Marc Lynch

“We have no grand political scheme”

“We have no grand political scheme”

I spent the morning at a lecture organized by GWU’s outstanding Homeland Security Policy Institute’s Ambassador’s Roundtable Series featuring Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor. It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals. Indeed, he at times seemed to offer this absence of strategy as a virtue, as evidence that the war had been forced upon Israel rather than chosen: "we have no grand political scheme… we were forced to defend ourselves to provide better security, period." With current estimates of 550 Palestinians dead and 2500 wounded, and the region in turmoil, the absence of strategy is not a virtue.

Meridor’s narrative is assuredly familiar to anyone who follows the op-ed pages. He argued repeatedly that "this was not a matter of choice, not something we picked or were hoping for", but rather a war launched by Hamas to which Israel was forced to respond. Hamas must be understood as part of the global struggle against radical Islamic terrorism, he insisted, a war led by Iran ("the world’s largest exporter of terror") and employing "sub- conventional weapons of mass destruction" (suicide bombers). The goal, he explained, was to create "a better, more secure situation for us and the Palestinians" by degrading Hamas’s capabilities and by re-establishing the credibility of its deterrence.

But how, exactly? After he failed to respond to an initial question about the end-state Israel hoped to achieve, I asked him directly about his government’s strategic logic. How, precisely did Israel’s government expect its military campaign to achieve its goals? His answer tellingly focused almost exclusively on body counts and targets hit: over 1000 Hamas targets hit ("not a small number"), many headquarters and tunnels and rocket production facilities destroyed. Tactics over strategy.

But as to a political strategy tied to the military campaign, nothing. No guidance as to whether Israel would re-occupy Gaza, or on what terms it would accept a cease-fire. No thoughts as to whether the campaign would cause Hamas to fall from power or help the Palestinian Authority regain political power. An absolute refusal to entertain a question about the negative effects of the images from Gaza on the wider region (the important image of the war, he nearly spat, should be that "terror is not allowed to win"). Would the military assault at least change Hamas’s strategic calculus? "This is for the future, only the future will tell."

In short, Meridor quite literally offered no strategy beyond hitting Gaza hard and hoping for the best. "In terms of creating damage we are certainly on the right path," noted the Ambassador. Few would disagree with that assessment, at least. But some might hope that the bloody, battered path might actually be leading somewhere.