As readers know, I am sympathetic to Israel, especially when compared with its vile enemies like Hamas and Hezbollah, and that’s reflected in my blog posts. But it’s frustrating, because the Israeli government has proven to be so incompetent [beyond the general standard of incompetence one can expect from any government]. This is to a large extent a reflection of the country’s broken political system. Each coalition government is composed of several parties, the leaders of which may have very different ideas of what Israeli actions are supposed to accomplish. Even within each party, there are always “backbenchers” hoping to move up who disagree, for real or strategic reasons, with the party leaders’ strategy.
The result is a cacophony of views about what Israel is trying to accomplish. The only unanimity, or virtual unanimity, Israeli governments can reach is that there is a point where the country needs to use force–against Hezbollah in 2006, against Hamas in 2008, and with regard to the continuing embargo against Gaza.
The problem is, in the absence of agreement within the government as to what the force is meant to accomplish, the government can’t announce under what circumstances it will cease to use force. So instead of setting out clear parameters, and saying, for example in 12/2008, “we regret the loss of life in Gaza, but if Hamas would do the following …. we will ceasefire immediately,” and thus try to put the onus on Hamas for the violence when it fails accede to what at least many would find to be reasonable Israeli demands, Israel instead just keeps shooting until either world opinion or popular exhaustion gets the better of it, and doesn’t achieve its goals. Consider:
When Israel attacked Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006, its leaders suggest many distinct goals, including: (a) to rescue the three soldiers Hezbollah had kidnapped, (b) to retaliate for that kidnapping, (c) to degrade Hezbollah’s ability to attack Israel, (d) to topple Hezbollah and establish Lebanon’s sovereign authority in South Lebanon, (e) to get the international community to intervene to stop Hezbollah’s smuggling of weapons into south Lebanon. Of these goals, Israel achieved only (b) (and (c), but very temporarily), but at the cost of over a hundred of its own dead and great suffering in northern Israel. On (e), a potentially realistic and important goal, Israel eventually settled for a toothless U.N. resolution that accomplished precisely nothing. With regard to (a) Israel eventually turned over hundreds of live Hezbollahniks for the bodies of its three soldiers, something that surely could have been “accomplished” without war.
When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008, the primary stated goal was to halt or limit missile attacks against Israel. That goal was accomplished, but the attack probably dragged on significantly longer than it had to for that purpose. Various Israeli officials also had the goals of driving Hamas from power, winning the release of Gilad Shalit, destroying the ability of Hamas to govern effectively, and so on, but insisted on none of these additional goals and achieved none of them. [By contrast, the 1982 Lebanon invasion was misbegotten in various ways, but Israel insisted it that regardless of world opinion it wouldn’t leave Beirut until the PLO was forced out of Lebanon, and that goal was achieved.]
Finally, with regard to the Gaza embargo, it’s been reasonably effective in preventing an Iranian-sponsored Hamas military buildup. But there are many “dual use” items that Israel could allow or ban, depending on how strictly it wants to enforce the embargo. The more dual use items that are restricted, the greater the propaganda for the other side. There have been proposals over time to ease the embargo on dual use goods to ease the burden on the citizens of Gaza. This hasn’t been done, because again Israeli officials have various unannounced goals: (a) to limit the standard of living for Gazans such that they will be inclined to dislike and eventually get rid of their Hamas government; (b) to make a point about Gilad Shalit, purely for domestic political consumption: “we’re not going to let the Gazans live well so long as Gilad Shalit is treated so poorly”; (c) to control the channels of aid to Gaza so as to create alternatives to Hamas; (d) to emphasize that Israel in a state of war with Gaza–and what nation at war has ever allowed more than the barest of humanitarian aid to its enemy?, and so on.
The problem in each situation is that Israel never announces what its goals are, or if does, it announces them haphazardly through different government factions, and then doesn’t insist on them, which means the world (and its enemies) just ignore them. I don’t have a solution for this problem, but I think it goes a long way to explaining why even individuals who are not inclined to think poorly of Israel often get exasperated by what seems to be a lot of violence for a little gain. It’s not that Israel, in most cases, doesn’t have legitimate goals that it has every right to achieve through military force; it’s that the government can’t agree on what those goals are, and doesn’t ensure that any such goals are actually achieved by military action. This means that on the “left” Israel winds up looking cruel, which harms Israel with regard to public opinion, and on the “right” Israel winds up looking ineffectual and incompetent, which harms Israel’s value to the U.S. and the West as an ally.
In short, in recent years, Israeli officials across the political spectrum have agreed that military force is the solution. But they haven’t agreed on what the problem is. And that’s a problem. [UPDATE: Note that this is an entirely separate problem from whether Israel has the legal and moral RIGHT to use military force against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, which many anti-Israel bloggers deny. My take has generally been to defend Israel’s RIGHT to do so, without necessarily expressing an opinion on the WISDOM of the particular action, which seems duly modest, given that I don’t have even 1/100 of the information before me that the decisionmakers have. And I should add that the cacophony of voices coming from Israeli officials inevitably results in propagandists hostile to Israel always quoting the dumbest-sounding rationale for Israel’s actions as “official” Israel policy, when it may simply be the “official” policy of the number 3 person in a party with 10 seats in the 120 member Knesset, who also happens to have an official title in the government.]
(The exception that proves the rule was when Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield in 2003, against the wishes of much of the Israeli Left. In that case, there was a clear, definable, achievable goal, which Israel pursued until it achieved it: to utterly destroy the ability of West Bank Palestinian factions to engage in terrorism within Israel’s borders).