IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi declared recently that should the IDF enter the Gaza Strip in full force, in the framework of an Israeli military operation, he has no doubt that this time around the army and the entire State of Israel will be triumphant. Several commentators were quick to explain that this declaration was an attempt to highlight the great defeat suffered by his predecessor, Dan Halutz, and to promise to the people that under Ashkenazi’s leadership the army will not suffer another defeat such as the Second Lebanon War failure.
This interpretation may be correct, and it is possible that just like other politicians and generals Ashkenazi too aims to glorify himself and win the sympathy of the public and leadership. Yet it is clear this is not enough to explain all the considerations that likely made the army chief boast like this.
Another reason for the army chief’s message may have been his desire to offer support to soldiers and commanders, who do not enjoy great prestige in the wake of the previous war, which the army initiated and which ended in a blatant failure. The desire to ensure maximal designation of funds during the 2008 budget discussions may have also led to such declaration.
Yet a no less important reason was apparently the army chief’s desire to prompt the prime minister and government to allow him and the IDF to embark on a large-scale Gaza operation, in order to improve the situation of Sderot and other regional communities, but also to cover up the inability to bring about a complete cessation of Qassam fire directed at Gaza-region communities.
Just like the declarations made by the army, and several commentators who support it, regarding the renewed Israeli deterrence in the wake of the actions in Lebanon and Syria, the promise regarding the victory that would follow a massive infiltration, along with a direct Israeli presence and control over the Strip, are problematic in every respect.
We are talking about two main errors that are related to each other. One basic mistake has to do with the meaning of the term “victory” in general, and particularly in the case of renewed occupation of the Strip and the need to stay there for a lengthy period of a year or several years, as stated by Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well.
Even if Israel is able to reoccupy the Strip without too many victims, which is disputed within and outside the army, and even if the IDF kills or detains Hamas and Jihad leaders, commanders and activists – we won’t be able to eliminate the resistance to such occupation. And following such occupation we will again see the continuation of low-intensity warfare vis-à-vis the Palestinians not only in the Strip, but rather, also in the West Bank. Such move would also heighten tensions vis-à-vis Arab states and possibly their willingness to attack Israel. There is no need to elaborate on the grave political and international implications of such development.
Another mistake has to do with the basic fact that in the past 30 years the IDF has failed to win any war it was involved in, regardless of whether it initiated the war or was dragged into it. All the full-scale wars and low-intensity wars, just like the Gaza operations before the disengagement and the ceaseless struggle against the Palestinians in the West Bank, ended in defeat or in a draw at best.
These problematic outcomes, which were well understood by political figures such as Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon in his last years as prime minister, led to serious talks regarding agreements with neighboring Arab countries and even with the Palestinians. Some of these talks led to peace agreements and others led to changes in some basic Palestinian perceptions; for example, the annulment of the Palestinian Convention by Yasser Arafat.
Therefore, current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was party to the Second Lebanon War failure, along with his government colleagues, must continue to stop the army chief and his supporters from planning yet another “war” in the Strip, and instead engage in more serious negotiations with the Palestinians including Hamas, as well as with the Syrians. The talks must focus on moves that would mitigate the conflict in the first stage, and later on bring about a solution for the conflict with the Palestinians and with Syria and Lebanon.
Prof. Gabi Sheffer is a member of the Hebrew University’s Political Science Department