The Cost of Missing a Military Opportunity

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The ongoing chaos in both Egypt and Syria offers few certainties. But one fact is already clear: The military opportunities Israel wasted in recent years won’t come again, and those missed opportunities will likely cost it dearly.

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The ongoing chaos in both Egypt and Syria offers few certainties. But one fact is already clear: The military opportunities Israel wasted in recent years won’t come again, and those missed opportunities will likely cost it dearly.

In December 2008, Israel went to war with Hamas in Gaza. But rather than seeking to topple the Hamas regime, it opted for limited goals: weakening Hamas’s military capabilities and deterring it from future rocket attacks on Israel. Toppling Hamas, the thinking went, would entail a larger, longer and bloodier operation, so if a limited operation could achieve deterrence, that would be preferable. And if the rocket fire resumed, Israel could always reinvade; waiting a few years would not make it any harder.

But thanks to Egypt’s revolution, that comfortable assumption has proven false. If large-scale rocket fire on southern Israel resumes and another war in Gaza becomes necessary, Israel will now pay a far higher price, both militarily and diplomatically, than it would have in 2008.

Since the Egyptian uprising began a year ago, Israeli intelligence has reported a sharp increase in the quantity and quality of arms being smuggled into Gaza, including advanced anti-aircraft missiles from Libya. But you do not even need intelligence reports: UN agencies also report a sharp increase in imports to Gaza via smuggling tunnels from Sinai, and only the na├»ve would assume the increase was in civilian goods only. Effectively, the Gaza-Egypt border is now wide open, as Egypt’s transitional government has abandoned even the Mubarak regime’s half-hearted anti-smuggling efforts. Thus in any future war, Hamas will be far better armed than it was in 2008.

Perhaps even more troubling, Hamas has reportedly established forward bases and rocket production facilities in Sinai, where they are essentially immune from Israeli attack. Clearly, it’s much harder to defeat an enemy whose vital military infrastructure is beyond your reach. While Cairo denied the report, its denial rings hollow given the ten successful attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline in 2011, compared to zero under Mubarak. Either the new government has so completely lost control of Sinai that despite deploying an extra two-and-a-half brigades beyond what the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty permits, it can not prevent repeated attacks on vital infrastructure that brings in desperately needed foreign currency, or it is sufficiently anti-Israel to turn a blind eye. Either way, it would likely be equally unable or unwilling to stop Hamas from setting up shop in Sinai.

But the dangers of Hamas’s bolstered military capabilities pale beside the diplomatic ramifications of any future Israel-Hamas war. Whereas Mubarak loathed Hamas, the organization is now so closely allied with Cairo that it is considering relocating its headquarters there from Damascus. Egypt’s new rulers are also significantly more anti-Israel than Mubarak was, in part because they must be more attentive to a citizenry of which 90 percent views Israel as an “enemy” and a “threat.” With the economy collapsing, pandering to this anti-Israel sentiment is much easier than satisfying the public’s economic aspirations, and their willingness to do so became evident when a mob attacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo in September: Not only did they refuse to send troops to quell the riot until U.S. President Barack Obama personally intervened, but they refused even to answer the frantic phone calls from Jerusalem.

Hence, any future Israel-Hamas war will also threaten the Israeli-Egyptian peace, which most Egyptians already favor scrapping. At best, Cairo might seize the opportunity to move from cold peace to cold war by suspending or abrogating the treaty. At worst, Egypt could even be drawn into the fighting – for instance, if Hamas attacked Israel from its new bases in Sinai. In August, terrorists staged a cross-border attack on Israel from Sinai in broad daylight right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, and Egyptian soldiers made no move to intervene. But when Egyptian soldiers were killed in the ensuing cross-fire, anti-Israel sentiment surged. An Israel-Hamas war could produce similar scenarios on a larger scale. And enough such incidents could spark Israeli-Egyptian hostilities that neither side actually wants.

Finally, as Yaakov Lappin noted here last month, all these problems will only intensify if, as expected, the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Cairo. Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood and recently officially rejoined it; hence an even closer alliance is likely.

In short, Israel wasted an opportunity to remove Hamas at minimal cost in 2008. Now, it faces a far more dangerous enemy that can be fought only at a much greater diplomatic and military cost. And for that very reason, Hamas will likely be emboldened to escalate its anti-Israel attacks in a way that ultimately makes another war inevitable.

Moreover, the same could well prove true in Lebanon, where Israel fought a limited war against Hezbollah in 2006, but refrained from an all-out campaign to destroy the organization for the same reason it refrained in Gaza two years later. Since then, according to Israeli intelligence, Hezbollah has tripled its missile arsenal, making it far more dangerous. Far worse, however, is that with chaos reigning in Syria, Israel now fears Hezbollah could acquire some of Syria’s chemical weapons, plus other arms more advanced than anything it has now. If so, the price of defeating Hezbollah in the future will also be far higher than it would have been in 2006.

This is a lesson Israeli and American officials should ponder carefully in relation to Iran’s nuclear program. Already, military action against Iran will be harder, and less effective, than it would have been a few years ago, since Iran now has more nuclear facilities, better defenses, and above all, crucial know-how that would help it begin anew. But military action could quickly go from difficult to impossible if Iran moves its nuclear assets into underground bunkers, acquires more sophisticated defense systems or, worst of all, actually makes a bomb.

Israeli intelligence currently estimates that attacking Iran will become impossible in about a year, so there’s still time for nonmilitary efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But if those fail, it is vital that Iran not become another missed military opportunity.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.