Israel's unilateral ceasefire in Gaza has left Israel with no strategic goals achieved. As attested by the Winograd Commission-set up by the Israeli government in 2006 to draw lessons from the then-recent war with Hezbollah-Israel, so adept at engaging tactically, cannot consolidate gains due to its numerous contradictory goals. One is forced to recall Kissinger's statement decades ago that Israel does not have policy, but politics.
On January 16, 2009, a memorandum of understanding was signed between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This statement constitutes the basis of U.S.-led interception of smuggled weapons into Gaza by monitoring the Persian Gulf, Sudan and neighboring states. The United States is taking a leading role in lending its military and intelligence assets, including detection and surveillance equipment, to governments in the Middle East that are allied with this endeavour. Why did Israel not push for this mechanism during the eight years it was being bombarded with rockets? Why did the Bush administration rush it through before it left office?
Ceasefires, like the one recently declared at the end of the conflict in Gaza, have traditionally been used by terrorist organisations to build up their weapons capabilities. They aren't effective in the long term. The current ceasefire could heighten Hamas's stature by recognizing it as a party and give it greater legitimacy. Hamas remains in possession of at least several hundred rockets, some of which are able to reach major population centers, and several others are still being lobbed at Israel.
Hamas's capacity to rapidly reconstitute its capabilities was facilitated by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who sought a ceasefire in and of itself without caring about its effectiveness at preventing smuggling and enhancing security for Israel. To this end he declared: "We cannot wait for all the details, the mechanisms, to be conclusively negotiated and agreed, while civilians continue to be traumatized, injured or killed." Similarly, when asked about the exact details of the agreement, and what new contributions it provides, Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni acknowledged, "This is a beginning . . . I completely agree that we have now an understanding and it needs to be translated, also in the future, to more concrete measures." Israel's subscription to the vague agreement with the United States monitoring weapons smuggling into Gaza reflects the ambiguous aims that it had in going to war in the territory in the first place.
In contrast to the Israeli government's decision to halt its ground assault, Hamas continued its ardent declarations for the destruction of Israel, and has been reluctant to make any public statements indicating it would accede to a permanent ceasefire. Despite military operations in Gaza, much of the smuggling network that runs under the Egypt-Gaza border remains intact. Israel's General Security Services chief Yuval Diskin told the Israeli cabinet that Hamas would rebuild tunnels destroyed by the IDF and resume smuggling arms into Gaza within a few months. This was confirmed by Talal Nasser, a Damascus-based Hamas official, who stated: "We will do everything we can to get weapons to our people."
Only with the benefit of hindsight will the quality of Israeli deterrence against Hamas be able to be sufficiently assessed. Hamas's Damascus-based politburo chief, Khaled Meshal, admitted that it had suffered "a harsh blow," but also claimed that "the resistance has not been defeated." Hamas still a firm grip over Gaza, and enough armed men to deter Fatah from attempting a coup in the coastal territory. Furthermore, there is an increasing European momentum to recognise Hamas as part of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel struggled to formulate a coherent rationale for Operation Cast Lead both during the conflict and in its aftermath. On one hand, military operations seek to deter Hamas from firing rockets into Israel. Israel appears to be ambitious in its aims to remove Hamas's capacity to fire. This has both short- and long-term ramifications. Tactically in the short term, Israel can rely on its surgical strikes from the air alone to deter attacks. But this is very different than destroying Hamas's ability to fire rockets. As opposed to relying upon airpower, such a goal would require a more comprehensive ground invasion.
Many consider uprooting Hamas rule from Gaza to be beyond Israel's power, as it cannot install a new government in the territory. Yet several General Staff officers maintained that Israel was only four kilometers away from delivering a crushing defeat to Hamas. Israel's military action against terrorist group impacted the lives of the Palestinians to such an extent that Yuval Diskin said that Gaza residents are "fiercely criticizing Hamas for the destruction it has brought to Gaza." Thus Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, a thirty-five-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, concluded upon visiting the previous conflict zone that Israel should have destroyed Hamas and commented: "I think you achieved what one Israeli general called ‘changing the reality' in which Hamas operates, but I think you were too restrained and could have gone deeper into Gaza."
Further, the policymaking process in Israel is nebulous and confusing. When maintaining a short-termed tactical approach, long-term goals become increasingly downgraded. Rather than completely destroying Hamas's capability to launch more rocket attacks, Israeli defense officials halted military operations and claimed that Israel proved it is no longer deterred from engaging in a confrontation with Hamas. Israel further proclaimed that is also not resistant to deploying ground forces or from using reservists. In other words, the commitment itself to attack Hamas constitutes the fulfilment of national-security considerations. Irresponsibly, defense officials focus only upon the threat of responding to Hamas's truce violations rather than preempting or preventing them. Thus, Israel has withdrawn from Gaza even before Egypt begins to deal with the issue of arms smuggling into Gaza from underground tunnels. Israel's General Security Services simply aspire to achieve favorable truce conditions that will result from a continuation of military operations.
Israel's downgrading of objectives is reminiscent to the war in Lebanon in 2006. When the conflict began, the Israeli government initially spoke of "breaking" Hezbollah; and stated Hezbollah would be evicted from the border area. Defense officials then spoke of "degrading" Hezbollah's capabilities; which culminated in their advocacy for establishing an effective multinational force that can police the border.
Israel's former-National Security Advisor Giora Eiland opined, "You can reach a situation where Hamas is sufficiently deterred." Yet Hamas is a substate actor with an Islamist ideology whose raison d'etre is the destruction of the state of Israel. It is not rational in the Western sense of the word, which would involve the group making a cost-benefit analysis. Israel, ever averse at genuinely addressing things at a causal level, fails to recognize that with such genocidal intentions, Hamas will naturally seek to exploit ceasefires and engage in terrorism, whether it is in the form of suicide bombers or the launching of rockets. Deterrence, which was widely used in the cold war by the United States, was against the Soviet Union-a state actor that was rational and understood the ramifications of a zero-sum game. However, entities that maintain suicide training camps for children or who use civilians as human shields cannot be approached in the same manner of deterrence. The failure to appreciate Hamas's nature was articulated by Hillary Clinton in her senate hearing to become secretary of state. Despite defending Israel's right to protect itself, she noted that the conflict was creating a humanitarian crisis. It is not the conflict that leads to a humanitarian crisis, but Hamas's usage of human shields when it cowers in hospitals, UN aid facilities, schools and Mosques-understanding full well that Israel's legitimate response to this scenario will lend itself to a PR victory for the terrorist organization.
If the United States is going to play a leadership role at interdicting smuggling to Gaza and enforce an effective and sustainable ceasefire in the aftermath of a conflict, it can demand that Israel employ a strategy that would be conducive to U.S. intervention. It is not sustainable in the long-term for Israel to utterly dismantle Hamas and maintain a continued military presence in Gaza. Similarly, it would also be disastrous for Israel's national-security interests to rely upon UN observers to prevent a weapons buildup and for Hamas to reconstitute itself. Instead, Israel itself should display strategic maturity and make international aid to Gaza contingent upon the creation of civil society that is not coopted by Hamas. These are the building blocks for a democratic Palestinian state which appears at present to be purely in the realm of the hypothetical. Furthermore it would permanently prevent Iranian terrorist proxies from rapidly reconstituting themselves. More fundamentally, it would indicate Israel's rejection of pure politics and an adoption of a system of coherent policy making, lending itself to long termed strategic thinking.