A three-week conflict is a cause for journalistic impatience. The stories begin to repeat themselves, the statements sound familiar, the novelty is gone. As writers run out of fresh angles, they begin to wrap it up – because as far as they are concerned it is time to move on to the next exciting story, or because they think they’ve seen enough and can now call a winner.
But they can’t. Not until it is really over, not before new realities take shape.
Is Israel winning or losing? In the last couple of days a number of articles appeared in which an answer was given. Some of these articles were thoughtful and well informed. Not one of them could make a convincing case that Israel has won\lost the current round of violence.
Because the battle is still going on, and even though the international community – whatever that means – is urging the parties to cease their fire, the parties are refusing to play along. Two days ago, I thought that the end is near. I was wrong. Now I don’t know. I might be wrong again. There are so many moving parts, so many considerations that have to be factored in, and so many unknowns that can suddenly change the calculations on each side that the only safe thing to say at the moment is that:
A. Israel thinks it is too soon for a cease-fire, unless Hamas commits itself to a process of disarmament (and it will not do such a thing).
B. Hamas doesn’t want to accept a cease-fire and is willing to slog through more days of fighting as it hopes to get a cease fire more in line with its own terms.
C. World players, such as the US, are becoming annoyed with the stalemate, but don’t seem to have a plan to make a cease-fire work. They can pressure Israel, but many of them do realize that Israel is battling a reasonable fight. They can try pressuring Hamas, but Hamas doesn’t seem to be amenable to pressure.
So at the time of writing, we just don’t know.
But can we at least say whether Israel is currently winning or losing? The answer is again no, because this isn’t a battle about military superiority – Israel is much stronger than Hamas and can cause much more damage to Gaza than Hamas can cause Israel.
From an Israeli viewpoint this battle has two objectives:
To destroy Hamas infrastructure: A tunnel that was destroyed takes time and resources to rebuild. Israel gains by forcing Hamas to reinvest time and resources in something that it already had. It is safe to assume that Israel has achieved something on that front.
To change the status quo and weaken Hamas: A cease-fire that includes new restrictions on Hamas, that makes it difficult for the organization to rebuild, is what Israel wants. If it ultimately leads to a regime change in Gaza, and puts the Palestinian Authority in charge it might be even better. It is impossible to know at this point if that second objective can be achieved (fully or partially).
Some commentators have already concluded that Hamas is winning. Do they have a strong case? I don’t think they do. Hamas can still win if this bloody exchange ends in a way that doesn’t really weaken it. Yet most of the articles I’ve seen that envision a Hamas victory build their case mainly on arguments concerning “image” – a vague concept. The gist of the argument is as follows: Hamas wants Israel to kill Palestinians; Israel is lured into the trap; Israel kills Palestinians; Israel is becoming more isolated; Israel loses.
Surely, all of this is true, but it is also important to remember that writers often have an instinctive tendency to consider “image” and “perception” as the most important component of a battle. They have good reasons to do so – in the modern battlefield the image can be a deciding factor. But they also have other reasons – writers tend to emphasize images because they are image mongers by profession. So when writers conclude that a country is losing because of an image problem, their presumption should be taken with a grain of salt. Battles are often won regardless of images and even in spite of images. Case in point: Vladimir Putin and Crimea. Case in point: Bashir Assad in Syria.
Of course, Israel does not want to follow the footsteps of Putin and Assad. And of course it wants, and needs, a good image. But it also wants to win, and in some cases it would be ready to lose some image points and gain others where it also matters.
We might not know if Israel is winning or losing for quite some time. Case in point: the second Lebanon war. Did Israel win that war or lost it? Judging by public opinion and immediate responses, including the state's decision to form an investigative committee that submitted a report highly critical of the conduct during the war, it is tempting to say that Israel lost the war. But eight years of relative quiet in the northern border, and an extra cautious Hezbollah, might suggest otherwise.
Now imagine the following scenario: a boisterous Hamas declares itself the victor and a sober Israel finds it hard to make do with a meager settlement of the conflict – but then eight years of quiet on the Gaza border begin. Would you still say Israel lost the war?
There are many possible unintended consequences to the battle that can easily complicate the final score. Take for example the deteriorating relations between the Israeli government and the Obama administration. The latest round of condemnation of the Secretary of State and the President were met with furious responses on part of administration officials. Israel is also furious – with the proposals made by Secretary Kerry. So the next two years can be rocky in the Washington-Jerusalem arena. Moreover, as is evident by a new Pew survey, Israel has a problem not just with the Obama administration – it has a growing problem with Democratic voters in the US. So thinking about the consequences of war one can’t only think about Israel and Hamas, but also about other questions such as: If Israel defeats Hamas but loses a lot of support in the US, is it worth it? If Israel loses to Hamas does it buy it more support in the US?
My last point will be short: We don’t know if Israel is winning or losing unless we first agree what “lose” and “win” means in this context. Consider my previous point: If Israel loses 10 approval points among Americans but stops all rocket firing from Gaza – is this a victory or a defeat? The perception of winning, much like other things, is based on priorities. If a nation achieves its goals – it is winning. But other people, who believe in other priorities, can look at this win and consider it a loss. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t convinced by the articles declaring Israel the loser, or the winner.