The Hard Limits Of The Lawnmower Strategy

Dish alum Zack Beauchamp scrutinizes Israel’s strategy in Gaza, one that emerged from its past conflicts with Arab states. In that approach, “Israel would have to live with a certain level of threat … but would use its military to occasionally weaken those threats and ensure they didn’t ever reach truly existential proportions”:

Obviously, Israel recognizes that the threats from groups like the Gaza-based militant group Hamas aren’t the same as the Cold War-era threats it faced from Arab invasions. So it’s developed a new version of its long-held threat management strategy, which is often called “mowing the grass.” It’s a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But that’s the basic analogy: Hamas, like grass, can’t disappear, but it can be regularly cut down to size. And, like mowing the grass, it’s implied that this is a routine that will be continued forever.

According to Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, Israeli academics based at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, the basic difference between “mowing the grass” and Israel’s old strategy is that the end-goal has changed. In the era of wars with Arab conventional armies, Israel hoped that eventually “a long and violent struggle, punctuated by decisive battlefield victories, could eventually lead Arab states to accept the notion of Israel’s permanence.” In other words, Israel believed that its threat-management strategy would eventually lead to peace, which in cases such as Egypt it did.

Israel does not believe the same thing today about applying this strategy to non-state militant groups. Israel sees Hamas and other militants as “implacable enemies, who want to destroy the Jewish state and there is very little Israel can do on the political front to mitigate this risk.”

So will “mowing the grass” make Israel safe in the end? Of course it won’t. Au contraire:

Israel’s approach to Arab states worked, after a fashion, because it accomplished critical political ends. Some of Israel’s greatest enemies, such as Egypt and Jordan, gave up on the quest to destroy Israel. They’ve even signed peace treaties with Israel, making the Jewish state far more secure than it was during the Cold War.

But there’s no equivalent political endgame in mind here. Israel has no vision for how to “solve” the Hamas problem, which means rocket fire and periodic crises are inevitable for the foreseeable future. In both 2009 and 2012, Israel fought similar wars against Hamas, both designed to stop rocket fire out of Gaza. Yet here we are today.

“The bottom line,” Gershon Baskin stresses, “is that there is no military solution that Israel can attain”:

The underground bunkers are protecting the Hamas leadership and its military commanders. Those taking the hits are the Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Not a single important Hamas commander has been killed, but hundreds of civilians have paid with their lives. …  The Hamas regime can be brought down by Israel; Israel has the capabilities to do this. But it will require a full reoccupation of Gaza for an extended period of time and in the end, I fear the Israeli victory in Gaza will look very much like the victory of George W. Bush over Saddam Hussein – and look at Iraq today.

Daniel Levy suggests an alternative:

Perhaps start by not denying another people’s rights in perpetuity, including the right to self-determination. Reverse the current incentive structure that reciprocates both Fatah demilitarization and Hamas cease-fires with variations on an Israeli brand of deepening occupation. There is no military solution, but Israel’s government refuses any political solution – neither it nor the governing Likud Party have ever voted to accept a Palestinian state. Hamas’s nonrecognition of Israel is troubling, and so should this be.

Humans do not respond well to humiliation, repression and attempts to deny their most basic dignity. Palestinians are human. Palestinians will find ways to resist — that is human — and sometimes that resistance will be armed. … What would you do under such circumstances? Start by treating the Palestinians as humans, as you yourself would wish to be treated.

Yes, treating human beings like human beings is always a good start. But Massie takes a more sympathetic view of Israel, which he perceives as being trapped in a situation that compels it to act against its own interests:

Israel’s tragedy – or rather, one strand of the several tragedies threatening Israel – is that it feels obliged to follow a course of action in which it cannot quite believe. It must do something, make some response to Palestinian provocation even though any such response offers at best a period of temporary relief and, quite probably, will make matters worse in the longer-term. But what else can she do? Doing nothing is not an option either.

The rockets fired from Gaza are a kind of trap. Hamas knows that and so does Israel and so do all the rest of us. But Israel will fight anyway because it cannot avoid doing so even though if fights on ground that is not of its choosing and on terrain upon which, in terms of international opinion, it cannot possibly win. Is is futile and counter-productive and unavoidable.

Alex’s piece is a must-read. But it seems to me he misses a couple of things. Hamas did not initiate this round of conflict. Netanyahu used the murder of three Israeli teens by a splinter Hamas group often at odds with Hamas proper to sweep across the West Bank, and imprisoning countless Hamas operatives and supporters who had nothing to do with the horrible crime. And he did so while suppressing the full facts at his disposal and whipping up the Israeli populace to a Putinesque degree. Equally, Israel is not a victim when it comes to the settlements. It can choose to end them but has instead chosen to accelerate them as its most important priority. This empowers Hamas as much as it undermines Abbas.

Those in power in Israel have always had these choices. They still do. They had a super-power willing and able to hold their hands through the entire process and an international community committed to Israel’s security in return for some basic equity for the Palestinians. Netanyahu didn’t only say no; he did all he could to humiliate president Obama and even back his opponent in 2012.

This cul de sac has always been a choice. And I’m tried of finding excuses for the inexcusable crime of the settlements – a permanent and constant provocation every day.