Daniel Pipes: Israel's Strategic Incompetence in Gaza

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org. Click here for his blog.]

Commentary on the Israel-Hamas war has tended toward partisan pleading, making the moral case for or against Israel. That's a crucial debate but not the only one; there's also a need for a cool strategic assessment; who is winning, who is losing?

Hillel Frisch argues that Hamas (which he calls"a small isolated movement that controls a small strip") has"grossly miscalculated" by antagonizing the Egyptian government and making war on Israel. He concludes Hamas has embarked on"strategic suicide."

Perhaps, but scenarios exist in which Hamas gains. Khaled Abu Toameh notes the powerful and growing support for Hamas around the Middle East. Caroline Glick offers two ways for Hamas to win: a return to the status quo ante, with Hamas still in charge of Gaza, or a ceasefire agreement whereby foreign powers form an international monitoring regime to oversee Gaza's borders with Israel and Egypt.

As this suggests, an assessment of Hamas' war record depends primarily on decisions made in Jerusalem. Those decisions being the real issue, how well has Israel's leadership performed?

Disastrously. Jerusalem's profound strategic incompetence continues and heightens the failed policies since 1993 that have eroded Israel's reputation, strategic advantage, and security. Four main reasons lead me to this negative conclusion.

First, the team in charge in Jerusalem created the Gaza problem. Its leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immortally explained in 2005 the forthcoming unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza:"We [Israelis] are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies."

Olmert had a vital role in (1) initiating the Gaza withdrawal, which ended the Israel Defense Forces' close control of the territory, and (2) giving up Israeli control over the Gaza-Egypt border. This latter, little noted decision, enabled Hamas to build tunnels to Egypt, smuggle in matériel, and launch missiles into Israel.

Secondly, Olmert and his colleagues failed to respond to the barrage of rockets and mortar shells. From the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 until now, Hamas has launched over 6,500 missiles into Israel. Incredibly, Israelis endured nearly eight attacks a day for three years; why? A responsible government would have responded to the first rocket as a casus belli and immediately responded.

Thirdly, a committee of the French parliament published an important technical report in mid-December, establishing that"there is no longer doubt" about the military purposes of the Iranian nuclear program, and that it will be up and running in 2-3 years.

The waning days of the Bush administration, with the current president nearly out the door and the president-elect yet in the wings, offers a unique moment to take care of business. Why did Olmert squander this opportunity to confront the relatively trivial danger Hamas presents rather than the existential threat of Iran's nuclear program? This negligence has potentially dire repercussions.

Finally, from what one can discern of the Olmert government's goal in its war on Hamas, it seems to be to weaken Hamas and strengthen Fatah so that Mahmoud Abbas can re-take control of Gaza and re-start diplomacy with Israel. Michael B. Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi captured this idea in a recent article title:"Palestinians need Israel to win: If Hamas gets away with terror once again, the peace process will be over."

Bitter experience, however, invalidates this thesis. For one, Fatah has proven itself a determined enemy intent on eliminating the Jewish state. For another, Palestinians themselves repudiated Fatah in 2006 elections. It strains credulity that anyone could still think of Fatah as a"partner for peace." Rather, Jerusalem should think creatively of other scenarios, perhaps my"no-state solution" bringing in the Jordanian and Egyptian governments.

More dismaying even than Olmert's ineptitude is that the Israeli election a month from now pits three leaders of his same ilk. Two of them (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak) currently serve as his main lieutenants, while two (Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu) failed badly in their prior prime ministerial stints.

Looking beyond Olmert and his potential successors comes the worst news of all, namely that no one at the upper echelons of Israel's political life articulates the imperative for victory. For this reason, I see Israel as a lost polity, one full of talent, energy, and resolve but lacking direction.

Read entire article at Jerusalem Post

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james joseph butler - 1/15/2009

The idiot savant of good and evil in this world, good riddance W, Pres. Bush, expressed a few final thoughts on the subject tonight. "Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is always wrong." and "freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right." Ah clarity.

At last I know how I should feel about Gaza, Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq. And if Mr. Pipes had his way Iran.

N. Friedman - 1/15/2009


As often is the case, you have said something valuable, not to mention true.

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/15/2009

you people really think discussing obscure points of religious regulations is the way to a solution of the middle eastern problem?

Elliott Aron Green - 1/15/2009

Omar, what is the rule in Islam if a Muslim murders a Jew or a Christian?

How seriously should a non-Muslim's testimony be taken in a Muslim court?
That is, how much weight should the judge give to the kafir's testimony, especially if it contradicts a Muslim's testimony?

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/14/2009

Just avoid conflicts which help nobody. I could go on and on about all the Christian countried did to Turkey. They tried to exterminate us killing 5 million european moslems 1820 - 1920 and Turning what was once moslem majority european Turkey into the Balkans you see today. Even in the 1990ies they were busy slaughtering the moslems of Bosnia. On Cyprus the Turks survive only because there is a 30000 man army to protect them and the Europeans are trying to force this army out. Push a bit and you can doubt, say whether it is legitimate that Crete is a part of Greece, when the majority of her population (in 1800 the moslems were 80% of the population of Crete!) have to live in exile. The Christians of Europe would not accept that we had a right to be moslems and live in europe. We have no illusions about our western neighbors. As long aas the Christians are technologically more advanced than moslems this is what they do. In this situation the priority is not regaining territory but catching up. This Turkey has done more successfully than any other moslem country. Starting wars against Israel would stop what is the far more significant contribution to the future of the world of Islam. Israeli technology helps Turkey to avoid being dependant on the Christians, who at every chance blackmail Turkey to give up territory. Now they are cooking up an Armenian issue, the Armenians are demanding that Turkey give up her eastern provinces to Armenia. Compared with that the Israelis are angels. It should be possible to integrate them into a peaceful order and concentrate all resorces of the moslem world on economic and social development.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/14/2009

Israel's savage war on the civilian population of Gaza seems to be inspired by the Allied bombardment of Dresden and/or the US bombardment of Tokyo.
The strategic objective of all three primarily civilian targeting campaigns was/is to demoralize the enemy by inflicting huge civilian casualties...leading him eventually to surrender.
Two things in this respect stand out however:
1-Hamas, at the request of the civilian population, will NOT surrender
2-Unlike the Allied and US campaigns the Israeli effort has an additional pronounced racist dimension emanating from the Zionist dictum: a dead Arab is a good Arab!
The spirit of this Zionist army and warmongering has deep cultural, past and recent roots.
According to the late honourable Israel Shahak :
“The fact is that in all cases where Jews have, in a military or paramilitary context, murdered Arab non-combatants - including cases of mass murder such as that in Kafr Qasim in 1956 - the murderers, if not let off altogether, received extremely light sentences or won far-reaching remissions, reducing their punishment to next to nothing.13 “

A mode of behavior based on and sanctioned by:
“According to the Jewish religion, the murder of a Jew is a capital offense and one of the three most heinous sins (the other two being idolatry and adultery). Jewish religious courts and secular authorities are commanded to punish, even beyond the limits of the ordinary administration of justice, anyone guilty of murdering a Jew. A Jew who indirectly causes the death of another Jew is, however, only guilty of what talmudic law calls a sin against the 'laws of Heaven', to be punished by God rather than by man.
When the victim is a Gentile, the position is quite different. A Jew who murders a Gentile is guilty only of a sin against the laws of Heaven, not punishable by a court 1 . To cause indirectly the death of a Gentile is no sin at all.2
Thus, one of the two most important commentators on the Shulhan Arukh explains that when it comes to a Gentile, 'one must not lift one's hand to harm him, but one may harm him indirectly, for instance by removing a ladder after he had fallen into a crevice .., there is no prohibition here, because it was not done directly: 3 He points out, however, that an act leading indirectly to a Gentile's death is forbidden if it may cause the spread of hostility towards Jews.4
A Gentile murderer who happens to be under Jewish jurisdiction must be executed whether the victim was Jewish or not. However, if the victim was Gentile and the murderer converts to Judaism, he is not punished.5”
“All this has a direct and practical relevance to the realities of the State of Israel. Although the state's criminal laws make no distinction between Jew and Gentile, such distinction is certainly made by Orthodox rabbis, who in guiding their flock follow the Halakhah. Of special importance is the advice they give to religious soldiers.
Since even the minimal interdiction against murdering a Gentile outright applies only to 'Gentiles with whom we [the Jews] are not at war', various rabbinical commentators in the past drew the logical conclusion that in wartime all Gentiles belonging to a hostile population may, or even should be killed 6 “.

The outgrowth from this spiritual regimentation was the adoption by the Israeli army of a policy of:
“Since 1973 this doctrine is being publicly propagated for the guidance of religious Israeli soldiers. The first such official exhortation was included in a booklet published by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army, whose area includes the West Bank. In this booklet the Command's Chief Chaplain writes:
When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed... Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized ... In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.7”

What we see now in Gaza is the practical implementation of that doctrine. .
Foot Notes:
1 The Jews themselves universally described themselves as a religious community or, to be precise, a religious nation. 'Our people is a people only because of the Torah (Religious Law)'-this saying by one of the highest authorities, Rabbi Sa'adia Hagga'on who lived in the 10th century, has become proverbial.
2 By Emperor Joseph II in 1782.
4 For example, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, a considerable part of which is devoted to Jews.
5 Before the end of the 18th century, German Jews were allowed by their rabbis to write German in Hebrew letters only, on pain of being excommunicated, flogged, etc.
7 I write this, being a non-socialist myself. But I will honor and respect people with whose principles I disagree, if they make an honest effort to be true to their principles. In contrast, there is nothing so despicable as the dishonest use of universal principles, whether true or false, for the selfish ends of an individual or, even worse, of a group.
13 Me'or 'Eynayi'n by 'Azarya de Rossi of Ferrara, Italy, 1574,
(The above quotation are from Israel Shahaks monumental oeuvre "Jewish History, Jewish Religion : The Weight of Three Thousand Years" , Chapter two; available on the web at: http://www.geocities.com/israel_shahak/book1.htm#5)

omar ibrahim baker - 1/14/2009

Mr Tahir
Your advise is appreciated but, sadly, unveils a great amount of ignorance about the intrinsic nature of Israel that is presently best illustrated by the savagery of its war machine and the innate racist impulse,and upbringing, guiding it.
Turkey is certainly welcome back as a friend to the mutual benefit of both parties.
One thing for you to ponder: where does Turkey's interests lay? In its neighbourhood or in the EU to which it will NEVER be admitted ?

Fahrettin Tahir - 1/13/2009

It is true. The present Turkish government has bought large sectors of the press, when needed with Arap oil money and is busy suggesting that the Islamists can solve the Arab countries' problems. This is the exact oppposite of what Ataturk and his generation told the Turks after the first world war, that they must at almost any cost avoid getting involved with Arab affairs. That was after Turkey had been involved in Arab affairs for 500 years and made a realistic evaluation of what happens.
A more realistic suggestion to Turkey's Arab neighbors would be to stop fighting war to recover lost land and concentrate on economic and social development. It was this policy which made possible the rebirth of Turkey as a power, an accomplishment which might now be lost thanks to Arab money and islamist politics.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/12/2009

Mr. Bernstein,
You're like some of my students, who
would virtually swear on a Bible that they understand something, only failing to show even a speck of the understanding when asked to explain.
Moreover, these boards are not educational ones, but - for honest and, hopefully, non-trivial debate/discussion.
So, try to make sure you carefully read the article and respective comments and REALLY understand, at least, the main point the authors are making, before expressing your "valuable" opinion.

omar ibrahim baker - 1/12/2009

Pipes' appraisal of Israel's strategic outlook ending by condemning it as incompetent suffers, not dishearteningly, from two far heavier defects than what he enumerates.
His own "proposal", inevitably for being Pipes' ?, is faultier in both diagnosis and remedial prescription.

1-RE Diagnosis;
He, as much as Israel, fails to appreciate two outstanding recent strategic developments in the conflict:
a-The ever widening regional and Islamdom’s rejection of Israel which brought Iran , Israel’s erstwhile regional ally, to the forefront of the anti Israel front.
With Turkey, equally an erstwhile ally, edging slowly but surely into the same front Israel will be , in the foreseeable future , totally friendless and isolated regionally.

His remedial prescription for this development, a strike against Iran, is actually worse than the disease he is out to cure.
It will only make anti Zionism and anti Israel an all Iran cause by bringing in all non Islamist factions into the anti Israel front.

However I do not believe that that byproduct of a strike against Iran escaped him; nevertheless he still fervently advocates it hoping that it will entrench Israel’s status in the Western alliance and in, his hoped for, ultimate East (Arab/Moslem)/West(USA and Western Europe) confrontation.
That is short sighted for the West will end by dropping Israel in such a confrontation
b-The resurgence of the armed popular resistance to Israel advocacy and camp.
Mainly rejuvenated by Hizb Allah’s successive successes against Israel Hamas at Gaza has not only reconfirmed the efficacy of that orientation but substantially bridged the few remaining traces of a lingering Sunni-Shiite mistrust.

2-RE Remedial Prescriptions:
a-It is truly astounding that Pipes fails to remember that his proposal of a Jordanian/ Egyptian solution of “the Palestinian Question” was actually in force in 1948-1967 and that it FAILED drastically to bring in his hoped for resolution a la Pipes.
Arab closer association in all forms including confederation will only entrench Arab/Palestinian solidarity and will only strengthen the Arab cause against Israel.
b-However Pipes’ major failure is his inability to countenance and accept the inevitable: that the only way open to the resolution of the Palestinian Question and of the Israeli predicament is Israel’s unequivocal recognition of ALL the inalienable Rights of ALL the Palestinians in their homeland and its , hopefully voluntary ,acceptance of their implementation in a PALESTINE for ALL THE PALESTINIANS both indigenous and newcomers.

Lewis Bernstein - 1/12/2009

Ah, I understand--since Hamas is not a state actor it cannot be a terrorist entity in any way, shape or form. However, since Israel is a state and takes actions to defend itself against those who can be charitably described as thugs it is a "terrorist state." Now that you've explained it all is clear.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/11/2009

that's what Pipes does here.
That talented, but losing and lacking will for victory side...
It's so obvious that it is losing: it kills JUST 800 Palestinians v. 13 of its people.
No "imperative for victory"... again.
Bernie Madoff crookedness pales in comparison with the same quality of D. Pipes.