Netanyahu wins a Pyrrhic victory
By M K Bhadrakumar
the face of it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu scored a perfect hit by launching the
assault on Gaza. The score sheet for the weeklong
operation codenamed "Operation Pillar of Defense"
may seem to stand at 10 out of 10.
only drawback is that it is a Pyrrhic victory. One
may recall the illusion created by the witches in
William Shakespeare's play: "The power of man, for
none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth." But
then, the reality isn't far away: "Macbeth shall
never vanquished be, until /
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinaine Hill / Shall
come against him."
The illusion is that
the Israeli offensive destroyed the headquarters
of Hamas and blew apart Ahmed Jabari, the
commander of the movement, in a targeted killing,
which apparently buries the resistance movement.
But the stunning reality is that Israel's
"impregnable" Iron Dome is ending up as a myth; it
missed more than two-thirds of the Hamas' rockets.
Where does it leave Israel but a ground offensive?
But that option may also turn out to be an
illusion, as it turned out during the Israeli
operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006,
when the elusive militants were also neighborhood
groups. The plain reality could be, as the United
States President Barack Obama forewarned, "If
Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at
risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."
Indeed, it is becoming clear that the
political reality may turn out to be quite
daunting. At the end of the day, Israel has done
something it has never done before in its history:
it has come to the negotiating table suing for
peace within three days of launching a military
10 out of 10 The
paradox is that Netanyahu may also be deemed to
have hit the bull's eye. He shrewdly pandered to
the calls for Greater Israel in the domestic
public opinion by launching the attack on Hamas
and may well have improved the prospects of his
Likud party, which is in alliance with the
ultranationalist Yisrael Beitnu party of Avigdor
Lieberman in the upcoming January elections.
Likud's popularity had been declining, and
the party was threatened by the opposition
alliance of Kadima Shaul Mofaz, led by former
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, and Yair
Labed, led by former foreign minister Shaul Mofaz.
Netanyahu judged correctly that Israeli society
has turned right wing and militaristic and a show
of force under his leadership would be the
appropriate grandstanding that can take the
political wind out of the sails of the Israeli
Netanyahu can now boast that
under his leadership, Israel "degraded" the Hamas'
war machine and weakened its threat to Israel. He
may go further to claim that Hamas was getting too
big for its boots lately and he showed the
movement where to get off.
There is some
merit in Netanyahu's judgment that the disruption
to the Hamas's links with Damascus (and Tehran) in
the past year should be seized as just the right
moment to strike. Hamas' new patrons - Qatar,
Turkey, etc - are known to be capable of only
barking and not biting, unlike Syria and Iran.
Equally, the rift over the civil war in Syria has
created certain distance between Hamas and
Hezbollah, which works to Israel's advantage.
Obviously, the Iranian and Syrian regimes
have been reduced to the role of bystanders, while
they could have been the two players that made all
the difference to Hamas' military capability.
Thus, with Iraq reduced to the Stone Age and Syria
drawn into a protracted civil war, Israel really
had only Egypt to tackle and had a relatively free
hand at the regional level.
single plus for Israel from the present conflict
has been that it could constructively engage the
Egyptian government led by Mohamed Morsi, who
belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The dispatch
of two senior Israeli negotiators to Cairo
underscores the alacrity with which Tel Aviv
engaged Morsi's government. Certainly, it was more
than a symbolic victory for Tel Aviv that for the
first time Morsi was compelled to articulate the
word "Israel" in a public statement in Cairo at a
press conference on Saturday.
doubt, Morsi has been thrust into a "mediating"
role - by the US, by the Arab League and by Israel
- to broker a ceasefire. From Tel Aviv's
viewpoint, the underpinnings of any ceasefire
worked out today (even under the UN auspices)
would carry the implicit sanction of Morsi, and
this would be the sort of opening that Israel has
been desperately keen to develop, which it can now
hope to work on (with US help) at a ground level
and at the agency-level in the operational terms
in the coming period. Of course, no one visualizes
a return to the Hosni Mubarak era, but something
is definitely better than nothing.
Clearly, Israeli President Shimon Peres
lost no time in grabbing the window of opportunity
when he openly appreciated Morsi's efforts to end
the hostilities saying, "Egypt is a significant
player in the Middle East." The Israeli ploy will
be to try to weaken the Brothers' bonding with
Hamas, which has been incrementally turning into
Morsi's policies on Gaza.
Gaza conflict also forced the Egyptian public to
face the moment of truth - that they are caught in
a sort of no-man's-land. Their sympathy lies with
the Palestinians, but they don't want an
escalation that could drag their country into a
conflict with Israel. The Egyptians feel cultural
affinities with the Gazans but they are also
nervous that the Palestinian enclave has a fair
crop of militants who may embroil Egypt in a new
war with Israel.
When it comes to Turkey,
the other big regional player, Israel has forced
Islamist Prime Minister Recep Erdogan also in an
indirect way to see the writing on the wall,
namely, it is Cairo that has become the centre of
diplomacy over the Gaza conflict, not Ankara.
Senior Turkish editor Murat Yetkin wrote in the
establishment daily Hurriyet that Ankara is
displeased with its "secondary role" and with the
painful reckoning that Egypt's regional power is
exceeding Turkey's. He wrote about the heartburn
"Egypt's role in the region is back
following the Tahrir Revolution, and its
government is stronger than before... [The]
Syrian opposition, which started in refugee
camps in Turkey, has said it considers Cairo to
be its headquarters. The Arab Spring has worked
for Egypt, and the country is rising from ashes
once again, providing a realistic model to Arab
countries. And if Morsi manages to save Gaza
from the wrath of Israel, he can be a second
Gamal Abdel Nasser, plus being an elected one
for the Arab world."
attack on Gaza has shifted the compass of Middle
East politics. This is bound to force a
reappraisal of Turkish policies. Israel would hope
that there is greater realism on Erdogan's part
about Turkey's ties with Israel. Israel has been
harping that the fractured ties with it have only
hurt Turkey's vital national interests insofar as
intelligence-sharing is at a standstill and Ankara
has lost its capacity to mediate the Middle
But the jury is still
out on that score. Erdogan is also a demagogue.
His strident rhetoric outclasses Morsi's when he
called Israel a "terrorist" state and then went on
to allege that Tel Aviv is indulging on "ethnic
cleansing". Erdogan's appears to prefer riding the
wave of Arab popular opinion instead of a "reset"
of Turkish-Israeli relationship.
whole, viewed from the foreign-policy angle,
Netanyahu has scored a string of apparent
successes. To be sure, his biggest "kill" has
involved Obama. Netanyahu has forced the US
president to take a stance of solidarity with
Israel on the Middle Eastern theatre despite the
glaring differences between the two men in the
past year on many accounts and notwithstanding the
Israeli leader's ill-conceived dalliance with Mitt
Romney in the critical stages of the recent US
presidential election, which annoyed Obama.
Perceptions indeed matter in the Middle
East's politics, and once again Israel has shown
its seamless capacity to lead the US
administration by the nose.
Netanyahu is a
keen observer of US politics, and he estimated
that he would force Obama's hand, given Israel's
clout on the US Congress and the media and think
tanks, no matter the disquieting signs appearing
from time to time that the US president's mind has
begun working on a major course correction in
America's failing Middle East strategy.
Netanyahu's estimation proved right. By
the way, Operation Pillar of Defence has something
in common with the bloody Operation Cast Lead
(December 2008) - both have followed Obama's
It is no mean
achievement, either, that except the Arab
countries, no one really condemned Israel's "right
to defend". The influential players like Russia,
China and the European countries took a neutral
stance while calling for "restraint" on both sides
in the conflict. Both Russia and China are
expecting big business opportunities in the
Israeli market. (Moscow also counts on Lieberman's
affinities as an immigrant from the former Soviet
No doubt, the mammoth Leviathan
oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean have
catapulted Israel onto the status of a coveted
energy partner. The Europeans, Russians, Chinese -
Leviathan becomes a heartache for all of them. Put
differently, Israel is no more a basket case with
a struggling economy.
trees Finally, the Gaza conflict may have
smothered the threatening move by the Palestinian
Authority to force a vote at the United Nations
General Assembly on November 29 for recognition
for a Palestine state, which Israel opposes tooth
and nail. The growing signs were that Ramallah
would be able to mobilize the requisite support in
the world body, but conceivably, in the rapidly
changing regional security milieu, there is going
to be enormous pressure on Mahmoud Abbas not to
precipitate added tensions.
Israel's "gains" - political, diplomatic and
military - will ultimately need to be weighed
against the "losses" that it may have incurred by
unleashing such mindless, "disproportionate"
violence on the hapless civilians of Gaza.
Israel's image in the world community has taken a
beating. A good case can already be made that the
losses may ultimately by far outweigh the gains
and history is probably repeating - Israel lashing
out in fury and desperation while coming
face-to-face emergent realities, which solves
nothing and may even complicate the future.
True, Israel may have degraded Hamas's
capacity in military terms. But this cannot be
more than a temporary setback, if at all, for
Hamas, considering that it is just a matter of
time before it replenishes its weapon stockpiles.
The ground reality is that Hamas's rockets
continue to rain on Israel, and the latter lacks
the intelligence to know from where they have
originated. It is Israel, which is today suing for
peace, and not Hamas. More important, the most
lethal rockets are of Iranian design. Hamas would
realize that Iran's continued support is worth its
weight in gold, as it aspires to reach the level
of Hezbollah so as to force a strategic stalemate
on Israel. In short, Israel may be sending Hamas
back into the Iranian embrace, which is something
it should find to be dreadful.
political and diplomatic terms too, Hamas has
hugely gained. The Israel blockade of Gaza is no
longer sustainable. The string of foreign
ministers from the region visiting Gaza on Tuesday
tells a story by itself. Hamas has decisively
breached Israel's "containment" strategy.
Ironically, Israel too may well have begun
"dealing" with Hamas without realizing it, as the
pattern of diplomacy to end the current conflict
unfolds in the coming days.
know that the region's political landscape has
changed phenomenally in Hamas's favor from the
very fact that Khaled Meshal held a live press
conference out of Cairo even as Israeli jets were
pounding Gaza. In sum, the Arab Spring has brought
a bitter harvest for Israel, and the ascendancy of
Islamism in the region under the banner of the
Brothers works to the advantage of Hamas.
Israel may have in the process tilted the
balance within the Palestinian camp in favor of
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (against Fatah) as the
genuine voices of resistance. Iran's stance
appears vindicated, even as Israel's secret allies
such as Jordan or the Persian Gulf oligarchies
have been forced onto the back foot.
struggle to force a "regime change" in Syria
becomes even more complicated as the agenda of
resistance surges. The abrupt moves by Britain and
the European Union this week amid the maelstrom in
the region to accord diplomatic recognition to the
Syrian opposition betray the nervousness on this
The point is, so long as the
Palestinian issue remains at the center table the
West will be hard-pressed to rationalize its
lop-sided priority for "regime change" in Syria -
while the West does nothing, on the other hand, on
the core issue of Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel
may have done a great disservice to the US,
Britain and France and their regional allies by
bringing the focus of attention back on the
unresolved Palestinian problem.
while Egypt may broker a ceasefire to the current
conflict, it cannot be expected to help enforce
Israel's blockade of Gaza by constricting the
Rafah crossing or by reviving the intelligence
cooperation of the Mubarak era. That is to say,
Morsi may have simply tried to cope with the
competing pressures on him for the present while
his strategic orientations vis-a-vis the
Palestinian issue and on Egypt's relations with
Israel will continue. He has already shown himself
to be a master tactician, and he can be expected
to keep Israel guessing as regards his intentions.
The litmus test is going to be Sinai,
which is a powder keg. There are no easy solutions
to bring the lawless Sinai under control and the
militants are regrouping whereas Egypt's security
services genuinely lack control. The choices
facing Israel are stark, and the assault on Gaza
may have complicated matters further.
fundamental flaw in Netanyahu's strategy is that
the Middle East is an altogether different region
today. As CNN's Nic Robertson analyzed,
Hamas is in a whole new place now.
Still trapped in the crowded confines of Gaza's
close-packed neighborhoods where they were
elected six years ago, only now with more
friends outside. What has changed came in the
wake of the Arab Spring that swept away some of
Israel's old regional allies replacing them with
leaders more sympathetic to Hamas... Egypt is
far from alone in the regional revolution that
begins to isolate Israel... So where does this
leave Israel? Simply put, while Israel is
stronger militarily, it is in a weaker political
position than it was in 2009. Today's Egyptian
rhetoric, while falling short of abrogating the
peace treaty with Israel, has very much taken a
pro-Hamas line. The long universal of the Arab
world is a dislike of the Israeli state's
treatment of Palestinians. In the past most Arab
leaders were dictators, able to take a path far
different from the views of the Arab street. Not
any more. The region's new post-Arab Spring
democratically elected leaders are only too
aware of the radical hardliners waiting for an
Obama seems to
comprehend the problem staring him in the face and
sees an imperative need to address the fundamental
restructuring of the US discourse with the Muslim
world. His first press conference after election
victory last Wednesday strongly hinted at which
way his mind is working in crafting the US
policies on problems such as Syria and Iran.
Suffice to say, Obama may be keeping his
thoughts to himself when Netanyahu hustled him
over the precipitate crisis over Gaza, but that
doesn't mean his thoughts are going to wither
away. On the contrary, Obama will come under
compulsion sooner than Netanyahu imagines to break
the logjam that seriously damages the US's own
long-term interests in the Middle East.
The heart of the matter is that a profound
crisis faces the US's Middle East strategy, and
unless and until the deep-rooted contradictions
are resolved the US can't get away or husband its
resources to "rebalance" them in Asia, where a
historic challenge is shaping up to the US's
larger destiny as a superpower.
times when in the headiness of winning a battle,
it may escape attention that the war has been
lost. This could well be one such moment.
Netanyahu may have won the battle to force Obama
to support him, but the time is not far off when
he will realize that this was not after all a
Ambassador M K
Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the
Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included
the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times
Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and