TCS Daily

Israel's Vietnam

By Arnold Kling - June 29, 2006 12:00 AM

"There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result."
--Winston Churchill

Hamas and other rejectionist Palestinian factions are enjoying an exhilarating experience. Israeli airplanes, tanks, and artillery are putting on a show of force, without hitting anyone. In the process, the Israelis are humiliating themselves and strengthening their enemies.

I am going to argue in this essay that the current Israeli action in Gaza is blind and incoherent. I do so knowing that events may prove me ill-informed. I also do so admitting that I do not have a solution to the Israelis' current problems in Gaza, which are:

  • a soldier being held prisoner by a nongovernmental group in an undisclosed location.

  • weeks of enduring rocket fire on Sderot, which is a town inside the pre-1967 armistice lines.

  • a situation in Gaza which appears to be somewhat anarchic, so that there is no reliable government with which to negotiate.

The conventional wisdom typically assumes that the Israeli government is wise and effective. That may turn out to be correct. But at this moment, it does not appear that way to me.

The incursion into Gaza has enormous downsides for Israel. They could lose more soldiers, should the Palestinians successfully set off explosive devices. Or they could face intifada-style tactics, in which they are harassed by youths throwing stones, or by snipers hiding among civilians. It could easily reach a point where the military is accomplishing nothing of value for Israel, yet has no exit strategy.

If there is an upside to this attempt at an immaculate invasion, it is difficult to see. The kidnapped soldier's life is forfeit. If the Palestinians decide that they need to remove the pretext for the invasion, they can murder him, deliver his remains to the Israelis, and say, "Here is your soldier. Now leave." However, they probably can cause Israel more difficulty by drawing out the crisis.

More than likely, they will try to use the situation to bargain with the European Union. Under this scenario, at some point, a European diplomat will announce that Israel can obtain the return of its soldier and a piece of paper that represents "peace in our time," if it leaves the Gaza strip and promises not to return. Under a deal, the European Union might recognize and fund the Hamas government. It might be expected that after a face-saving month or two, Israel would release the prisoners being demanded by Hamas. My guess is that even this Israeli government, as appeasement-oriented as it is, will not accept such a bargain. But any deal between Hamas and the European Union will be a victory for Hamas, whether Israel accepts or not.

The Fantasy of Legitimacy 

Israelis suffer from a fantasy that their neighbors will accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Most Israelis believe that by showing restraint, they will earn this legitimacy. That is why the Israelis so far seem to be conducting military actions with the intent of avoiding inflicting casualties. Facilities are bombed when they are empty, rather than when they are populated.

The reality is that acceptance of Israel's legitimacy is not in the cards. However, that is a very harsh reality for Israelis to face, because it suggests that the only way that Israelis can keep their state is by fighting. So most Israelis prefer to believe that some day the dream of legitimacy will be realized.

The recent election in Israel reflected this attitude. The most hard-nosed Israeli politicians, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, were crushed in the voting. The Israeli election arguably was even more destabilizing than the Palestinian election of Hamas.

Israel's military may be strong. However, its government is weak. The Israelis elected a feckless coalition of left-wing parties. The left does not believe in using military force to fight wars. It believes in showing military force as a gesture. It believes in "applying pressure."

Israel's Vietnam

The rules of engagement for the Israeli military in Gaza apparently only allow it to blow up vacant structures and shoot missiles at empty fields. In this, it is like the United States military in Vietnam, where bombing was very carefully calibrated to "apply pressure" on Hanoi. We know how that turned out.

Gaza is like Vietnam for Israel, with one very significant geographic difference. When the United States left Vietnam, there was an entire Pacific Ocean for us to retire behind. Israel is stuck with Gaza right next door. It is hard to isolate yourself from people who are close enough to shoot rockets and dig tunnels to conduct raids.

For the United States, the conduct of the war in Vietnam was not guided by a strategic vision. Instead, it was determined in an endless, debilitating bureaucratic struggle. Hawks argued on one side, doves argued on another, and America's leaders compromised.

Israel's feeble coalition appears to be engaged in similar internal negotiations. This means settling for "lowest-common-denominator" tactical moves, with no overall objective.

When a democracy goes to war, its leaders must articulate the rationale and the objectives. Tactics can be kept secret, but strategic stealth is not an option.

If Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has a strategy in Gaza, I have not heard it articulated in public. Instead, he and his ministers have issued vague threats and general bluster. To me, sending planes to create sonic booms over Damascus or over Gaza looks like a sign of weakness and desperation, not confidence.

Watching events unfold in Gaza, I am glad to be living in America, with its peaceful neighbors and long distance from the Middle East. I am also glad to have a President who is clear about the goals of his actions, however difficult those goals may be to achieve.

Arnold Kling is a TCS contributing editor.


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