Déjà Vu in Gaza

Despite vows to not repeat its mistakes from Lebanon in 2006, Israel has made the same missteps in Gaza.

Israel is reportedly on the verge of packing up its Gaza campaign and it was never able to celebrate even a fleeting "Mission Accomplished" moment. The Israeli military had seemed determined not to replay Lebanon in Gaza, but, just as in the showdown with Hezbollah, Israel's chief goals of the operation remain elusive while the civilian fallout has been considerable. The New York Times reported Wednesday that, according to Israeli intelligence officials, Israel "has yet to cripple the military wing of Hamas or destroy the group's ability to launch rockets," even after heavy air and ground assaults. The next day, the same newspaper reported that the military assaults on Hamas have not succeeded in diminishing political support for the group, as the Israeli government had hoped. Indeed, sympathy and affiliation for Hamas are on the rise, even in the West Bank.

A large number of military and regional experts had warned that the campaign would not, over the longer term, bolster Israel's national security, pointing out the historical difficulties in adjourning such conflicts through military force-as superior as it may be. And in the most laymen of terms, it seems puzzling to consider why a military campaign aimed at Hamas's personnel, artillery and political presence would have a durable impact, given that Hamas can always build new tunnels and bring in fresh firepower, and it will surely have great ease now in finding new, suitably angry recruits and members. The apparent result of the Gaza campaign seems so tragically predictable that one wonders just what the Israelis in charge could have been thinking.

That is impossible to know, but a recent comment by Prime Minister Olmert seems to suggest a determination to capitalize politically from the Gaza campaign, to the detriment of Israel's national interests. Olmert told an audience in Ashkelon on Monday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "was left shamed" after she had to abstain voting for a UN resolution on a Gaza cease-fire "that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favor" of. Olmert said that he had been informed that Washington would approve the resolution, adding: "I said ‘get me President Bush on the phone. . . . They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care, I need to talk to him now. He got off the podium and spoke to me. I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favor."

Rice has roundly rejected Olmert's version of events, calling them a "fiction," but that is a separate matter. Olmert surely subordinated Israel's national interests to partisan political gain by making the public comments. It is difficult to reach another conclusion. Israeli officials have long sought to minimize the appearance of Israeli influence in U.S. foreign policy. Such a comment by an Israeli official is so outside diplomatic protocol that it is without recent precedent. As Akiva Eldar, a Haaretz correspondent, put it in an article that largely helps substantiate Olmert's version of events: "Even [Olmert's] close associates admit that he would have done better to skip the public boasting about how he persuaded Bush to overrule Rice. Quite aside from the fact that this embarrassed the U.S. administration, Olmert's associates understand all too well that this story merely provides fresh ammunition to those who claim the Jews are the ones who really control America."

It goes without saying that a compulsion to gain politically from an ongoing military operation, while causing some damage to the national interest, is quite distinct from initiating a military operation for short- to medium-term political gain. Still, what does seem hauntingly significant is that-despite the repeated vows to make Gaza different from Lebanon-the means, methods and result look strikingly similar. Given the determination to execute Gaza differently and all the secrecy behind military phases for the campaign, Israel seemed poised to pull out some novel approach to asymmetrical warfare. But the operation showcased no such novelty. Israel has the right, and the duty, to protect its citizens, but it appears to have repeated the same mistakes it made quite recently. In the wake of the inconclusive Gaza campaign are the death of thirteen Israelis and more than one thousand two hundred Palestinians-most of those civilians, many of them women and children.

Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.