IDF soldiers in Gaza
Photo: AP
Missed opportunity in Gaza
Opportunity to deal decisive blow to Hamas missed because of lack of political will
In the year 216 CE General Hannibal of Carthage won a great victory over Rome at the battle of Cannae, virtually decimating Rome’s ability to defend itself. The leader of Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry Maharbal urged him to march immediately to attack the now vulnerable city of Rome. To his surprise Hannibal refused. Maharbal then was quoted as saying: "Truly the Gods have not bestowed all things upon the same person. Thou knowest indeed, Hannibal, how to conquer, but thou knowest not how to make use of your victory.”


Hannibal’s failure to press his victory to a solid conclusion allowed Rome to recover and eventually defeat him and much later would lead to the absolute destruction of Carthage.


In 1982 Israel made quick and deep gains against Fatah in Lebanon during the first Lebanon War. The IDF eventuality surrounded the entire PLO leadership in west Beirut and all that was required was a final push to end the group’s existence. But due to international pressure Fatah was allowed to exile itself to other places across the Arab world, particularly Tunisia where Yasser Arafat and the Fatah leadership reestablished themselves.


Twenty-four years later Israel was goaded into a war in Lebanon again. Again, great and overwhelming force was used, but it was used piecemeal and with an overemphasis on airpower over ground forces. Despite this the IDF had the opportunity to destroy or at least decimate Hizbullah, but due to lack of political will failed to do so.


Now in the winter of 2008-2009 we have fought a war against Hamas with a much stronger, better trained and reformed IDF. Any action we took met with inadequate resistance and the expected rocket and mortar counterattacks, though harsh, were only a fraction of what was expected. Like in Lebanon in 1982, due to international pressure and lack of political will by our leaders, an opportunity to make a symbolic and strategic blow to Islamic extremism by destroying Hamas and returning Gilad Shalit was missed. This was despite the clear ability of our military to do so.


The irony is that if we had pressed our advantage in 1982 it is more than conceivable that there would not have been a 2006. It is also more than conceivable that with a stronger political will in 2006 to bring that war to a clear conclusion we would not have fought this war in Gaza. And now there is little doubt in the people of Israel’s mind that within a relatively short period of time we will have to repeat this cycle again.


Unyielding resolve

The Gaza war has unequivocally reestablished the tactical supremacy of the IDF and has shown the world the level of reunited purpose within the people of Israel. But the same lack of political will to exploit our tactical advantage that has been endemic to our government for the past few decades has left us in a strategic minefield the likes of which we have not seen since before the Six-Day War.


Like that period of time, we must be more proactive in our defense, but unlike that time strong military action must be complimented by a renewed sense of political will that reflects the renewed public will to strengthen Israel’s security. Also, we must broaden and deepen our understanding of the psychological aspects of conflict since more than any other war that has been fought in the modern era this war on terrorism is being fought in the minds of the world community.


Like Hannibal, our greatest mistake and one we make repeatedly is that we fail to understand that our enemy is not interested in playing by any rules we set for ourselves. Hannibal, in his estimation, thought his stunning victory at Cannae was sufficient to break Rome’s will and to have it capitulate, since by the rules of war of the day that is what a defeated power did. The Romans, contrary to those rules, simply hunkered down and refused to do so. Reeducated by their own mistakes and learning also from Hannibal’s, they did not hesitate to press their own advantage and at the best opportunity totally destroyed Carthage. It would be no less of a mistake to assume our enemies are not learning from ours.


Yet Hannibal made his mistake only once. We have made it three times.


Today, we still have a chance to guarantee our long-term survival and prosperity, but it requires a new unity of purpose. It requires a new approach to the media and the reassessment of old alliances, while establishing common interest with new alliances. It also requires us to treat enemy powers with unyielding resolve and a refusal to allow them to set the rules of engagement in any arena. We must set our house in order and rediscover our self belief and identity as the only Jewish state on this planet.


But most of all, when we must go to war, we need to execute it with clear goals and relentless finality. Our government must understand that military power is nothing without the power that lies in the will of good leadership and a nation united in purpose.


Yehuda Lev is a member of Kibbutz Holit, located in the Eshkol region three kilometers from Rafah


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