For those interested enough to dive deeper- beyond the tweets, the public relations campaigns, and the moral indignation that muddies the waters of clear analysis- there are some lessons to be learned from the most recent round in the Israel-Gaza conflict.
The first lesson, of course, is that this is indeed just the most recent round. The ceasefire (when it comes) is sure to be inconclusive and no political impasse will be broken, with or without an Israeli ground assault (which looms at the time of writing).
On the diplomatic level, Hamas remains in power, continues to reject Israel’s right to exist, and retains significant –albeit not unlimited—support within the Arab world, Turkey and Iran. Regional dynamics are unchanged. International dynamics are unchanged, with the US and other Western powers committed to unenthusiastic but consistent expressions of Israel’s right to self-defense. Israel itself remains unchanged in its approach to the Palestinian question. At the simplest level, Jerusalem is eager to restore the status quo ante: no Gaza rockets, no Israeli retaliation. Questions of a greater détente with Gaza that might lead to an easing of the blockade are seldom raised, as Hamas rejectionism seems to make such considerations impossible from Jerusalem’s point-of-view.
If there are political notes to taken from this, then the first point of interest is that the West Bank Palestinians, although aggrieved, did not engage. A second point is that, as I indicated in an earlier piece on the Geopolitical Monitor, Egypt is still the foundation for a stable Middle East. Despite his Muslim Brotherhood associations and the anti-Western and anti-Israel sentiment of his people, President Morsi remains a clear-headed and pragmatic statesman for Egypt (August 22, 2012). Both Hamas and Israel turned to Morsi to broker a cease-fire, and Egypt remains the sole party with influence on both combatants. Turkey’s reckless rhetoric, on the other hand, put Prime Minister Erdogan on the outside, even though the Turks and the Israelis–despite Ravi Marmara– have natural shared interests in both a stable Gaza and, of course, containment of the conflict in Syria.
So, again, there is little reason to expect significant political or diplomatic change from the current conflict. In the interim, at most we may see a greater divide between Hamas and Fatah, where the latter is determined to pursue its UN bid for Palestinian statehood, while the former wants no part of the recognition this would bestow upon Israel. In turn, Israel may at most offer a state with provisional borders, a move it had pondered even before the current round of hostilities.
Despite all appearances of continued political deadlock, however, the present conflict is nonetheless a watershed. It represents a victory for Israel on a front that may prove decisive- and determine future strategic directions- if the Israelis opt to pursue it. This is of course the fact that the Iron Dome anti-missile system exceeded all expectations. The six batteries deployed by the Air Force wing of the IDF (it is of some note perhaps that ground forces do not operate the systems) have scored a 90% success rate. This is impressive not just because of the short distance and limited interception window for the Raphael systems, but also because of the electronic brains of the unit that allow it to predict whether a missile is headed for a population centre or an empty field, in which case the system allows it to fall and saves the ammunition ($40,000 a shot) for the next attack.
This tactical success has enormous strategic and thus diplomatic potential for Israel in particular and for modern warfare in general. For Israel, the tactical success of Iron Dome will likely ease popular pressure on the Israeli leadership for a ground operation in Gaza. As Iron Dome has prevented casualties on the home front, the Netanyahu government has (yet) has to operationalize its reserve call-up. This saves Israel battlefield casualties, reduces the prospect of innocent civilian deaths in Gaza as a result and, therefore, ensures that Israel’s precarious diplomatic position is not further eroded.
This is just the immediate tactical benefit to Israel. As I argued in Haaretz (March 2011, February 2012) and Geopolitical Monitor (August 2012), Iron Dome is just the tactical piece in a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile blanket that offers Israel the potential for a complete strategic and doctrinal shift from its traditional emphasis on pre-emption and air power to an “active deterrent” posture that befits a more established state and superior military vexed by diplomatic isolation.
From the inception of the state in 1948 through the 1967 Six-Day-War and the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, Israeli Defense Force doctrine has trumpeted preemption as the means to reduce the disadvantage of the country’s small geographical size and leverage its superior air force. Israel’s defense establishment again argued for preemption in 1973, but was overruled by a political echelon that chose passive deterrence to win diplomatic favor with the United States. The cost to absorb the first blows from Egypt and Syria was high for Israel. The scale of initial losses led the cabinet to hint at a nuclear response that triggered an American airlift of material and diplomatic engagement.
The failure of “The Concept” in 1973 renewed Israel’s determination to take the battle to the enemy’s home front and still prevails in Israeli military doctrine, rooted in the national psyche.
Hence, Israel’s determination to hit Iran before it acquires nuclear weapons. Hence, Israel’s focus on F-35 fighter jets, bunker-buster bombs, aerial re-fueling capabilities, and frustrated attempts to gain tacit Saudi or Turkish approval for aerial attack routes.
Even if Israel succeeds at enormous financial cost with the prospect of heavy losses of its best pilots, the setback to Iran’s program will be short-term at best. Iranian retaliation, perhaps supported by Hezbollah and even yet again Hamas, seems a realistic prospect. Diplomatic isolation is complete in this scenario.
Yet, this grim path is not inevitable. Iron Dome is just the tactical layer of a comprehensive anti-ballistic defense system that is in fact premised on the Arrow-II program. Developed in earnest after US Patriot systems provided some protection from Saddam Hussein’s SCUDs in 1991, the Arrow system is designed to counter long-range threats posed by the Shahab missiles Iran has developed with North Korean support to replace the older SCUD technology. David’s Sling is Israel’s middle-tier ABM, designed to intercept mid-range projectiles form Hezbollah.
Supported by Israel’s own nuclear weapon arsenal, advanced Jericho delivery systems, and assured second-strike capabilities provided by Dolphin class submarines, Israel’s anti-ballistic systems add up to the potential for a powerful “active” deterrent.
It is reasonable to consider that should Israel restructure its strategic doctrine to leverage and prioritize its impressive ABM investments that the country’s leaders could better protect the home front, reduce the imperative for preemption, and thus provide Israel with better regional and international diplomatic options as befits a more established state.
As with other Western militaries, the country could then focus on a leaner yet more elite core of personnel and materiel, as opposed to the burden of reliance on reserves. A few squadrons of F-35s configured for air defense, supported by ground forces and a navy re-positioned for equivalent roles might better prepare Israel for the threats the states now faces and in the diplomatic context in which it must maneuver.
There is no doubt that, if little else is gained by either party in the present conflict between Israel and Gaza, that the Israelis have scored a dramatic victory on the battlefield with Iron Dome. The full potential of such a victory is at hand if the country’s statesmen and defense establishment can evolve the old doctrine– once so successful and now of dubious benefit– and embrace a new approach.
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