It’s a harsh fact of life in a tough neighborhood like Israel’s, so Israelis will tell you, that when somebody hits you, even a little, you have to hit back hard. Otherwise the blows will keep coming until they do real damage.
It doesn’t matter how puny today’s foe might look. If you let it slide, you’ll encourage other, bigger enemies who are just waiting to see how tough you are. So you hit back, not merely to stop today’s attacker but to send a message to the others: Don’t even try.
That’s why Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided July 15 to sack his deputy minister of defense, the right-wing firebrand Danny Danon. The ostensible aim was to discipline an insubordinate upstart. The real target was a growing rebellion among senior ministers and coalition allies.
Danon’s misdeed was denouncing the prime minister for his embrace of Egypt’s Israel-Hamas cease-fire proposal. The security cabinet had approved the cease-fire that morning at Netanyahu’s urging. Danon spent the day running from one microphone to the next protesting. By the time Netanyahu fired him that evening, the cease-fire had been a dead letter for hours, spurned by Hamas. The prime minister’s problem was elsewhere: mounting pressure from his right flank for a ground invasion of Gaza.
Netanyahu strongly opposes a ground campaign. Other than his defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, most of his backing on the issue comes from liberals who rarely side with him on anything else. His own Likud base is increasingly impatient with him for going soft. His closest allies, including even the fiercely loyal strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz, were openly pressing for all-out war with Hamas. Danon’s firing, it seems, was a warning to them.
Danon has been a thorn in Bibi’s side for months. Just 43, in the Knesset since 2009, he’s emerged as a leader of the young hard-liners who oppose peace talks and press for anti-Arab and anti-liberal legislation. Last year he got himself elected chairman of the party’s two top governing bodies, the convention and central committee. He’s used both posts to tie Netanyahu’s hands at key moments. Bibi must have relished the opportunity to demote him.
But timing is everything. Bibi could have dumped Danon at any moment in the past year. Doing it now makes Danon a martyr to the cause of smashing Hamas. It doesn’t strengthen the prime minister politically. On the contrary. It was one of those moments for which Netanyahu gets too little credit: putting the national interest first.
A ground invasion has been under discussion for weeks, since shortly after the June 12 kidnapping of three yeshiva students in the West Bank. Advocates, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, say Israel needs to take over Gaza in order to find and destroy Hamas war-making capabilities — rockets, command centers, tunnels into Israel — which are hidden underground and aren’t accessible from the air.
The principal opponent of a ground invasion is the military itself, which says the costs would far outweigh the benefits. Capturing the densely populated district would require intense, house-to-house fighting, causing extensive civilian casualties and property destruction. Beyond the moral concerns, which are considerable, such an outcome would cause severe damage to Israel internationally.
Moreover, if Israel did take over Gaza, it would then face the unpleasant choice of staying or leaving. Staying would mean being responsible for the daily needs of 1.8 million people, from food and medical care to education and sanitation, while being constantly vulnerable to direct, deadly attack by local terrorists.
On the other hand, if Israel were to take over, topple Hamas and then withdraw without first reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority, intelligence officials say the vacuum would quickly be filled by anarchic jihadist groups with even less interest in stability than Hamas.
The last time Israel mounted a major ground incursion into Gaza, the 21-day Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, the resulting 1,400 Palestinian deaths caused an international furor that left Israel in a seriously weakened position. Repercussions included the damning United Nations human rights investigation known as the Goldstone Report, published in September 2009, and the fiasco of the Turkish “freedom flotilla” in May 2010.
The aftershocks gave a significant boost to international anti-Israel boycott efforts. The benefit to Israel was a reduced level of rocket fire that rebounded within a year to an average of about 75 per month — lower than the 200-plus rockets per month in the years before 2008, but still unacceptable.
In contrast, military officials note, Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 lasted only eight days, had no ground component and concluded with far fewer Palestinian casualties — 160 according to Gaza officials. It ended in an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire agreement that held firm for 19 months.
Under the so-called Pillar of Defense “understandings,” Hamas held its fire from 2012 until the current fighting began. It also acted with varying levels of competence and determination to suppress fire by jihadist radicals. The result was a total of about 240 rockets over 19 months, most in a handful of heavy barrages punctuating long months of minimal fire.
A ground campaign today would have all the pitfalls of Cast Lead and then some. The extensive tunnel system built beneath Gaza in the past four years would allow Hamas fighters to burst out without warning to kill or kidnap Israeli ground troops at will. Besides, Israel enters the operation with its international standing more precarious than it was then.
Israel’s goal in the current campaign, Operation Protective Edge, has been to degrade Hamas’s rocket arsenals via air strikes while keeping Palestinian civilian casualties to a minimum. The task is complicated by Hamas’s practice of basing its arsenals and launch facilities in densely populated urban areas.
Prior to the fighting, the Israeli military had amassed what it calls a “bank” of targets that it prioritized by military value and “sterility” or lack of vulnerable civilian presence. Once the fighting began, according to Yediot Ahronot military analyst Alex Fishman, the army’s Southern Command had beefed-up intelligence units working around the clock to find more targets to refill the bank. If the bank were to run empty before a cease-fire kicks in, political pressure for a ground operation would become overwhelming. Hence the enthusiasm for the Egyptian plan.
Israel would like the current fighting to end with Hamas still running Gaza, but weakened, humbled, its arsenal reduced. Hamas wants the opposite: control over its borders, access to the sea, plus political gains like release of prisoners and a measure of international recognition.
Egypt’s plan was to restore the 2012 “understandings” and then negotiate those conflicting demands once shooting stops.
But once shooting stops, Hamas loses its one trump card: the hope of inflaming the Israeli right and luring Israel into a disastrous ground campaign. That would cost Israel dearly in soldiers’ lives and international credit. All Hamas loses is its people’s lives and property. That’s life in a tough neighborhood.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).