Positioning for the Next War

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL- DECEMBER 02: (ISRAEL OUT) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL- DECEMBER 02: (ISRAEL OUT) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his office, on December 02, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. Netanyahu spoke of the recent approval for the construction of homes in Jerusalem in the wake of the successful Palestinian bid for UN status upgrade. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Pool/Getty Images)

George Orwell, one of the intellectual giants of the last century, wrote in his masterpiece 1984 that "the object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war." Rarely has this been as true as in Operation Pillar of Defense, the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas -- the first, but most likely not the last Arab-Israeli war in the post-Arab Spring era.

For Israel, the war was about the future, about having its southern residents living normal lives. But the war was also about re-establishing lost deterrence and sending a warning to its other enemies -- Iran, Hezbollah and the various jihadi groups in Egypt and Syria -- that Israel remains by far the strongest power in the region and is willing to use its military power if provoked.

For Hamas, the war most likely came as a surprise. The simple fact that its military chief Ahmed al-Jabari was killed as he was riding in a car on an open street in Gaza City indicates that Hamas was caught off guard. Since the Arab Spring began almost two years ago, Hamas has felt emboldened by the political upheavals sweeping the region. The whole strategic environment in the Middle East with a retreating America, an isolated Israel, falling dictators and rising Islamists, seemed to move in Hamas' favor. Even before Operation Pillar of Defense was launched, Arab and Muslim dignitaries had begun lining up to court the government in Gaza. Maybe there was a kind of hubris feeling within Hamas that Israel would not dare to launch a major war against it in the post-Arab Spring era? If so, it was a serious miscalculation.

Who then won the war? It seems that both sides, at least for the time being, can claim major achievements and losses. Military planners in Gaza, Beirut and Tehran are no doubt disappointed today about Hamas' ability to inflict deadly harm on Israel. All the talk about Iran turning Gaza into a strategic forward operating base to be used against Israel for deterrence against an attack on its nuclear facilities turned out to be grossly exaggerated. Only a single rocket out of the 1,500 fired at Israel during the war was deadly (in addition to three deadly mortars). The Iron Dome missile defense system proved to be a spectacular success with an interception rate of 85 percent in the populated areas. In the Second Lebanon War, when Israel's home front was completely exposed to rocket fire, Hezbollah fired around 4,000 rockets against Israel, 30 of which were deadly and killed 56 Israelis. Iron Dome clearly is a game-changer and together with its bigger brothers, Magic Wand and Arrow, they might give Israel the upper hand against the 200,000 missiles which threaten the country at any given time. Ehud Barak might not be so wrong after all in predicting less than 500 dead Israelis in a future war with Iran.

Hamas, for its part, can also claim major achievements, more so diplomatic than military. By surviving another round of fighting with Israel, Hamas proved once again that they are here to stay. Like the PLO in the 1970s and 80s, Hamas is emerging as an actor that has to be dealt with one way or the other by the international community. It is clear that the more legitimacy Hamas gets, the higher will the price be for Israel to attack it in the future. During Operation Pillar of Defense, Egypt and Jordan reportedly threatened Israel that their peace treaties with Israel would be jeopardized if Israel would launch a ground invasion of Gaza and topple the Hamas regime. That is how legitimacy and leverage work in the post-Arab Spring era.

With wide open smuggling tunnels in Rafah and an estimated arsenal of 10,000 rockets in Hamas' possession, it is unclear what military purposes Israel's blockade of Gaza really have served over the past five years, except for preventing ships with weapons from docking in Gaza. As many analysts have argued, the blockade seemed to have been more about keeping Hamas isolated and preventing it from being internationally legitimized. Indeed, the real danger of Hamas for Israel is of course not what it does in Gaza, but what it can do in the West Bank if it gets into power there.

As the dust settles in Gaza and Southern Israel, both sides immediately began preparing for the next confrontation. No one, absolutely no one believes that the last rocket has been fired, either from Gaza or against it. In that sense, Operation Pillar of Defense was not so much about the past and the present, but about positioning for the next war.