Who won, Hamas or Israel?

I’m a fan of Lee Smith. However, I was not persuaded by his argument that Israel won and Hamas lost their latest confrontation.

Smith acknowledges that Hamas claims victory and that many Israelis concur with Hamas on this point. In fact, initial opinion polling showed a majority of Israelis dissatisfied with the outcome of the confrontation. But Smith contends that both sides have it wrong.

Hamas’ proclamation of victory should carry no weight; Smith is right about that. But the fact is that Hamas’ prestige has soared by virtue of having taken on Israel and “lived to tell about it.” Consequently, Hamas has rendered its rival, the Palestinian Authority, largely irrelevant. Far from being crushed, Hamas is now a serious player and is being “mainstreamed” in the U.S. Finally, from all that appears, the conflict has been resolved (for the time being) without any mechanism that will prevent Hamas from rebuilding, and then increasing, its deadly arsenal aimed at Israel.

Smith’s dismissal of the Israeli perception that Hamas came out ahead should be suspect on its face. Israelis presumably understand their security situation and have no incentive to proclaim defeat. But the Israeli perception shouldn’t be dispositive, so let’s examine the situation.

The key is Iran, which goes virtually unmentioned by Smith. The resolution of this confrontation will leave Israel exposed to missile attacks from the south, just as the failure to defeat Hezbollah in 2006 leaves Israel exposed to missile attacks from the north. Israel thus remains poorly positioned to deal with the looming Iranian threat. The combined ability of Hamas and Hezbollah to bomb all of Israel serves as a deterrent to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear capability. And if Israel decides to attack anyway, the failure to defeat these two minnows will mean that Israel likely pays a higher price in the resulting conflict.

Smith notes that Hezbollah sat out the Israel-Hamas confrontation. But this doesn’t demonstrate that the 2006 war neutered Hezbollah, as Smith suggests. Rather, it shows that Hezbollah (and Iran) correctly determined that Hezbollah should husband its arsenal in order to maximize their ability to bombard Israel in the event of war with Iran.

Smith concludes that Israeli dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Hamas confrontation and the Hezbollah war rests on an “unrealistic, or ahistorical” understanding of what war can accomplish. “The reality,” he asserts “is that few wars are conclusive, especially in the Middle East.”

But for a regional superpower, wars must be more conclusive than Israel’s last two before they can be considered victories. Moreover, it is not ahistorical to recognize the transformative power that normally follows a true military defeat.

Israel’s smashing victory over Egypt in 1973 brought it decades of real peace and put an end to Nasserism, once considered the wave of the future in the Middle East. It should also be noted that the rise of Nasserism had much to do with the unsuccessful effort of England, France, and Israel to topple Nasser during the Suez crisis, an effort that failed when the U.S. helped bail Nasser out.

When a revolutionary movement results in resounding defeat and accompanying misery, its claim to represent the future is refuted, and reassessement normally follows. When a revolutionary movement survives an effort to defeat it military, its claim to represent the future is reinforced, and there is no reason to reassess. These historical truths apply just as much to the Middle East as elsewhere.

Hamas and Hezbollah have both survived Israel’s efforts to defeat it militarily. They survived because Israel lacked the will to finish the fight. In the recent case, it lacked the will to put ground soldiers at risk. For a regional superpower whose survival as an entity is at stake, that’s not a win.


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