There was no uncertainty about who won the battle for Constantinople in 1453 (the Ottoman Caliphate), or who lost the battle for Vienna in 1529 (the Ottoman Caliphate). In the Civil War, the North decisively defeated the South. In the Battle of the Bulge, the Allies prevailed, and the Axis never recovered.
These days, however, the fog of war shrouds not only conflicts that are underway, but even conflicts that have halted. And so there is now a debate about the outcome of what might be called November’s Battle of Gaza.
On one hand, the Israel Defense Forces hit with extraordinary precision (and astonishingly limited civilian causalities, considering Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields) more than 1,600 targets during their eight-day campaign, demolishing Hamas’s command-and-control apparatus, killing more than 100 Hamas commanders, crippling Hamas’s rocket-launching capability, and destroying 26 weapons caches and more than 200 tunnels used for arms smuggling and terrorist attacks.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Hamas
emerged politically intact and strategically stronger after eight days of inconclusive fighting. The terrorist group fired more than 1,500 rockets at Israel — forcing millions of Israelis into bunkers and bomb shelters — but suffered no decisive military defeat. Hamas openly dared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to invade the Gaza Strip, and by not doing so Mr. Netanyahu left the terror leaders alive to strike again. Hamas also won a new international patron in Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who brokered the cease-fire.
Who is right? I think it will take time before it is clear whether one side substantially improved its position at the expense of the other. But it seems to me that Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., made a cogent point when he told reporters that in this battle “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.”
Here’s how I interpret that: Israel’s priority — in addition to simple self-defense and demonstrating that missiles cannot be fired at Israeli citizens with impunity indefinitely — was to render Hamas incapable of opening a second front over the coming months, a period during which Israel may decide whether to use draconian methods to deprive Iran’s jihadist rulers of a military nuclear capability. Integral to that effort: elimination of most of the longer-range Fajr-5 missiles that Iran has been supplying to Hamas, missiles that can threaten not just villages near Gaza but Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The outbreak of hostilities also gave Israel an opportunity to test its Iron Dome missile-defense system under real combat conditions. A marvel of modern engineering, it exceeded expectations, shooting down 421 rockets and achieving a success rate approaching 90 percent. By the way, this should serve as a wake-up call to Washington about what can be accomplished if we’d only, finally, use superior American (and Israeli) technology to defend the American homeland.
According to one poll, 70 percent of Israelis opposed the cease-fire that brought a halt to the conflict. I take that as a good sign. It is vital that Israelis — and Americans and Europeans — threatened by self-identified jihadis not succumb to war-weariness, that they maintain what Churchill called “moral health and martial vigour.” (Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? It shouldn’t. Once one side to a conflict loses the will to fight, everything else will be lost in short order.)
Does that imply that Netanyahu was wrong to refrain from sending ground troops into Gaza? Not at all. Such an offensive would have been bloody, and would have brought condemnation — albeit unjustified — from the so-called international community. A drawn-out conflict in Gaza would have benefited Iran’s rulers, who are eager to distract attention from the atrocities they are supporting in Syria as well as from their nuclear-weapons program. Also, once Israeli forces were in Gaza, they might have found it difficult to get out. The time may come for Israelis to ask, “After Hamas, what?” But that time is probably not now.
There is no ambiguity about this: The Battle of Gaza was a defeat for Mahmoud Abbas, titular ruler of the West Bank. Abbas wields no power in Gaza — in 2006, Hamas won a single election against Abbas’s Fatah faction; it followed that up by waging a brutal civil war against Fatah. Now Abbas doesn’t even dare set foot in Gaza.
This is further proof that it will be a farce when the U.N. General Assembly this week grants Abbas’s petition for Palestinian “non-member state” status. It also should be more obvious than ever that Abbas does not speak for most Palestinians and therefore cannot negotiate a two-state solution with the Israelis — ignoring the fact that he has not been willing to negotiate with the Israelis for years. (It’s astonishing how many people do ignore that fact, choosing to blame Israel for the stalled talks.)
Finally, there is Morsi, who ended the week at least looking like a winner — praised by President Obama as a “straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.” Within hours, Morsi moved to grasp dictatorial powers at home. That has set off waves of protests by brave Egyptians who now fear that their revolution will end up with a theocracy replacing an autocracy.
Best-case scenario: Morsi decides to rein in Hamas and accedes to the demands of the protesters, allowing Egypt’s democratic experiment to survive another day. That may require more pressure than Washington has applied so far. Worst-case scenario: Morsi becomes an Islamist pharaoh and sooner or later lets Hamas, with Iran’s backing, drag Egypt into another war, one as damaging — if also as inconclusive — as were the wars Egypt fought against Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.