Why Israel let Hamas win

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Israel’s security cabinet’s decision Tuesday afternoon to walk away from the war Hamas initiated Monday and to accept a “ceasefire” is frustrating and infuriating. Hamas shot nearly 500 projectiles into Israel in under 24 hours. It blew up a bus with a Kornet anti-tank missile. Sixty Israelis were wounded, several critically. One civilian was killed. Numerous homes were destroyed.

Israel has never experienced any rocket onslaught from Gaza remotely as intense as what Hamas and Islamic Jihad shot off on Monday and Tuesday. And yet, rather than respond with equal – or better yet – far greater force and teach Hamas and Islamic Jihad a lesson they would long remember, the security cabinet sufficed with a couple hundred pinpoint air attacks, and then accepted the IDF’s advice and opted for the ceasefire. In so doing, they left the residents of southern Israel virtual hostages of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who have retained the capacity to attack them at will.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s sudden resignation on Wednesday may help his little party Yisrael Beitenu get reelected to Knesset in the next elections. But if it does, then Liberman will have won his political survival at Israel’s expense. Hamas is entirely justified in presenting Liberman’s resignation as proof that it defeated Israel this week.

Winners don’t quit. Losers do.

But beyond being frustrating and infuriating, the cabinet’s decision is a cause for deep concern. Why did the cabinet opt to stand down in the face of Hamas’s unprecedented onslaught?

Leaving concerns about the prospect of war in the north with Iran, Hezbollah and Syria out of the picture for a moment, there are on the face of things, two basic explanations for the cabinet’s decision. First, maybe the WhatsApp jokes making the rounds are right. Maybe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers are a bunch of stupid chickens. Liberman effectively accused them of stupidity and cowardice at his press conference Tuesday afternoon when he announced his resignation.
But there is no evidence that Netanyahu is stupid. To the contrary. As for fear, there is ample evidence that if he and his ministers were fearful, they have good reason to be deeply worried.

This brings us to the second and more realistic reason to view the cabinet’s decision to stand down in the face of Hamas’s aggression as a bright red warning light. The source of that concern is the IDF’s General Staff.

Israel does not seek to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza. And for good reason. The price of a war to overthrow Hamas would be exorbitant both in terms of the human and monetary cost of war. And the return would be dubious at best. Israel doesn’t have an army big enough to spare three divisions to control a post-Hamas Gaza. The other option often touted by the far Left is that Israel pay the price of overthrowing Hamas and then hand Gaza over to the PLO. The PLO, though, is no less hostile than Hamas. Israel has no interest whatsoever in empowering the PLO by giving it Gaza.

Given the absence of a better alternative to Hamas in Gaza, rather than work to overthrow the terror regime, Israel has focused its efforts on keeping Hamas as weak as possible. And so, since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel’s effective strategy for dealing with the terror regime can be equated to mowing the grass. Every time Hamas becomes too powerful, Israel finds itself in another round of war with it. The purpose of Israel’s operations is to cut Hamas down to size and walk away, until the next round of war.

But this week, Hamas made clear that Israel needs to mow it down. A terror regime capable of sending 500 projectiles into Israeli territory in less than 24 hours and destroying a bus with an anti-tank missile is a terror regime that has become too powerful.

So why didn’t the cabinet order the IDF to mow the grass in Gaza? Why didn’t our leaders order the IDF to kill Hamas commanders Yahye Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh? Why didn’t they order the IDF to destroy the rocket launchers and the crews that operate them? Why didn’t they order the IDF to destroy Hamas’s bases and missile depots?

There are two possible explanations for their decision not to give these orders. Taken separately and together they point to an acute problem with the IDF’s senior ranks that requires immediate attention.

One explanation has been highlighted by retired senior IDF commanders and Yediot Aharonot’s military commentator Yossi Yehoshua. This explanation argues that the cabinet decision to stand down on Tuesday owed to the General Staff’s refusal to take the actions necessary to cut Hamas down to size. The General Staff’s refusal, they say, stems from the role lawyers are now playing in the IDF’s targeting decisions.

Since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, military lawyers have been attached to fighting units down to the battalion level. These attorneys are allegedly prohibiting required action by claiming that strategically significant and operationally vital actions like killing Hamas commanders and bombing rocket launching units constitute war crimes.

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot has demonstrated for years that he is willing to subordinate trigger pullers to attorneys who do not suffer the consequences of their lenient interpretations of the actions of Israel’s enemies. He elevated Military Advocate General Sharon Afeq to the rank of Major General. He supports indicting combat soldiers for alleged violent crimes on the basis of radical legal interpretations of actions in battle. The message Eisenkot has communicated to everyone from platoon leaders to division commanders is that they must subordinate their actions to the judgment of lawyers who have no command responsibilities.

It is important to point out that the “international law” being implemented by IDF commanders through military lawyers is not actually the law as written. It is a radical, ideological interpretation of general principles of international law.

For instance, there is no explicit, universally applied determination of what a “proportionate” response to aggression is. Everything is a judgment call. And the judgment that the IDF has internalized through its lawyers is the one pronounced by antisemitic UN agencies and antagonistic self-declared “human rights” organizations. Namely, that Israel is guilty until proven innocent.

Needless to say, the IDF’s internalization of this bigoted and deeply flawed interpretation of international law is causing grave damage to the IDF’s ability to defend the country from aggression.

The second, equally troubling explanation for the cabinet’s decision to stand down is that Netanyahu and his ministers don’t trust the IDF’s operational competence. For seven months, the IDF has failed to come up with ways to end Hamas’s operations along the border. The special forces operating in Gaza on Sunday were ambushed. Their cover was blown. And the IDF permitted a bus carrying 50 soldiers to enter a border area where it was entirely exposed to enemy fire. If this is how the IDF handles Hamas, how will it handle Hezbollah – which is 10 times more powerful?

What are we to make of the fact that all the security services and branches of the IDF unanimously supported standing down in the face of Hamas’s extraordinary aggression?

In other words, if Netanyahu and his ministers feared the outcome of a more forceful operations against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, their fears were well placed.
Israel may be the innovation nation, but the IDF has failed to come up with innovative ways to deal with Hamas. To be sure, our special forces are undoubtedly exacting major blows at Hamas we never hear about.

But the fact is, the terror regime shot off 500 projectiles and blew up a bus with a missile in less than 24 hours. The border assaults have never stopped. You can’t fight a booby-trapped balloon with an F-35. Ceramic vests and Iron Dome batteries are no substitute for bold improvisation and ingenuity.

This then brings us to the question of what to do about Liberman’s vacancy at the Defense Ministry.

There are three possibilities for filling the vacancy. The first is that Netanyahu just adds defense to his collection of ministerial portfolios which currently includes the foreign ministry and the health ministry. The main problem with this option is that given the acuteness of the problem, the Defense Ministry requires a full-time minister. Netanyahu is already working 20 hours a day. He can’t and shouldn’t try to take this on.

The second possibility is that Netanyahu appoints Education Minister Naftali Bennett to replace Liberman as Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party is demanding. There are pluses and minuses to this option.

The main advantage of appointing Bennett is that he is the minister best suited to handle the challenge. Bennett understands the IDF’s weaknesses, particularly the General Staff’s lack of creativity and antiquated approaches to Israel’s innovative terrorist foes.

As Education Minister, Bennett has demonstrated a capacity to enact significant reforms and work cooperatively and productively with powerful people that do not share his ideological outlook. He is more likely to deliver the goods than any other minister in Netanyahu’s government.

The downside of appointing Bennett is that he is a politician and Israel is entering an election year. In election years, politicians have to be able to produce tangible results to voters. And it isn’t at all clear that Bennett will be able to do that. Indeed, he is just as likely to fail in his mission as succeed, particularly given that elections can be called at any minute. Taking the Defense Ministry is a major gamble for Bennett and his party.

The third possibility is that Netanyahu appoints a person to serve until the next government is formed who understands the problems that need to be solved. That person would be someone with no political aspirations. He needs to be willing to walk straight into a political buzz saw at home and abroad as he removes legal advisers from IDF divisions, brigades and battalions and orders commanders to get the job done.

This person needs to be willing to make a lot of people hate him as he cancels appointments of senior commanders and boots a lot of brass out of the IDF altogether.
Frankly, it’s not clear that anyone who fits the bill exists.

What is clear enough is that Israel’s enemies are sitting on our borders – in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza – and they are watching us and our General Staff. H hour passed when the missile landed on the bus on Monday. If we aren’t prepared to mow the lawn in Gaza – and Lebanon – today, then we need to fix what is broken here at home today. Because tomorrow they will strike us again. And tomorrow we may not have the option of walking away.

Originally published at The Jerusalem Post.

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