The Israeli public is in a notably bad mood.
The Hamas rockets have, for the time being, stopped; the current cease-fire is holding. The tunnel threat, a strategic one most Israelis had not understood until several days into the war, has been alleviated; many Hamas rocket manufacturing facilities have been destroyed; a substantial percentage of the Hamas arsenal has been used up; and Hamas achieved none of its strategic goals — not large-scale Israeli casualties or physical destruction, an airport, a seaport, or the opening of border crossings. Israeli children have returned to school and, after a brief dip, the Israeli economy is expected to grow for the year.
But Israelis polled opposed the cease-fire by 54-37% and, while 83% approved of the conduct of the IDF, the Prime Minister’s approval fell from 59% to 32% with the cease-fire. Some 59% think Israel didn’t win the war, and16% think Hamas won. [Palestinians would agree, 79% of them think Hamas won the war and more than halfsupport Hamas’s strategy of “armed resistance” for the future.]
Neither Israelis nor Americans are prepared to control enemy territory as a means to victory against, respectively, Hamas and the Islamic State. (Photo: The White House)
It is more than the sadness accompanying the casualties. To the extent that the Israeli public wanted the destruction or elimination of Hamas, or an end to the rocket threat, it was doomed by its unreasonable expectations. Americans suffer similarly. Having understood the Islamic State [IS] as a threat not only in Syria and Iraq, but also to our interests and potentially to our own country, they want it gone. The question for the American government, as it is for the Israeli government, is: “How do you defeat an armed ideological movement with a territorial base if you are unwilling to fight in that territorial base?”
President Obama has tried to explain. Having been relentlessly mocked for calling ISIS “the JV team” and saying, “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he tried: “Our objective is clear and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL.” He later added, “We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, the same way we have gone after al Qaeda… You can’t contain an organization that is running roughshod through that much territory, causing that much havoc… (The goal must be) to dismantle (it).”
Degrade, defeat, dismantle and destroy. How?
Texas Governor Rick Perry told an audience, “President Obama’s response has been to minimize the threat, as if his words have the power to make it so. American leadership is needed now, more than ever.” Senator Ted Cruz told the same audience his strategy would include homage to Gen. Curtis LeMay and “bomb the Islamic State back to the Stone Age.” Sen. Rand Paul cast off his isolationist credentials noting, “The military means to [destroy ISIS] include[s] airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Such airstrikes are the best way to suppress ISIS’s operational strength and allow allies such as the Kurds to regain a military advantage.”
Leadership, bomb, airstrikes, and “military means.”
Neither Israelis nor Americans are prepared to control enemy territory as a means to determine the ultimate outcome. Their governments have correctly read the citizens – Americans are wary of “boots on the ground” and most Israelis acknowledge that they do not want their sons on permanent patrol inside Gaza, although they accept control of the periphery and occasional forays inside. There is no appetite for warfare of the “allies island-hopping in the Pacific” sort that convinced President Truman that the atomic bomb would produce fewer overall casualties than flushing Japanese soldiers out of tunnels on the mainland.
But that means there will be no destruction, no elimination of the enemy; no “victory.”
Control of territory and the ability to subject one’s enemies to enforceable rules is the only known mechanism for ending, rather than managing, a war. Despite the Western propensity for “peace processes” and negotiations, it is hard (impossible?) to find a historical example of one side simply agreeing to give up its mission, arms, ideology, or interests without a forcing mechanism — military defeat.
We don’t like to talk about “winners” and “losers,” preferring to “split the difference” or find a “win-win” formula. But “peace” itself was defined by Machiavelli as “the conditions imposed by the winners on the losers of the last war.” There are different iterations of “peace,” depending on whether the winners institute good or bad conditions. There can be a cold peace, a warm peace or the peace of the dead. The peace that followed WWI contained the seeds of WWII; the peace after WWII produced the German economic miracle.
Even when wars aren’t “won,” control of territory and enforceable rules can make the difference between long-term success and failure – the U.S. military has been in South Korea since the 1953 Armistice, allowing a democratic, technologically advanced society to emerge despite the continuing threat from the impoverished, heavily armed, and dangerous North. The withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam within months of the armistice there allowed North Vietnam to capture territory and impose a communist government on a single Vietnamese entity. Although NATO faced Russia across the Fulda Gap, there is no denying that the Allied presence also enforced anti-Nazi rules in West Germany.
The enemies of Israel and the West are similar. Ideological similarities aside, both are vicious and absolutist, and neither plays by Western rules regarding women, children, religious diversity or war crimes. Both rely on the relative gentility of their adversaries — Israel and the West — to protect them from ultimate defeat. Thus far, theirs is the correct bet.
The national bad mood in Israel this late summer may simply be the realization that there is no victory to be had, no peace in the offing, but only a long struggle in which patience, fortitude, a good defense, and an occasional burst of offense are their best weapons. The conclusion the United States draws remains to be seen.