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Where does it end?

By Leonard Fein.

Trying to make sense of Israel's assault on Gaza, which ended exactly a year ago this week, is a daunting challenge. There is no agreement on how many Gazans were killed nor on how many were combatants, how many innocent bystanders. The Israeli authorities claim that 49 women and 89 children were among the killed, but the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem says the accurate numbers are 107 women and 320 children.

And if the numbers of the dead are still in dispute, how much more so are the causes of the war.  "Tomorrow, we'll begin anew" asserts a popular Israeli song.  But that, of course, is nonsense in a region so burdened by history.  The Goldstone Commission,  in its wisdom or its folly, sought to expand the causal context, stretching well beyond the years of Palestinian rocket attacks on nearby Israeli towns.  In its view, virtually the whole of the dismal history of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is contextually relevant.  The trouble with that sort of analysis, however, is that although it is not exactly wrong, it offers no logical starting point for the beginning of the story: Why not go all the way back - back to 1948, or 1947, or 1939, or 1929, or 1917, all signal years in the conflict between Jews and Arabs? 

Where the story starts is, in any case, a second-order question.  The more pressing question is where - and how - it ends.  If it does.

The most inflammatory element of the Goldstone report is beyond dispute its assertion that the extensive damage Israel inflicted, not only on human life but on infrastructure, was not only in large part gratuitous, but was intentional.  The report argues that the Israel Defense Forces are simply too precise, too professional, to have caused such damage unwittingly, or collaterally.   It is that assertion more than any other that caused such widespread revulsion in the organized Jewish community, that led to formal statements that the "infamous" report was "slanderous."

Now, to insist that it is slanderous to accuse Israel of intentionality is necessarily to accept either that the IDF is not nearly as professional as it is widely thought to be or that the highly detailed damage reports have somehow been hugely inflated.  It is doubtful that those who have slashingly attacked the report have thought through what their logic implies. 

Still,  there's a natural reluctance to accept Goldstone's harsh verdict.  I raised this matter with Judge Goldstone himself back in early November.  At the time, and for weeks thereafter, I thought his reply badly inadequate.  I have since come to think it spot on.

What Judge Goldstone said was that the very many exceedingly bellicose pre-war statements by leading Israelis in both the political and defense establishments "gave license"  for the massiveness of the assault and the consequent devastation.   I observed, in response, that Israel's leaders are notorious for their undisciplined statements, that every government minister feels entitled to express his views on any matter at all, and that there is a considerable difference between the license given by loudmouths and the orders given by a government. And then we drifted onto other aspects of the report.

Well, it now seems to me, and quite clearly, that the distinction between giving license and formal decision-making is not so great after all.  A formal decision is not required to establish intention.   Start with the provocation of the rocket attacks on Sderot and other communities, fold in Israel's manifest desire to keep its own casualties to a minimum, then add, critically, the IDF's determination to restore its fearsome name, and you have all the requisite ingredients.  With or without a formal decision to wreak havoc in Gaza, the dogs of war were straining at the leash.  No more senior official had contradicted the pugnacious threats and the public was primed for a decisive response to the endless rocket attacks.  A wink here, a nod there, and in the context of an IDF eager, after its 2006 debacle in Lebanon, to re-establish its reputation, to demonstrate both its military prowess and its indifference to international opinion, the consequent damage is no surprise. 

True, the Israelis invested considerable effort in avoiding harm to innocents.  While Goldstone dismisses these efforts as inadequately conceived, and draws particular attention to the futility of advising people to evacuate buildings if there is no plausible place for them to go, it does not strain credulity to suppose that Israel's hope - indeed, its policy - was to minimize what we quaintly call "collateral damage."  Those who hold that Israel wanted to kill as many civilians as it could are badly, and, one supposes, purposely mistaken.  Had Israel wanted to kill as many civilians as it could, the number of dead and wounded would have been vastly greater than even the highest numbers that have been proffered.  (There seems to have been no comparable inhibition regarding damage to infrastructure.)  

Without an independent investigation, we cannot know for sure how the IDF handled the tension between its desire to minimize civilian casualties and its eagerness to maximize  the damage it inflicted.  There is an obvious tension between the two, and Goldstone claims that tension, in the cases the commission examined, was far too often resolved in favor of damage, that the IDF paid entirely inadequate attention to civilian harm; the IDF has offered rebuttals to many of the Goldstone claims.  Whichever is the more accurate, it is clear that given the particular circumstances of the war--the asymmetry of a proficient war machine confronting an elusive and inherently camouflaged enemy, Gaza's congestion, and Israel's determination to keep its own casualties to a minimum, the number of innocent casualties is not especially surprising.  Sad, tragic, but war is like that.  It is not clean, not surgical, not precise.  It is mayhem.  It is hellish.

If mayhem was the intent, it achieved what Israel wanted it to achieve, respite from the rockets and the reassertion, for the time being at least, of Israel's deterrent capability.  In the year since the war ended, few rockets have been fired (at least until the past few days) and Israel has suffered no combat casualties.  None.

Comes the obvious question: What price did Israel pay for its victory in Cast Lead, as its assault was called?  In lives, astonishingly few - ten soldiers in all, of whom four were killed by friendly fire.  (But they are dead all the same, and would not have been but for the war.)  In reputation, the answer is more complex.  Its fearsomeness was re-established, but no one foresaw the Goldstone Report, which will linger as a very uncomfortable suite de la guerre for a very long time to come, hence vastly raises the price.

And there is, of course, yet another question.  There always is.  Was there no other way?  All that blood, and tens of thousands of young people and children newly filled with venom towards their mighty neighbor, Israel.  All that ruin, and new recruits for terrorism.  Was there really no other way, or have we been reduced to policy by slogan?  Here in Israel, people are tired of thinking.  Everything that can be thought and said has long since been thought and said a hundred or a thousand times, and peace does not seem any closer.  So settle for the slogans, buy some time, and make ready for the next war.

Is that really all there is?  Perhaps; that is surely what most Israelis expect.  But there is a wild card in the deck, and its name is Obama.  Just as it has turned out to have been a mistake to overestimate Obama back when he was running for office, so is it now dangerous to underestimate him.  The American administration has made some amateurish mistakes this past year, and Bibi Netanyahu's effort to "play" the administration has enjoyed some success.  There are those who suppose that in light of the seemingly endless and always urgent other demands on the President, Obama will end up walking away from the Israel issue.  They may prove right; I think they are wrong.  I believe this president is determined to make a good peace happen. 

It has long been said that the United States cannot make peace between Israel and the Palestinians if the two sides are not themselves eager for peace.  But it is also true that the two sides cannot avoid peace indefinitely if the United States relentlessly pursues it.   The greatest favor Americans who care for Israel's safety and welfare can do these days is to encourage the requisite relentlessness.