As I write on Aug. 5, as the battle winds down and another attempt at a cease-fire begins, the troops are getting ready for the battle of the aftermath. If there was a mishap, we need to know who’s at fault; if there’s a victory, someone is going to want the credit; if there’s an achievement, we need it to be clear to the enemy; if there’s a lesson, we need to (quickly) learn what it is.
I have already written that keeping score in such operations is tricky. But in recent days we can already see a way to determine the meaning of the outcome emerging. It is really a simple test: Tell me who you are, what you thought before the Gaza operation, and I’m going to tell you what you probably think about the outcome.
Here is an example:
Dvir lives in a settlement. He is 32 years old. He was called for reserve duty. He votes for the religious right, and, like almost everyone else in Israel, he supported the Gaza operation. Now he is worried. That is, because he isn’t certain that the enemy was effectively deterred from further action. He understands that uprooting Hamas altogether might have been a cause too costly for Israel to pursue at this time, but he wanted to see a more decisive end to the war. In a Panels Politics poll last week, 54 percent of Israelis agreed that Israel is winning the fight, and he wants to be one of them. Yet, he is occasionally tempted to say things that indicate he’s not entirely convinced — maybe he ought to join the 34 percent who said “neither side” was winning. The number of doubtful Israelis is expected to grow when the dust settles and questions about the conduct of the operation begin to surface.
And here is another example:
Shira is a moderate lefty-centrist living in Haifa, so she barely had any firsthand experience with sirens and could keep her daily schedule without interruptions throughout the war. In the last election, she voted for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, and still doesn’t know what she’ll do in the next election. She does know that Israel was justified in fighting this war, smart — most of the time — to fight it in a measured way, and made the right decision to pull out before it turned even uglier. She also knows that Israel was winning the battle, but that it not has “to win the peace.” That is to say, “Israel has to work with the moderate Palestinians,” “strengthen” them and “go back to the peace process.” Will there be peace? She doesn’t really think so, but “there will at least be some hope.”
Last example, from the left:
Zeev was not against the war like some of his friends. Only a tiny minority of Jewish Israelis were truly against the war. He is 43, voted for Meretz, will vote for Meretz again, has very little trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though, he must say, in the last couple of weeks he noticed that the current version of Netanyahu might be slightly better than his previous incarnations. Israel, he says, did not win the war — Hamas did. Israel is now internationally isolated, it is at odds with the Obama administration, and it will have to make concessions to Hamas in Gaza — the type of concessions, he now thinks, that could have prevented this ordeal had Israel agreed to them two or three months ago.
Ask these three Israelis the following questions, and you will get the answers you’d probably expect:
1. Was the 2005 Gaza “disengagement” a mistake? Yes, maybe, no. Last week, 54 percent of all Israelis agreed that it was a mistake, 41 percent did not and 5 percent don’t know. Ninety percent of religious Israeli Jews and 69 percent of young Jewish Israelis believe it was a mistake. Eighty-two percent of Labor voters and 72 percent of Meretz voters don’t believe it was a mistake. Sixty-two percent of secular Jewish Israelis don’t believe it was a mistake.
2. Was Israel negotiating in good faith with Abbas last year? Yes, no, no. I still don’t have the numbers with which to support this conclusion, but I get the sense that staunch supporters and staunch opponents of the peace process tend to doubt the result of the operation. The center is less certain about the process, and more willing to accept the outcome of the war as satisfactory-enough for Israel.
3. Who will you vote for if an election were held today? Habayit Hayehudi, don’t know, Meretz. According to Menachem Lazar’s poll from last week, two parties benefited during the operation — Habayit Hayehudi and Likud. They will get 18 seats and 30 seats, respectively. That is a lot more than they have today. But note that the left — Meretz — is also keeping its improved status as a 10-seat party in the polls. That is to say that the hardcore leftists did not abandon their ship as rockets were flying. They are a minority, but a minority with a desire to speak in a clearer voice than before. The Labor Party, which supported the war more demonstrably, did not gain supporters because of it.
I bother you with these polls because, in the days after the war, political calculations are going to start playing a much larger role in determining how Israelis understand its outcome. The opposition will have to go back to being an opposition. That means it will have to find a way to criticize the government — for its lack of initiative on the peace front, for its decision not to work with the Palestinian unity government, for its tendency to annoy the Americans. The right is also going to have to differentiate between itself and the ruling Likud Party. This means a lot of peevishness about Israel’s indecisiveness in the war and its surrender under international pressure.
In the aftermath of a war, as people begin processing their understanding of what just happened, they tend to go back and rely on their starting positions. If they disliked Netanyahu, yet felt more comfortable with his leadership during the operation (note his 72 percent satisfaction rating last week), they will likely go back to doubting him. If they tend to blame Israel for the breakdown of the peace talks in early spring, they’ll go back to demanding a more accommodating approach to Abbas and a more vigorous pursuit of peace — and are going to ask whether a different approach could have prevented the war. If they used to think that Israel is too weak and isn’t doing enough to showcase its jurisdiction over all parts of biblical Israel, they’ll be disappointed by an operation that did not end in the total Arab surrender of the 1967 war.
Life will gradually go back to grumbling as usual. A sure sign that the crisis might be over.