Of all the IDF’s operations and wars, why did Operation Cast Lead prompt so much trouble for Israel on the international stage? This painful question has several answers. Two of them pertain to very sensitive issues in the Israeli experience; these issues should be part of our public discourse.
Size does matter, says Prime Minister Netanyahu. Had the operation ended after a few days, rather than after 22 days, it would not have provoked such wave of hatred. As the operation dragged on, the people who watched it on their television screens became increasingly brainwashed. An Israeli military move has to be short: Otherwise, we’ll pay a heavy price for it.
However, some ministers in the Olmert government point to Defense Minister Barak’s and Army Chief Ashkenazi’s fears. These ministers say that the length of the operation changed nothing, because the backing provided by President George W. Bush allowed Israel to continue fighting. The root of all evil, in their view, is the placement of IDF casualties above any other consideration.
When zero casualties becomes the most important thing, we end up delaying the operation as much as possible and embark on it in winter, we bomb Gaza from the air instead of sending in ground forces, we respond with exaggerated fire to any threat, and from the moment the operation begins we keep on seeking a ceasefire in one way or another.
The truth is that there was no real combat in Gaza. The difference in casualty figures attests to that: The IDF lost 10 soldiers, including four killed by friendly fire. The Palestinians sustained 1,100 to 1,400 casualties. Many of them were unarmed civilians.
What Israeli public opinion perceived as victory, was perceived in other countries as a modern and well-protected military assaulting a helpless civilian population.
To me it appears that the lesson identified by Netanyahu makes sense: Extended military campaigns come with a heavy price. Even if the pressure is not exerted during the military move, it follows in its wake.
However, former Prime Minister Olmert’s argument also makes sense: Something around here has become distorted in respect to our values: The safety of soldiers has become more important than the safety of the civilians they are supposed to safeguard. What started with certain naiveté through the “Four Mothers” campaign to pull out of Lebanon has become the dominant spirit here; the sense accompanying officers on the ground.
Israel’s wars are now measured using the same criteria used for road accidents: The achievements or results don’t count, but rather, the statistics do – the number of casualties among our troops.
On several occasions in the past, Israel found itself facing a wave of condemnations on the intentional stage. Every time we were able to overcome it, thanks to the American veto and thanks to the fact that the whole world is not against us.
There is almost no doubt that had there been a diplomatic process going on at this time, the pressure would have been lighter. Yet it would be naïve to think that a diplomatic process would have prevented the pressure altogether. The Palestinians would not miss the opportunity to condemn Israel in the international arena: It’s their most effect weapon.