I have only one question about Israel's military operation in Gaza: What is the goal? Is it the education of Hamas or the eradication of Hamas? I hope that it's the education of Hamas. Let me explain why.
I was one of the few people who argued back in 2006 that Israel actually won the war in Lebanon started by Hezbollah. You need to study that war and its aftermath to understand Gaza and how it is part of a new strategic ballgame in the Arab-Israel arena, which will demand of the Obama team a new approach.
What Hezbollah did in 2006 - in launching an unprovoked war across the U.N.-recognized Israel-Lebanon border, after Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from Lebanon - was both to upend Israel's longstanding peace strategy and to unveil a new phase in the Hezbollah-Iran war strategy against Israel.
There have always been two camps in Israel when it comes to the logic of peace, said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute: One camp says all the problems Israel faces from the Palestinians or Lebanese emanate from occupying their territories. "Therefore, the fundamental problem is staying - and the fundamental remedy is leaving," says Grinstein.
The other camp argues that Israel's Arab foes are implacably hostile, and leaving would only invite more hostility. Therefore, at least when it comes to the Palestinians, Israel needs to control their territories indefinitely. Since the mid-1990s, the first camp has dominated Israeli thinking. This led to the negotiated and unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza.
Hezbollah's unprovoked attack from Lebanon into Israel in 2006 both undermined the argument that withdrawal led to security and presented Israel with a much more vexing military strategy aimed at neutralizing Israel's military superiority. Hezbollah created a very "flat" military network, built on small teams of guerrillas and mobile missile-batteries, deeply embedded in the local towns and villages.
And this Hezbollah force, rather than confronting Israel's army head-on, focused on demoralizing Israeli civilians with rockets in their homes, challenging Israel to inflict massive civilian casualties in order to hit Hezbollah fighters and, when Israel did strike Hezbollah and also killed civilians, inflaming the Arab-Muslim street, making life very difficult for Arab or European leaders aligned with Israel.
Israel's counterstrategy was to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large. It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians - the families and employers of the militants - to restrain Hezbollah in the future.
Israel's military was not focused on the morning after the war in Lebanon - when Hezbollah declared victory and the Israeli press declared defeat. It was focused on the morning after the morning after, when all the real business happens in the Middle East. That's when Lebanese civilians, in anguish, said to Hezbollah: "What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what? For whom?"
Here's what Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said the morning after the morning after about his decision to start that war by abducting two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006: "We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not."
That was the education of Hezbollah. Has Israel seen its last conflict with Hezbollah? I doubt it. But Hezbollah, which has done nothing for Hamas, will think three times next time. That is probably all Israel can achieve with a nonstate actor.
In Gaza, I still can't tell if Israel is trying to eradicate Hamas or trying to "educate" Hamas, by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population. If it is out to destroy Hamas, casualties will be horrific and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. If it is out to educate Hamas, Israel may have achieved its aims. Now its focus, and the Obama team's focus, should be on creating a clear choice for Hamas for the world to see: Are you about destroying Israel or building Gaza?
But that requires diplomacy. Israel de facto recognizes Hamas' right to rule Gaza and to provide for the well-being and security of the people of Gaza - which was actually Hamas' original campaign message, not rocketing Israel. And, in return, Hamas has to signal a willingness to assume responsibility for a lasting cease-fire and to abandon efforts to change the strategic equation with Israel by deploying longer and longer range rockets. That's the only deal. Let's give it a try.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.
© 2009 New York Times News Service