Can Israel Win the Gaza War?

It depends how you define success.

A target in the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli air raid

In a 2006 article about Israel and the doctrine of proportionality, Lionel Beehner of the Council on Foreign Relations explained that applying the test of “proportionality” to Israel’s military operations can be a tricky exercise. According to the doctrine—originated in the 1907 Hague Conventions—“a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante.” 

When Beehner wrote this backgrounder, Israeli forces were bombarding Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two soldiers and the consequent shelling of Israeli towns with rockets. Now, three years later, the question of proportionality is once again being discussed, especially by those who oppose Israel’s actions against the Hamas government in Gaza. “In its efforts to stop amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities,” writes Palestinian professor Daoud Kuttab in the Washington Post, Israel reacted with “disproportionate and heavy-handed attacks.” In other words, “nagging” isn’t enough to justify airstrikes.

But for Israel, the daily shelling of civilians with rockets—homemade or not, events of recent days have proved that they are capable of killing—was much more than nagging. And Israeli leaders will claim that the response is far from disproportionate. “Our goal is not to reoccupy the Gaza Strip,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Asked if Israel was out to topple Gaza’s Hamas rulers, she said, “Not now.” If reinstating the status quo ante is the test of proportionality, then Israel passes with flying colors. All it wants to do—as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained—is “to improve the security reality of southern residents in a thorough manner.” A modest goal for a prime minister who promised two years ago, during the war in Lebanon, to “operate in full force until we … take control and terminate … radical, terrorist, and violent elements.”

Today, Olmert’s Lebanon war is not seen as a great success. The more ambitious the leader, the greater the chance for failure. Olmert was far too ambitious in 2006, but he is rather sober today. So when Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote that “Olmert badly miscalculated in launching the 2006 offensive against Hezbollah—and he’s probably making the same mistake in Gaza,” Diehl was the one making a questionable assumption. He assumed that Olmert’s success will be measured by the ability of Hamas to retain its power: “Hamas … almost certainly will still control Gaza, and retain the capacity to strike Israel, when Olmert leaves office in a few months.” But Olmert never promised Israelis that he would dismantle Hamas’ rule in Gaza.

Of course, Olmert might be bluffing. Maybe his real goal is to uproot Hamas, a policy that some of his Cabinet members support. Even then, he would still be able to claim that a return to the status quo ante was all that Israel was trying to achieve. That is because ante also needs a clearer definition: Is it the ante just before the Lebanon war or the days before Hamas took over the Gaza strip (an action that was described as a “coup” not by Israel but by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas)?

But there is no reason to think that Olmert isn’t telling the truth. The fact that Hamas is likely to “still control Gaza” after the operation ends is irrelevant to its goals. If Olmert wants to leave office in March with some measure of success, he has to make sure Israelis—and the rest of the world—understand that. The problem is that clarifying the goals might undermine the chances for success: One of Israel’s tools against Hamas is the subtle threat that it will topple the Hamas government if it does not acquiesce to some sort of settlement. Going into battle while promising the leaders of the other side that their position is safe might not be advisable.

Israel’s failure in Lebanon was maddeningly visible, but the failure of the international community to provide better solutions is no less problematic. Security Council resolutions were implemented poorly, and the international forces sent to execute them have failed to achieve their goals. (“[T]here will be no weapons without the consent of the government of Lebanon and no authority other than that of the government of Lebanon.”) Similar international community failures led to Israel’s decision to go to war against Hamas in Gaza. The Egyptians and other mediators have failed to persuade Hamas to end the shelling of Israel. Those assisting the Palestinian Authority failed to prevent Hamas from taking over Gaza; they also failed to provide a strategy to tame Hamas after the group took control and to help the authority resume power in the territory. Complaining about Israel’s failures is easy; providing alternatives is more difficult (except for those who think that Israel should just get used to living under rocket fire).

No reasonable, moderately compassionate human being can ignore the suffering of Gazans under Israeli attacks. But such is the tricky nature of modern warfare: How do we measure proportionality without reducing the concept to an impossibly pedantic tit-for-tat? (How would it work? For every rocket launched into an Israeli town, Israel would retaliate by launching a similar rocket? And even then, how could we achieve proportionality without making sure that Palestinians in Gaza have the same alarm systems and comparably effective shelters?) How do we measure “success” in a situation where no side is likely to bring real closure to a volatile situation?

The outcome of the military campaign, which is still in its early stages, will help observers decide whether the operation was a wise move on Israel’s part. The outcome of negotiations leading to the conclusion of the campaign—the terms under which a renewed cease-fire will be achieved—will also determine whether the Gaza war was successful. But most of all, it is the expectations of all parties involved that will dictate how this round of violence will be perceived by Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world. Anyone who expects this to be the last round is delusional. Anyone who hopes that the days of Hamas rule in Gaza are numbered is unrealistic. Only those who think Hamas will learn a lesson that might make it less likely to permit the shelling of Israeli citizens—while maintaining its power and its ability to cause trouble whenever it chooses—might be right. Time will tell.

This is the outcome Israel will call “victory.” But so will the other side.