Of all Israeli casualties in the 2006 war with Lebanon, the loss of the Jewish state's aura of invincibility was perhaps the most devastating. For the better part of the preceding 40 years—since its lightning victory in the 1967 Six Day War—Israelis were devoted to that image as a security guarantee in one of the world's roughest neighborhoods. "Deterrence" is one of the most frequently used (and overused) words in the Israeli lexicon; the concept has been raised almost to cult status. To Israelis it is much more than a strategic abstraction. For many, it is a rule that has been learned by rote. Historian Amatzia Baram recalls how his mother used to recite a Yiddish proverb to drive home the point: "Over the bent tree, all the goats will jump."
This week's assault on Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli military, is being billed as a clean-up job intended to keep Hamas from launching rockets into Israeli territory. It is that, to be sure, but the stunning scale of the operation—225 dead and hundreds wounded in the first day alone—is also intended to make a brutal point: that even after the Lebanon debacle, Israel is not the "bent tree" of the Yiddish proverb. One telling detail: the air assault was launched in full daylight. In the past, Israeli airstrikes—even during the intense conflict two years ago—came largely at night, when buildings were empty. Yet on Saturday the plumes of smoke and scenes of carnage were displayed in all their horror under a midday sun.
Rights groups immediately condemned the Israeli assault as disproportionate. Palestinian rockets, while disruptive and menacing, rarely inflict severe casualties (although on Saturday a chunk of shrapnel from a rocket did kill one Israeli civilian in a village near Gaza). Yet in the Middle East, balance-of-power calculations are not based on simple arithmetic. In "From Beirut to Jerusalem," Thomas L. Friedman memorably recounts a Bedouin legend about an old man who has his turkey stolen. The man is disconsolate, but his sons don't see why he's so upset over a single fowl. Then somebody steals the old man's camel. Then his horse. The old man blames it all on the stolen turkey. "When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything," he explains. Wobbly rockets may seem like turkeys to most of the world, but Israelis see a more profound underlying threat.
Of course, Israelis were making many of the same arguments in 2006, and that conflict ended up actually weakening the state's deterrent power. If the Gaza operation is seen as a failure—and that is a real possibility—this assault could have a similar result. Airstrikes alone can do little to take out rockets launched from a tripod. With troops massing on the border and the military calling up 6,500 reservists, a ground operation is looking increasingly likely. But even ground troops can't significantly shake the Islamists' hold on power. Hamas, says one senior Israeli intelligence officer, who asked not to be identified in order to speak more frankly, is "connected to the roots of the place." Israeli officials are being extremely cautious this time around about raising expectations to unrealistic levels—a key flaw of the Lebanon campaign. "This time, there have been no grandiose declarations that the landscape will be changed or history will be reversed," says Gerald Steinberg of Bar Illan University. "The terms of reference are much more modest."
It is hard not to see this latest operation in the context of Israel's upcoming elections, which are scheduled for Feb. 10. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the driving force behind the 2006 Lebanon strikes, has already announced his resignation. But his deputy in the Kadima Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is neck and neck with hawkish former prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's fortunes are also tied to the results of this campaign, which could well determine the outcome of the election. Livni is well liked and perceived as squeaky clean, but she was seriously weakened by her role in the last Lebanon war. A well-executed, decisive strike with limited goals could boost her prospects, as well as Barak's.
A protracted, desultory operation that costs Israeli lives and provokes international outrage, on the other hand, will do more than just weaken Israel's deterrent power. It will also likely win Netanyahu the election. Bibi is at his most effective when Israelis feel vulnerable, as they did during the period before his 1996 election victory, when Hamas suicide bombers executed a string of devastating attacks that ultimately turned voters against his dovish opponent, Shimon Peres. One certainty: Hamas will find some way to retaliate for these most-recent strikes, probably with more rockets. Already longer-range Grads have begun landing in Ashdod, deep in Israeli territory. Suicide bombers are also a risk, although Israeli security measures have made infiltration from both Gaza and the West Bank much more difficult. Perhaps the most likely scenario is popular unrest in the Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem—the same types of deadly but difficult-to-prevent outbursts that shook Jerusalem this past summer.
Retaliatory strikes aside, an intense Israeli assault on Gaza could indeed restore some element of its deterrent power vis-à-vis the Islamists. The Jewish state "has already improved its reputation and powers of deterrence by yesterday's performance," says Jerusalem-based historian Michael Oren. Yet even as Israel strengthens its position with regard to Hamas, it risks simultaneously weakening its ability to confront larger, more-dangerous players—particularly Iran. Regional Arab allies like Egypt and Jordan will be critical if the United States and Israel are to effectively increase pressure on the Islamic republic. The bloody images of dismembered corpses that are now airing around the clock on Al-Jazeera will strain those ties. Israel's latest campaign may restore some measure of its long-lost aura of invincibility. Yet in the long run, it will come at a price.