INTO THE FRAY: Unfit to govern?

It is possible Operation Protective Shield could have been conducted with greater ineptitude. But it is not easy to see how.

Rocket interception
Rockets launched from Gaza Strip towards Israel is seen as rocket by Iron Dome anti-missile system is fired to intercept them Photo: REUTERS
Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy.  – Henry Kissinger

He who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.Midrash Rabba, Ecclesiastes 7:16

A cease-fire is no solution to ending a war. Unconditional surrender seems to always work.John D. Stoller, Jerusalem Post talk-backer

Yes, I know. The title of this column will ruffle many feathers, especially while the cannons are still roaring.

But what is a concerned journalist to do when he sees the elected government of his country lurching from one predictable blunder to another? Show solidarity with a “policy” – for want of a better word – that has led to an unbroken succession of foreseen failure and fiasco? Pretend that policies leading inexorably to disastrous debacle actually reflect considered and circumspect statesmanship?

Anemic indecision

As I sat down to begin this column 36 days after the start of Operation Protective Edge, the Post posted this headline:

“Security cabinet meets as dozens of Gaza rockets rain down on Israel.”

The first paragraph of the associated report read:

“The security cabinet was… to decide Israel’s response to heavy rocket fire which rained down from Gaza throughout the day…. It remained unclear whether Israel would give the IDF the order to expand the operation or respond in a pinpoint manner to rocket fire in attempts to keep the conflict from spiraling out of control.”

In many ways this report documents the indecisiveness with which the campaign in Gaza has been conducted. After all, the breakdown of the cease-fire and renewal of Hamas’s bombardment was hardly a surprise. One hopes the event was foreseen and discussed by the esteemed members of our security cabinet. Surely, an appropriate response should have been prepared in advance and activated immediately with the renewal of fighting.

But even assuming some consultation was required before the planned response was implemented, it seems that little was decided, other than to persist with what has proven ineffective for subduing Hamas’s attacks.

Extreme ineptitude?

As if to underscore this very point, Hamas rained a record number of 170 missiles on Israeli targets the day the security cabinet met – and continued thereafter with no reduction.

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Shamni, former head of Central Command, is not known as one of the hard-liners who served in the senior ranks of the IDF. Yet I find it difficult to argue with his diagnosis of the malaise afflicting Israeli decision-making. In an interview on August 21, Shamni stated:

“I am not surprised that [the cabinet] is not taking decisions, because we began the fighting without having a strategy, and I do not believe it is possible to formulate an effective strategy in the midst of hostilities.”

It is possible, of course, that Operation Protective Shield could have been conducted with greater ineptitude than it has up to now. But it not easy to see how.

As I pointed out last week, despite enormous damage inflicted on Gaza, no real, substantial goals have been definitively and demonstrably attained, even after a month of fighting.

Increasingly inviting target

Israel has failed to end the rocket attacks on its civilians and seems to have no effective plan to do so – nor will to implement it, if it does have one – unless Israel’s grand strategy is to let the other guy fire at you until he runs out of ammo.

While a considerable portion of the (known) tunnels into Israel appear to have been destroyed, there remains significant uncertainty about whether the threat has been eliminated and as to how quickly the enemy could reinstate it. Many residents of the South remain extremely skeptical that the menace has been adequately reduced so they could return safely to their homes.

The senior echelons of Hamas’s chain of command remain largely undisrupted, despite the (as yet, inconclusive) attempt to eliminate Muhammad Deif, head of Hamas’s armed wing. Although it has reportedly suffered considerable casualties, the organization remains a viable fighting force with the will to engage undiminished.

Thus, whatever the eventual outcome, considerable damage, merited or not, to the IDF’s reputation as a fighting force, and to Israel’s deterrent posture, seems inevitable unless a radical change in the conduct of the operation occurs very soon.

Goodwill frittered away

It makes little difference if such perceptions of the apparent “dullness” of the IDF’s combat efficacy are rooted in inappropriate political directives or the ineptness of its military command. There is likely to be little difference in the result – a dangerous decline in Israel’s capacity to dispel its adversaries’ perception that it is steadily becoming a less formidable foe and an increasingly inviting target.

As the bombardment of Israeli civilian targets continued into the third day after the cease-fire ceased to exist – well after the security cabinet met “to decide Israel’s response to [it]”– it is becoming clear that the problem cannot be dealt with by standoff weaponry alone and that a large-scale ground operation will be necessary.

The only alternative is to enter into negotiations with Hamas, accept considerable portions of its outrageous demands, reward it for its naked aggression, and wait for it to initiate the next round of (probably more deadly) fighting, with its reputation and operational capabilities considerably enhanced.

It is difficult to conceive of more inauspicious political circumstances in which to initiate a ground invasion than those prevailing today.

By allowing fighting to drag on for week after bloody week, the Israeli leadership has managed to fritter away all international goodwill and understanding Israel had when hostilities broke out – much as happened during the drawn-out 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Frittered away (cont.)

Instead of capitalizing on the spurt of rare, short-lived sympathy and support – even from several sources in the Arab world, inimical to Hamas – enjoyed in the first days of Operation Protective Edge, a time that coincided with the world’s preoccupation with the soccer World Cup – Israel opted for “restraint.” It refrained from decisive military action, restricting itself to unopposed, and at best, partially effective, aerial assaults.

As a result, instead of Israel imposing defeat on Hamas within days, thus bringing active hostilities to an end, TV screens across the world were filled, for weeks on end, with scenes of devastation in Gaza. This course allowed anti-Israel activists and organizations time to mobilize sentiment against Israel, precipitating vicious outbursts of hatred against the Jewish state and against Jews in the Diaspora who were identified with it.

This atmosphere has eroded nearly all favorable sentiment toward Israel and made any possible Arab approval of wider IDF action untenable.

While a ground operation may come to be seen as unavoidable, despite the great resistance the government has hitherto displayed, launching it under current conditions is likely to result in far more severe diplomatic consequences than if it had been initiated in the more benign conditions that prevailed at the start of the campaign.

Diverting attention from Iran and ISIS

One of the more pernicious political effects of the drawn-out hostilities is that it diverts attention away from other issues Israel needs the international community to focus on.

Arguably, the two most pressing of these matters are (a) the Iranian nuclear program and the increasingly imminent specter of a nuclear-enabled theocratic tyranny, able to spread a protective umbrella over a host of terrorist organizations that operate under its auspices; and (b) the gruesome ascent of Islamic State (ISIS) and its gory march of conquest across wide stretches of the Levant, in effect redrawing the map, and restructuring the politics, of the Middle East.

However, as battles rage, and homes in Gaza are reduced to rubble, the international media have other, more graphic and amenable, grist for their mills to grind.

Had a massive initial military strike, involving the full might of the IDF, been brought to bear, with Hamas rapidly incapacitated and defeated, the cannons could have been silenced. While this would not have been the final chapter in the Gaza episode (See “Why Gaza must go” – June 24), it would have attracted far less interest from the media.

For the ayatollahs in particular, the protracted campaign is a godsend, shielding them from the spotlight of international scrutiny while centrifuges spin and Iran inches ever-closer to weaponized nuclear capabilities.

While the grisly activities of Islamic State have received some media coverage, the scenes of anguish in Gaza have distracted the world from properly considering the nature of the forces likely to be ranged against Israel, as the bulwark between its bestial brutality and the West.

There is a saying: Omnis festinatio est a Diabolo (“All haste is from the Devil”).

Sometimes it appears that quite the opposite is true. Sometimes tardiness can have diabolical consequences.

Misused Iron Dome

Perhaps the greatest irony of Operation Protective Edge is that its greatest successes arguably contributed to its greatest failing.

The Iron Dome missile defense system proved a stunning technological achievement, virtually neutralizing Hamas’s endeavor to sow death and destruction in Israel’s civilian population centers. But, by protecting Israelis so impressively, the Iron Dome also paradoxically protected the Palestinians, perhaps even more than they benefited Israel. For had our cities and towns been vulnerable to Hamas’s missiles, Israel would have had no option but to carry out a large-scale invasion of Gaza. It would have been driven to seize and hold the launching areas. Unavoidably, such an operation would have resulted in heavy “collateral damage” for the Palestinians.

However, as Israeli population centers were largely immune to Hamas’s barrages, our leaders seem to have been lulled into a false sense of security, encouraging them to forego such an operation.

Given the huge disparity between the costs of incoming and interceptor missiles, with the former vastly cheaper, Israel might find its defense system overwhelmed in a future round of fighting– especially if other fronts (such as in the north) are involved, if primitive multiple war heads are deployed, or if Hamas or Hezbollah acquires cruise missiles (say, from a source like Turkey or North Korea).

The strategic rationale of the Iron Dome is not – at least should not be – primarily defensive, but effectively offensive. It is not – or should not be – to defend against an endless barrage of low-cost missiles as much as it is to safeguard the civilian population while the launch areas are seized and secured.

It seems that on this matter the Israeli leadership has missed the point.

Missing ‘Iron Dome’

Perhaps the gravest indictment of the Netanyahu administration has to do with its actions (or inaction) in the period leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. This refers to the almost total neglect of one of the most important elements in the county’s strategic arsenal, public diplomacy.

I have argued repeatedly in favor of allotting massive amounts – as much as a billion dollars, or 1 percent of the state budget – for erecting a political Iron Dome. We need a system to rebuff diplomatic attacks on Israel aimed at demonizing and delegitimizing the Jewish state. We have to avoid policies incommensurate with our vital interests.

Diplomacy, in general, and public diplomacy, in particular, have a function essentially analogous to that of the classic role of the air force. Just as the latter was traditionally tasked with creating freedom of action for ground forces to achieve their objectives, so should diplomacy be seen as responsible for facilitating freedom of action for the nation’s strategic decision- makers, to allow them to achieve the objectives of strategies they formulate.

It seems that, on this matter, too, the Israeli leadership has woefully missed the point.

Unfit to govern?

I have left many other issues unaddressed.

Subject to breaking news, I will address several of them next week and elaborate further on some I have raised here.

But even the partial list of indictments that appears above seems sufficient to raise the trenchant question: Is the leadership fit to govern?

Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

First published at The Jerusalem Post

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One comment

  1. Graham Coffey

    When making a comment herein, I have at times worked on the assumption that the Israeli populace is totally unified in a common purpose….Israel’s sovereign protection and survival above all else. Regrettably, for what I have learnt during the past few months, this is not the situation….founded mainly in political divergence.

    For this reason, and for an appreciation of the ‘tricky’ path that has to be walked by the country’s leaders..both internally and externally, I am somewhat hesitant to throw around, or totally agree with the by line of “not fit to govern”….though find myself in agreement with the remaining bulk of what Mr Sherman has written herein.

    I am from a centrist mindset…neither of the leaning left or over excitable right. Personally, I believe Israel should have hit Gaza with every ounce of military worth it could to have completely neutralised Hamas and Gazans within a week…perhaps two at the very outside, which given the landsize of Gaza, and Israel’s superior military capability was easily achievable.

    I am of the steadfast belief that Israel’s creed of ‘purity in arms’; while a noble undertaking, has again worked to it’s detriment . ‘Restraint’, for this very small country fighting for it’s existence, and survival, should be the last word in it’s vocabulary…as demonstrated in 47’/48′, 56′, 67′ and 73, and which garnered World respect…. without suggesting it should dispense with the dignity of civilised humanity.

    On Again/Off Again, Go Fast/Go Slow, Start/Stop are not the strategies that should be applied to the nature of war that is taking place between Israel and the Savages of Gaza….contrary to the staged uproar of the Savages international fellow travellers. Israel needs to inflict one crippling defeat upon Hamas Savages and the Gazan Arabs…before dragging the ‘Peace Table’ out for a pow wow session.

    Sherman is dead right when suggesting Israel has far more important issues to concentrate on; Iran, Islamic Expansion per the like of the Islamic State/Turkey and Lebanon and overall self intended international goodwill, than allowing itself to be mired down in this guerrilla/gorilla fracas…if it is to be seen in it’s true light, for the landsize involved, and stone age adversaries it is pitted against.

    Of course their is going to be an International outcry…all the more reason to go at it as if possessed, to ensure while the screaming is taking place, Israel is ridding itself of the Savages once and for all… preparation for the real threats Israel faces into the future.

    The term ‘G-d Bless Israel’ is regularly used as a designation of support…I think at times it should be ‘G-d Bless Israel’s Leaders…to give them the guidance, wisdom and strength to make the right calls’…for after all they are only human…walking a very fine line at times…..

    While disagreeing with Martin Sherman in some respects within this Posting…I hold to it is still being of a credible reflection of what I know of the situation in Israel at the moment.