If there's one thing Israel's leaders have learned, it's that each round of fighting in Gaza is invariably a prelude to the next round. How each round is concluded determines how long quiet will prevail and at what cost – and Operation Pillar of Defence is no exception. The tenuous ceasefire reached Wednesday night will only be as stable as the players' interests allow it to be. By going to war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bought into a new regional reality, dominated by President Mohammed Morsi's Egypt, which is not without risk for Israel. He's also positioned himself domestically in advance of the Jan. 22 election.
Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas describes the Gaza dilemma this way. Since Hamas – an active terrorist organization that refuses to recognize Israel – ascended to power in 2006, Israel has had two options: either enter Gaza to topple the Hamas regime and stay there indefinitely, or create a continuous diplomatic dialogue with Hamas on security and political issues relating to Gaza. The first option is fraught with military and political risk. The second is unrealistic given Hamas's character and the impact on the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Both alternatives are bad and unfeasible, thereby leaving Israel with limited manoeuvrability in any strike it undertakes.
In asymmetric warfare between a state army and non-state renegade actors, the former wants to achieve its goals and exit early, while the latter wants to keep fighting and exhaust the other side, especially when civilians on the home front are involved. The month-long Lebanon incursion in 2006, and three weeks of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009, left Israel with a bitter legacy of lessons. In both, it stayed on the ground too long, suffered heavy casualties, killed large numbers of enemy civilians and faced intense international criticism.
As a result of this, even after a continuous rain of rockets on Israel's south, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Mr. Netanyahu were determined to avoid the pitfalls of the past operations. Besides, 60 days before an election, they wanted to minimize any deterioration that could backfire in the polls. So Israel's goals in the latest operation were limited to begin with: renewed deterrence by assassinating Hamas's military chief and by destroying long-range missile launchers that threatened the country's heavily populated centre.
The preference was to achieve this by surgical air strikes and to avoid a ground incursion. A delay in ending the fighting would have forced such an incursion, which, in the new Middle East, would have jeopardized Israel's critical peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. (Calling up reserves was a pressure tactic.) A delay could also have lead to unanticipated game-changers (such as a large number of civilian deaths caused by either side), and to a shift in public support. In fact, Israel was ready for an early ceasefire but needed to batter Hamas until it came around.
If the ceasefire holds, the three men who led the operation will benefit from the broad public consensus that backed the strike. The much-criticized, hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has gained in stature by leading a war. Mr. Barak, whose political fortunes are low as head of a small breakaway party, is now assured of re-election or at least reappointment as defence minister.
Mr. Netanyahu, in turn, re-enters the campaign stronger than ever and unchallenged for the prime ministerial slot. Importantly, the war means that this election will again be dominated by security issues, an arena that he prefers. The centre-left's efforts to substitute social policy as a key election issue are dead.
The regional balance sheet that Mr. Netanyahu now needs to manoeuvre is more complicated. It's marked by Egypt's ascendancy, along with renewed U.S. engagement. Mr. Netanyahu will interact with Mr. Morsi reluctantly, while recognizing their joint interest in reining in Hamas. It isn't any simpler on the Palestinian front. Hamas has taken a severe hit, but it's positioned in the vanguard of resistance to Israel, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who's Israel's best bet for a long-term Palestinian deal, is sidelined. By deliberately ignoring Mr. Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu has weakened him and, by default, has granted Hamas centre stage.
If, as they hinted this week, Egypt and the U.S. want to broaden their involvement to reignite a larger negotiating process, Mr. Netanyahu won't be able to remain passive. Israel needs to think about bolstering Mr. Abbas, especially as it continues indirect talks with Hamas.
The last week has been marked by a gap between harsh rhetoric and pragmatic action. Mr. Morsi supported Hamas publicly, but worked effectively to corral it. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lieberman promised to destroy the Hamas regime when they ran for office three years ago, but acted cautiously when faced with reality. The same pragmatism will be needed as they all navigate the uncharted waters they've now entered.