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You don’t ‘win’ or ‘lose’ a battle like the one in Gaza

by Shmuel Rosner

November 22, 2012 | 5:13 am

An Israeli mother and daughter in Be'er Sheva react following a rocket strike from Gaza, November 21, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

The number of commentators having an opinion on the losing or winning situation is multiplying by the hour, and if you're interested, some of them appear at our daily Must Read digest. Truly, though, it is a question one can't answer today. The real test will be two weeks away, two months away, two years away.

On the one hand, this is good for Israel's current leadership, as no serious determination of the case can be made until after Election Day (that is, unless Hamas decides to start fighting again in the next couple of weeks). On the other hand, it isn't that good: Israel so it seems has definitely lost the battle of the mood. The people of Gaza are celebrating and gloating, the people of Israel are sober and apologetic. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his top ministers have had to work hard this morning and make the case that Israel actually won. And it is not an easy case to be made.

Maybe the problem lies with the concept of winning. The waiting for a clear outcome, for a photo of the flag waved somewhere, marking victory; for a speech, a surrender. In Middle East wars today, there are no such clear outcomes. Just think back to all recent battles of Israel and others. Can you remember such a photo? And even in case you do – say, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue after the 2003 American invasion – was this really the end of a battle, or just the beginning of a prolonged and far more complicated war?

Israelis probably wanted a clearer sign of achievement, such as a halt to rocket fire from Gaza. But was this a realistic hope? Rocket fire from Lebanon didn't stop until the last day of the 2006 war, and didn't stop until the last day of the Cast Lead operation in January 2009. If firing rockets is the benchmark for victory, if Israelis keep thinking that the rocket is the ultimate measure of failure or success, they are really doing Hamas' job - handing Hamas an easy way to emerge victorious from the battle. Because no matter how hard Hamas is hit, no matter how many people die, no matter how long the operation, no matter how precise Israel's strikes, there will always be a rocket stashed somewhere, ready for launch near the end to make the point that Hamas is winning, that Israel could not find and destroy each and every rocket.

But what if Hamas is only firing rockets now to save face, and is really determined to put an end to rocket attacks for the next two years? What if Hamas leaders fear for their lives as they know that the next round will make them a target for assassination? What if Israel, reluctantly, has to make do with the ambiguity of current-day victories as the price of international legitimacy for future battles?

In two or three days this round of the battle will become little more than election campaign propaganda. Netanyahu will claim victory, while highlighting his restraint. The parties to his right will say – well, they already do – that he truly lost. They will also be doing Hamas' job. The parties in the center will face a dilemma: Should they pander to public opinion, as they join the right in criticizing Netanyahu? Those further to the left will have a different dilemma: Should they praise a prime minister who they can hardly tolerate? Should they say that the operation was ill-advised to begin with – a claim that will put them at odds with the vast majority of voters?

It is almost comical to see how quickly all the pundits and politicians go back to their usual habits and make Operation Pillar of Defense a clear demonstration of their own long-claimed contentions. Netanyahu admirers make it an achievement like no other. Obama fans see in it a sure sign that the American president was the true hero of recent days. Proponents of talks with Hamas contend that talks will be the only way forward; opponents argue that recent days proved the futility of such talks. There are those saying that the operation proved the need to vigorously pursue talks with the Palestinian Authority, and those dismissing such talks as an unnecessary sideshow in a changed world in which the PA has no role to play. I've heard many such points made today, but I am yet to hear someone say that the operation changed his mind – yet to hear someone saying that he thought A, but now thinks B because of the operation.  

"Boring maturity, realistic expectations", was the headline of veteran journalist Dan Margalit's article today. "Boring predictability, mature realization", is the headline I'd choose. Not much far from his: It is the predictability of the way this operation would end – and let me tell you now that it is very likely that the next Gaza operation, one or two or three years down the road will end similarly. It is the realization that the war we're fighting today is not the kind of war that ends with a bang, that provides for an ultimate victory. It is a battle within a very long war (some would argue: the war that began in 1948) and patience is the tool most needed to win it.

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