Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israel Ties Its Hands In Gaza

Israel's airstrike earlier today on Ahmed Jabari has effectively tied its hands and committed the Jewish State to a military campaign against Hamas.  Given the response from Hamas today - at least 55 rocket attacks on Southern Israel - it will be hard for Israel to prevent an escalation in the use of force.  It will be under increased pressure from the Israeli public and Jewish diaspora to reduce rocket fire, and has a very limited number of options left on the table.  Meanwhile, four Israelis have suffered shrapnel wounds from the rocket attacks.  In Gaza, two children have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, one 7 years old and one 11 months old.

In effect, Israel has selected the middle of three options with regards to the intensity of a response.  On the one hand, Israel can do nothing in response to the rocket fire which has affected hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the South.  However, this option is unrealistic given Israeli public opinion and the basic obligation of a state to defend its citizens.  On the other hand, it can go guns blazing into Gaza in what is sure to be a repeat of Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the execution of that operation remains controversial and the Israeli public is not anxious to repeat it.  The middle option, which Israel has selected, is targeted airstrikes.  With this option, Israel uses force to degrade Hamas' capabilities to target Israeli citizens but holds short of committing to the intrinsic risks of an armed invasion of Gaza.  The problem of course is that once Israel commits to some form of military action, the risk of escalation from that point remains high.  There is still a significant chance that Israel will either choose or be forced into a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.  If Hamas targets Tel Aviv, an invasion is almost certain.

This risk could not possibly have been overlooked by Israel's decision makers, and it makes the ultimate choice to pursue airstrikes puzzling.  Has Israel chosen the least bad among a number of terrible options, having learned the true costs of ground invasion from Operation Cast Lead?  Is Israel starting with a relatively low-intensity response with the intent of blaming Hamas for a highly possible escalation?  While Israel has invoked the doctrine of self-defense over its decision to strike, it has not yet defined what outcome it seeks in the Gaza Strip.  Its inability to articulate this specific outcome will limit not only the support it receives from the international community, but the IDF's ability to achieve the mission.

Exacerbating the situation, the Arab League has announced intentions to meet Saturday over the violence in Gaza.  While the meeting's outcome will be symbolic at best, it will formally place the Arab League's position at odds with that of the United States, which is likely to issue a more-or-less boilerplate statement.  This US-Arab League tension will harm U.S efforts elsewhere in the region, including its attempt to solidify new Syrian rebel leadership.  Israel has calculated that the chance of alienating the newly re-elected President is worth the benefit of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.  However, the long-term cost will be paid in U.S and Israeli soft power (what little it has) in the region.

In addition, any military action by Israel will only shorten the timeline in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come to a head.  As it stands, analysts of all political shades concur that the status quo is unsustainable.  Israel has two choices: make small and calculated concessions now to cut its losses, or be forced to accept the terms of a suboptimal agreement under international pressure.  While military action may be all but assured at this point, the long-term consequences will not be in Israel's favor.  For the residents of Gaza and Southern Israelis, the consequences are assured to be nothing short of devastating.


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