Forward Thinking

How I Know Israel Won the Gaza War

By Brent Sasley

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In his press conference yesterday on the Gaza operation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was open and honest about at least one thing: the outcome. He noted that it was “too early” to tell if long-term quiet had been achieved. This was inevitable, given the vague nature of “quiet” as a goal for a military campaign. Indeed, it is too early to tell for sure what long-term effects the war will have on Israel, on Hamas, on the Palestinian Authority, and on the prospects for peace talks.

But four things stand out for the immediate future. First, it is clear that Israel has won the war. Much of Hamas’s military capabilities have been degraded or used up, its regional allies are few and far between (and themselves bereft of much regional influence), and none of its efforts to achieve a tactical victory over Israel succeeded. In addition, the United States and many European governments are now talking about demilitarizing Gaza (essentially, disarming Hamas and the smaller jihadist groups) as part of a longer-term process to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these tilt the balance of power in Israel’s favor.

Second, there is no military solution to the “Hamas problem” or, for that matter, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly. But there will be a return to the status quo ante if a political framework is not established as part of the talks that follow from the ceasefire. In this sense, the seeds for Hamas’s rejuvenation have been planted alongside the seeds of its taming. If Israel can work constructively with the Palestinian Authority and the international community, it can bring the PA/Fatah to Gaza to improve the lives of Palestinians there while also tying Hamas down by not letting it rebuild its military capacity or its authority. However, for this work, Israel will have to accept that Hamas isn’t only here to stay, but must be accepted as a political actor — one that has a role to play in the political process.

This isn’t the same as saying Hamas must be bolstered. But it is to say that Hamas cannot be ignored, and since it’s obvious that short of prolonged occupation of Gaza, it cannot be destroyed completely, it will have to be, through a series of incentives and disincentives, made to play in the political arena dominated by Fatah.

Third, there has been a lot of talk about Netanyahu’s political troubles now that the violence is over. This seems about right: Israeli politics is boisterous, and leaders are always subject to criticism even in peacetime. But in the context of a military campaign, and especially one without a clear-cut ending, prime ministers are often raked over the coals. Moreover, Netanyahu has long faced challenges from both the right and the left; while the electorate hasn’t, at least since the 2000s, ever expressed complete confidence in his governing, most voters have accepted him in the absence of any other capable or viable alternative.

Still, it would be a mistake to start talking about the end of Netanyahu’s political career. In fact, while certainly many will raise questions about the inconclusive ending to the war and about how Netanyahu handled it, I don’t think the war will have much effect on his political position, at least in the short term. Mostly this is because none of Netanyahu’s rivals can claim to be a serious alternative to him. But it’s also because there were no major, obvious mistakes in the military campaign. What problems Netanyahu does face will emerge more from the particularly fractious nature of his coalition and the coming budget discussions, which pose a problem for all governments.

Finally, Mahmoud Abbas and the PA have been given a reprieve from irrelevance. Not only has Netanyahu himself indicated that Abbas may actually be someone Israel can work with, but the idea of bringing Abbas and the PA to Gaza to monitor border crossings is now a serious, and likely, outcome of the war. Though Netanyahu continues to be vague, speaking only of “political horizons,” it seems that even he is now aware that Israel cannot simply maintain the status quo and manage threats without trying to address them at their root. It’s unlikely we’ll see a return to serious peace talks soon, but making it clear that Israel prefers Abbas to Hamas is — as silly as it may sound — an important step forward.

Brent E. Sasley is associate professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He’s finishing a co-authored textbook on Israeli politics. He tweets at @besasley.


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