For Israel, its easier to go into Gaza than to get out

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Of all the merits of the Iron Dome system, my favorite is its ability to distinguish between a malignant missile and a benign one, between a dangerous enemy and an insignificant one, between wheat and chaff. Had the Americans developed such a system, they would have programmed it to fire at anything that flies, regardless of the cost. They go for quantity; we go for quality. They go for destruction; we go for distinction. In short, Iron Dome stokes Israeli pride.

During one of my long nights in Beersheva, between one color red alert and the next, I thought to myself: It’s a shame that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t an Iron Dome. He has learned so many important things during his years in politics, but he hasn’t learned to separate wheat from chaff, to distinguish between a dangerous enemy and an insignificant one.

Operation Pillar of Defense was meant to replicate Operation Cast Lead of four years ago, with some marginal improvements. The Israel Defense Forces, at the instructions of then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, perceived the operation as one round of many: There were rules to the game between Israel and Hamas. The rules were gradually worn out to our disadvantage, both in terms of the Palestinians’ activity against the IDF and in terms of the permission Hamas gave itself and other organizations to fire rockets at Israeli communities. The IDF will deal the organizations a series of blows from the air. Egypt will intervene. A cease-fire will be obtained, based on the previous rules of the game. And then the rules will wear out again, and there will be another round, and another wear-out, and another round.

Everyone understood that only two moves could break the vicious circle: occupying Gaza and keeping it under the control of IDF soldiers, or accepting Hamas. Netanyahu won’t agree to either one of them.

The lessons learned from Operation Cast Lead were tactical: The intelligence improved, allowing Israel to bomb more important targets on the day the operation was launched; the use of different aircraft improved; the number of casualties among Gaza’s civilians was significantly reduced; and, of course, the Israelis in southern and central Israel felt more protected thanks to the Iron Dome system.

But the main thing did not change. After days of fighting, and negotiations for a cease-fire this week, the government faces the same dilemma as did the previous government: Hamas is not giving up; its regime has not collapsed; Ismail Haniyeh has not come out of the bunker with his hands up. On the contrary, Hamas rockets have continued to fall, from Beersheva to Tel Aviv.

Compared with Cast Lead, the conditions have become even worse. Then, a large part of the Arab world hoped for Hamas’ downfall. Today, those same governments stand by Hamas. Then, Israel recruited Egypt to force a cease-fire on Hamas. Today, although the Egyptian government did lead negotiations to declare a cease-fire, its heart lies with Hamas, as well.

What is the right thing to do? An Israeli agreement to end the operation without tilting the balance — essentially, a tie — will not be seen favorably by the public. That’s what happened at the end of Cast Lead: The voters were disappointed, and in the elections held three weeks later they transferred two Knesset seats from Kadima to the right. Then, Netanyahu was on the benefiting side. Now he’s on the responsible side.

He chose a different way: To threaten Egypt and Hamas with a ground offensive. Barak, who as defense minister in Cast Lead pushed for a ground offensive at precisely this stage of the operation, saw no choice this time but to join the threats. The call-up of reserve soldiers was aimed at validating these threats.

When making threats, it’s not enough to call up forces. You must convince everyone that a ground offensive has a purpose justifying the cost — fallen soldiers, the killing of civilians on the other side, the loss of international support. In Barak’s instructions to the IDF, however, he made it clear that he does not believe a ground offensive will change the situation.

And so once again, like in 2006 and in 2008, Israel finds itself  entangled. Instead of settling for the goals it achieved, the political echelon is tormented by how to emerge from this affair with a sense of victory. What will they say in Gaza, what will they say in the Arab world and, most importantly, what will Israeli voters say in two months?

The government learns once again what its predecessors had already learned: Beginnings are easy, but the way out of Gaza is hard.

Nahum Barnea
is a columnist at Ynetnews.com, where this piece originally appeared.