel’s deterrent image after a series of setbacks and in so doing "prove" that last August’s disengagement from Gaza was a profitable move from the standpoint of Israel’s security. This would then render more supportable PM Ehud Olmert’s plan to carry out another, larger round of disengagement in the West Bank. It might also save his government.

It is not at all clear how any of these objectives will be achieved using Israel’s current tactics in and around Gaza. The current "fog of battle" can of course be explained as a deliberate attempt by the government to spread confusion and chaos and transmit the message that Israel has "gone crazy", thereby intimidating Hamas and other Gazan militants into cooperating. Alternatively, the Olmert-Peretz-Livni government, lacking the requisite experience in national security decision-making, is simply piling mistake upon mistake, leaving the IDF confused as to its real mission and achieving nothing beyond the misery it is causing innocent Palestinians in the Strip. Thus far, with Israel having gained little but also endangered little–there have been no Israeli losses in the operation and the rest of the world has proven remarkably tolerant and understanding of Israel’s position–it is simply too early to pass judgment on either the wisdom or the outcome of this operation.

Nonetheless, a number of insights would appear to be relevant at this juncture. For one, at both the military and political levels we recall the dictum that Israel learned, or should have learned, in Lebanon: in chasing terrorists into a chaotic void like Gaza, it’s easy to go in but hard to get out. In the present case, it is particularly difficult to define a workable exit strategy when the objectives of the operation are not entirely clear and our capacity to attain them at a reasonable cost is in doubt.

How and when will the IDF withdraw if it does not recover Corporal Shalit? And how will the Qassams falling on Sderot be silenced by this operation, bearing in mind that Qassams were fired from Gaza with relative impunity for years before last August, when the IDF still occupied parts of the Strip? The doubts regarding an exit strategy may explain the very limited nature of the IDF’s incursion thus far.

Then too, Israel’s decision to revert to military force reflects, in Israeli eyes at least, the conclusion that Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas is as "irrelevant" as President Mahmoud Abbas: neither knew that Gaza-based Hamas and other militants would invade Israeli soil last Sunday morning, and neither has proven capable of exercising authority in Gaza. In this sense, Haniyeh’s belated decision to okay the Prisoners’ Document looks more like the hurried acquisition of a personal life insurance policy than anything else: having displayed his powerlessness for all to see, Haniyeh at least wants to ensure that Israel does not assassinate him if and when it decides to escalate the operation.

On the other hand, any Israeli attempt to manipulate the Palestinian political situation so as to bring about the downfall of the Haniyeh government and its replacement by moderates is almost certainly doomed to failure. This is another lesson that we should have learned from Lebanon: stay out of our neighbors’ politics.

The current dilemma and its ramifications for future disengagement in the West Bank should concern anyone who supports the idea of Israel continuing to dismantle settlements. One can still make the case that leaving Gaza was good for Israeli security: the IDF handles routine security around the Strip with a fraction of its former contingent, and the current operation is far easier and more internationally justifiable precisely because we removed the settlements and withdrew to the green line, thereby highlighting the "casus belli" nature of the attack on Kerem Shalom. But the Palestinians have refused to accept our contention that disengagement created new "rules of the game" in Gaza, and many Israelis see only Qassams and abductions as a result.

Olmert’s exaggerated hype of the next phase in the West Bank as creating final, recognized borders and his failure thus far to present a detailed and workable plan for that phase have cost him both Israeli and international support. Regardless of the outcome of Summer Rains, it’s time for the government to present disengagement for what it is–no more, no less: a demographic and national imperative that solves some security problems and creates others; a vital exercise in conflict management until we can get back to conflict resolution, with everything still on the table. Certainly, one key aspect of the next phase of disengagement should be obvious by now: we can and should remove settlements from the West Bank–but not, under current Palestinian political circumstances, the IDF.

Finally, it behooves Israel and its supporters to understand what the Shalit abduction means for Palestinians, above and beyond everything else: the chance to free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Whether or not that happens soon–judging by past precedents a prisoner exchange for Shalit, if it happens, will take months if not years–Olmert should at some point in the future exploit an opportunity that justifies a gesture to the PA/PLO to begin releasing prisoners. That is the most expedient way to buy Palestinian good will when we need it.