Skip to main content

Netanyahu and Clausewitz

Alon Pinkas invokes Clausewitz to ask whether Israel had a strategy or clear objective in attacking Gaza, as the outcome — strengthening and legitimizing Hamas and weakening the Palestinian Authority — seems detrimental to Israel’s interests.
Israeli soldiers, atop a tank, prepare to leave their Gaza border position at sun rise November 22, 2012. A ceasefire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers took hold on Thursday after eight days of conflict, although deep mistrust on both sides cast doubt on how long the Egyptian-sponsored deal can last.  REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis (ISRAEL - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS)

Carl von Clausewitz's famous aphorism that "War is the continuation of policy by other means" is a valid and appropriate, if grossly over-used, quote to begin any analysis of any war or limited military operation.

In the case of "Operation Pillar of Defense" in Gaza, there is another, perhaps more relevant, quote from Clausewitz's On War:

If war is part of policy, policy will determine its character. As policy becomes more ambitious and vigorous, so will war, and this may reach the point where war attains its absolute form. ... Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa.

Apparently either Clauswitz hadn't heard of Israel and Gaza (which may be forgiven) or Israeli decision-makers haven't read Clausewitz (which is harder to forgive), and it seems that the "vice versa" Clausewitz cautioned against prevailed in Israeli decision-making.

In fact, as just and justifiable as it is, this operation is a reversal of Clausewitz: Policy seems to be the continuation of war. More accurately, in the absence of policy, military results will create it.

This is abundantly evident in the cease-fire agreement, a loose and moot collection of understandings brokered by the US and Egypt. The agreement, reached Wednesday night, highlights one point: Quiet will be answered with quiet. A welcome conclusion, no doubt, but hardly a policy worth the operation and the potential escalation it contained. The agreement will probably have a limited shelf life, but more importantly, it is almost identical to the one reached after "Operation Cast Lead" in 2008.

So what was the point? How is this serving a policy or shaping one beyond the unintended consequence that Benjamin Netanyahu would rather conceal? Israel recognized Hamas as part of a fragile security regime. Call it realism if you want, but if that was the objective, it could have been achieved without eight days of attrition and rockets.

It is worth revisiting Israel's fundamental dilemma pertaining to Gaza. Israel is faced with a relatively simple choice: Invade Gaza and destroy Hamas, or accept Hamas and negotiate with it.

Toppling Hamas in Gaza requires a massive military operation: essentially, a comprehensive conquest of the Strip, approximately twice the size of Washington, DC and the most densely populated and arguably unlivable place in the world. The implications are unequivocally dire; it would require Israel to control Gaza for several years. Israel can do this, but refuses to bear the consequences: economic, political, moral, international and regional.

The second part of the equation is to open a dialogue with Hamas over a long-term political accommodation, short of peace. With Hamas and the Arab Spring being what they are, that is untenable.

Since both options are unviable, Israel may have various ideas, but cannot really have a strategy in Gaza.

There are at least fifty shades of gray areas that explain the absence of a clear and coherent policy. What is inexcusable is the fact that there is no long-term strategy. Before elaborating on this, it is imperative to remember several truths about contemporary Gaza:

  • No country in the world would tolerate the unprovoked, deliberate launching of rockets into its territory and against civilian population centers. The US would respond forcefully, probably massively, if rockets were fired from Mexico or North Korea. Russia would annihilate Latvia or Kazakhstan if missiles were fired at it. The distances are also of importance; Israel is attacked from the equivalent of the distance from Baltimore to Washington, D.C, or from Luton to central London. These are the long-range rockets Hamas is using. The shorter-range ones are fired from — get this for proportions — the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Upper East Side, or from Westminster to Hyde Park Corner in London.
  • Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamic organization whose very charter calls for the destruction of Israel and claims that the owners of Palestine are the Muslim waqf (religious endowment), rather than the Palestinians.
  • Hamas controls Gaza for all intents, purposes and political considerations. That control, attained initially through elections and followed by a coup against the Palestinian Authority, has widened the disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The gap is political, cultural, economic, ideological and most pertinently: the disconnect puts a huge question mark over the viability and sustainability of a Palestinian State.

Given these facts, and in face of this dilemma, Israel had no real option but to narrow the objectives of the military operation. In other words, there is no political objective. This is a purely military endeavor, sugar-coated with statements about "restoring deterrence." In and of itself, this is not necessarily bad. But even considering the merits of such an operation, whether Israel has any game plan in mind remains moot.

When you do not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, when you don't consider the Arab League peace initiative (the "Saudi Plan"), when you do not produce any creative diplomatic ideas to break the status quo, you end up strengthening and legitimizing Hamas and weakening the more secular, nationalist and moderate Palestinian Authority.

Hamas deserved what it got — and probably more — but the question remains whether Israel achieved anything in the medium or long runs.

Ambassador Alon Pinkas was Israel's consul general in New York, adviser to Shimon Peres and chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial