Taking Leave

netanyahu

Israel has the initiative. For the first time since this round of violence began, Israel is leading and not being led. Instead of being dragged deep into Gaza, Israel has decided to unilaterally withdraw most of its forces from the Gaza Strip and deploy them into a defensive position on its border. This withdrawal managed to surprise Israelis and Palestinians alike, puzzling both military and political pundits.

Imagine two boxers in an arena fighting out the 10th round in a never-ending boxing fight. Both fighters are tired from exchanging countless blows, and have reached the realization that there will be no knock-out. And yet they continue to throw punches at each other which are mainly ineffective and are a mere attempt to get that one victory image that will placate their respective crowd. Suddenly, one of the fighters turns around and exits the arena. Now, try to picture the look on the fighter remaining in the ring.

“Prophecy was given to the fools” goes the known saying in the Talmud. The weekend began with a cease-fire deal on the horizon, an outcome both understandable and predictable as the rising sun. Most of us crazy enough to try to calculate how operation Protective Edge was going to end, were quick to explain that finally both sides appeared ready to reach a deal. And then Hamas intervened and the cards were reshuffled yet again.

The incident in Rafah in which three IDF soldiers were killed and which marked the breakdown of the 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire, had serious strategic implications. Israel’s security cabinet decided not to let the initial reports on a captive soldier prevent it from making a cool-headed strategic decision to stop playing according to the Hamas tune. Instead of being drawn further into Gaza, the cabinet decided to first finish the mission of destroying the tunnels and then make a tactical withdrawal.

The decision made by Israel’s cabinet was an extremely brave decision. The cabinet members now have to face those Israelis living in the South of Israel and tell them straight on, perhaps while Hamas rockets continue to fall on their towns and villages, that Israel did all it could to ensure their safety and security. They have to face the families of those killed and injured during the operation and tell them that the pain they are suffering was not for nothing.

It was also a brave decision because in ending (or at least diminishing) one war they knowingly started another – the war at home. National solidarity will dissipate as quickly as it appeared, as feelings of missed opportunities and defeat take over the public discourse. There will be no respite for Netanyahu as his rivals from within the party and other coalition parties begin their offensive.

We can continue commending the cabinet members for their brave decision, but withdrawing the IDF from Gaza was ultimately a wise decision as well.

After completing the objective of destroying the Hamas’ tunnels, there is no tactical reason to keep the IDF soldiers inside Gaza. Keeping them in a defensive position without a defined goal needlessly exposes them to enemy fire. Short of conquering the entire Gaza Strip, an option that is currently not on the table at all, there is no justification to expose the IDF to useless street fights.

On a strategic level, and more importantly, there are short and long term benefits to the withdrawal: a) Remember the boxer standing alone in the ring? Shattered, isolated and bleeding, and with no opponent visible across its sights, Hamas stands in the ring alone and dumbfounded; b) Israel still has all the options at its disposal and is not shackled by an agreement, thus retaining the freedom to respond to future aggression as it sees fit; c) Hamas has been denied the achievement of sitting down with world leaders and hashing out a deal as an equal among equals.

It’s way too early to determine the identity of the winner and loser in the confrontation as we may be facing more violence in the near future. There will be plenty of time to do so soon enough anyhow. One thing is clear though, and that is that given all the other courses of action Israel had at its disposal, the decision to take the initiative by existing the boxing ring without an agreement was the wisest.

This initiate must be reinforced by additional moves coordinated with other powers in the region, including Arab states, which should be centered around the notion of isolating Hamas, rehabilitating the Gaza Strip and strengthening the position of Abu Mazen in Gaza and the West Bank. As Netanyahu intimated in the press conference yesterday, the Middle East is uniquely aligned in Israel’s favor and against Hamas. Perhaps therein lays the only glimmer of hope for real change in the Middle East.

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