A Stronger Israel?

by Victor Davis Hanson
Elite opinion believes Israel will lose “long-term” whatever happens in the next weeks. Not necessarily.

In postmodern wars, we are told, there is no victory, no defeat, no aggressors, no defenders, just a tragedy of conflicting agendas. But in such a mindless and amoral landscape, Israel in fact is on its way to emerging in a far better position after the Gaza war than before.

Analysts of the current fighting in Gaza have assured us that even if Israel weakens Hamas, such a short-term victory will hardly lead to long-term strategic success — but they don’t define “long-term.” In this line of thinking, supposedly in a few weeks Israel will only find itself more isolated than ever. It will grow even more unpopular in Europe and will perhaps, for the first time, lose its patron, America — while gaining an enraged host of Arab and Islamic enemies. Meanwhile, Hamas will gain stature, rebuild, and slowly wear Israel down.

But if we compare the Gaza war with Israel’s past wars, that pessimistic scenario hardly rings true. Unlike in the existential wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, Israel faces no coalition of powerful conventional enemies. Syria’s military is wrecked. Iraq is devouring itself. Egypt is bankrupt and in no mood for war. Its military government is more worried about Hamas than about Israel. Jordan has no wish to attack Israel. The Gulf States are likewise more afraid of the axis of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood than of Israel — a change of mentality that has no historical precedent. In short, never since the birth of the Jewish state have the traditional enemies surrounding Israel been in such military and political disarray. Never have powerful Arab states quietly hoped that Israel would destroy an Islamist terrorist organization that they fear more than they fear the Jewish state.

But is not asymmetrical warfare the true threat to Israel? The West, after all, has had little success in achieving long-term victories over terrorist groups and insurgents — remember Afghanistan and Iraq. How can tiny Israel find security against enemies who seem to gain political clout and legitimacy as they incur ever greater losses, especially when there is only a set number of casualties that an affluent, Western Israel can afford, before public support for the war collapses? How can the Israelis fight a war that the world media portray as genocide against the innocents?

In fact, most of these suppositions are simplistic. The U.S., for example, defeated assorted Islamic insurgents in what was largely an optional war in Iraq; a small token peacekeeping force might have kept Nouri al-Maliki from hounding Sunni politicians, and otherwise kept the peace. Israel’s recent counterinsurgency wars have rendered both the Palestinians on the West Bank and pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants in Lebanon less, not more, dangerous. Hamas, not Israel, would not wish to repeat the last three weeks.

Oddly, Hezbollah, an erstwhile ally of Hamas, has been largely quiet during the Gaza war. Why, when the use of its vast missile arsenal, in conjunction with Hamas’s rocketry, might in theory have overwhelmed Israel’s missile defenses? The answer is probably the huge amount of damage suffered by Hezbollah in the 2006 war in Lebanon, and its inability to protect its remaining assets from yet another overwhelming Israeli air response. Had Hamas’s rockets hit their targets, perhaps Hezbollah would have joined in. But for now, 2014 looks to them a lot like 2006.

In the current asymmetrical war, Israel has found a method of inflicting as much damage on Hamas as it finds politically and strategically useful without suffering intolerable losses. And because the war is seen as existential — aiming rockets at a civilian population will do that — Israeli public opinion will largely support the effort to retaliate.

As long as Israel does not seek to reoccupy Gaza, it can inflict enough damage on the Hamas leadership, and on both the tunnels and the missile stockpiles, to win four or five years of quiet. In the Middle East, that sort of calm qualifies as victory. And the more the world sees of the elaborate tunnels and vast missile arsenals that an impoverished Hamas had built with other people’s money, and the more these military assets proved entirely futile in actual war, the more Hamas appears not just foolish but incompetent, if not ridiculous, as well.  

After all the acrimony dies down, Gazans will understand that there was a correlation between blown-up houses, on the one hand, and, on the other, tunnel entrances, weapon depots, and the habitat of the Hamas leadership. Even the Hamas totalitarians will not be able to keep that fact hidden. As the rubble is cleared away, too many Gazans will ask of their Hamas leaders whether the supposedly brilliant strategy of asymmetrical warfare was worth it. Hamas’s intended war — blanketing Israel with thousands of rockets that would send video clips around the world of hundreds of thousands of Jews trembling in fear in shelters — failed in its first hours. The air campaign was about as successful as the tunnel war, which was supposed to allow hit teams to enter Israel to kidnap and kill, with gruesome videos posted all over the Internet. Both strategies largely failed almost upon implementation.

In terms of domestic politics, Israel has rarely been more united — akin to the United States right after 9/11. The Israeli Left and Right agree that no modern Western state can exist under periodic clouds of rockets and missiles. Similarly, the attrition of Hamas only plays into the hands of the Palestinian Authority, which understandably stayed out of the war and did not incite the West Bank to stage simultaneous attacks. Like it or not, after the Gaza war, Israel will be dealing in the near future with Palestinians who do not always think preemptive rocket and tunnel attacks work to their own strategic advantage.

In terms of economics, Israel is no longer subject to carbon-fuel blackmail. It will soon become a major exporter of natural gas, and political realities will reflect that commercial importance. If one cynically believes that much of the global tilt to the Palestinians began as an aftershock from the 1973 oil embargoes, then Israeli exports may soon be reflected in more favorable politics.

Is Israel politically isolated? It certainly seems that way, if one looks at the response to the Gaza war among Western journalists, academics, politicians, and popular culture. But public opinion in the United States remains staunchly pro-Israel in spite of the American elite culture’s romance with Hamas and the Palestinians. Moreover, the Democratic party is facing its own increasing existential crisis, as its establishment pro-Israel donors and politicians are appalled by the increasingly anti-Israel tones of its ever more radical base. After the Gaza war, some major Democratic supporters of Israel will quietly make the necessary adjustments, in recognition that both their party and the Obama administration seem to prefer Hamas to democratic Israel. The upcoming 2014 midterm election does not favor candidates who are anti-Israel, but rather pro-Israeli conservatives. After 2016 there is unlikely to be a president who shares the incoherent views of Barack Obama on the Middle East. Fairly or not, it appears that the administration is trying to hide its pro-Hamas sympathies and is doing so unprofessionally and ineptly.

Europe, of course, remains mostly hostile to Israel, a hatred that predates the Gaza war. But the current demonstrations of virulent anti-Semitic hatred do not reflect well on the European Union. At present, it appears that European nations either cannot or will not confront their own fascistic Islamic radicals, which leaves open the question of whether the Islamist message of the streets resonates with Europeans.The European hostility to Israel does not stem just from events on the ground in Gaza, but is more a reflection of Europe’s inability to deal with its 20th-century past. Demonization, the more virulent the better, of Israelis seems to ease guilt over the Holocaust — as if to imply that, while the genocide was regrettable, there was something innately savage in Jewish culture, now manifested in Gaza, that might understandably have incited past generations of more radical Europeans. Otherwise, Europeans simply mask with trendy ideology the more materialistic assessment that demography, oil, and the fear of terrorism weigh in favor of allying with the Palestinians. Either way, European anti-Semitism is a bankrupt ideology, one that manifests itself in sympathy for an undemocratic, misogynistic, homophobic, and religiously intolerant Hamas, along with selective unconcern with the many occupations, refugees, divided cities, and walled borders that exist in the wide world outside the Middle East.

The U.N. will emerge after the war in an even sorrier state. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has offered mostly platitudes and buffooneries. Certainly, he would never take his own advice if North Korea were to move in the manner of Hamas. Hamas’s use of U.N. facilities to hide arsenals could not have occurred without U.N. complicity. What little credibility the U.N. had in the Middle East before the war is mostly shredded.

Iran is watching the war, and its surrogate is not doing well. There is no particular reason why an Israeli anti-missile system could not knock down an Iranian missile. Nor is Hezbollah as fiery in deed as in word these days. The message to Iran is that Israel will fight back in whatever way it finds appropriate against its enemy of the moment.

Gaza is a military and political minefield. But if Israel continues on its present course, it will emerge far better off than Hamas and better off than it was before Hamas began its missile barrage. And in the Middle East, that is about as close to victory as one gets. The future for Israel is not bleak, just as it is not bleak for any nation that chooses to defend itself from savage enemies that seek its destruction.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.