Now that the fog of war over Gaza has lifted and the ceasefire appears to be settling in, a number of strategic questions and lessons emerge. Many are relevant not just to the Israel-Hamas confrontation.
Perhaps most ominous for the future of the region, and most puzzling, is the impression left on Israel’s enemies by Israel’s performance in the war — the disciplined behavior under fire of the Israeli public, the high rates of interception by Israel’s missile defenses, the IDF’s admirable reluctance to endanger Gazan civilians, and a leadership that knew when to stop.
What Israel thought was a success was seen by Iran and Hezbollah as a sign of weakness.
Note, for example, the postwar statement of Ali Baqeri, undersecretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council: “When the Zionist regime can’t stand the resistance in the blockaded Gaza Strip, it is clear that it will definitely have nothing to say when it comes to the power and strength of the Islamic Republic.” Or Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah: “Israel, which was shaken by a handful of Fajr-5 rockets during eight days, how would it cope with thousands of rockets which fall on Tel Aviv… if it attacked Lebanon?”
These and similar bombast, some even from Gaza, would appear to call into question the deterrent value of Israel’s achievements in Operation Pillar of Defense and to suggest that another, bigger war may not be far off, if only due to enemy miscalculation.
Unless it’s all bluster. Note that Hezbollah did not intervene in this war. Indeed, Hezbollah has not fired a single rocket at Israel since the summer 2006 Second Lebanon War, which was roundly criticized in Israel and the Middle East as an Israeli strategic failure. And Hamas is now maintaining a total ceasefire and keeping its civilians away from the border fence.
Perhaps a healthy dose of bombing and destruction on Israel’s part does indeed induce second thoughts on the part of its non-state, Islamist-terrorist enemies, despite the tone of their rhetoric and their insistent predictions of Israel’s ultimate disappearance. A number of Israeli military thinkers are now postulating that this is in fact the only viable strategy Israel can adhere to: a periodic painful reminder, delivered with minimal civilian losses and by increasingly efficient tools of both offense and defense that Israel is undaunted by Islamist terrorism.