Gaza War Still Has No Winner

Who won may ride on whether Israel’s most educated and thus most mobile citizens really want to live this way.
Photos by Getty Images, Illustration by Bloomberg View

Some wars are so decisive that there is no debating who won. Take Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War; once Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in the first hours of fighting, the outcome was inevitable. For all intents and purposes, all that remained was a big mopping-up operation.

In other cases, though, the real impact of war could be measured only years later. In 1956, encouraged and supported by the U.K. and France (which, in turn, had been angered by Egyptian President Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal), Israel captured almost the entire Sinai Peninsula in a week. But Israeli euphoria quickly gave way to dismay as both the U.S. and Soviet Union forced Israel to give back everything it had captured. At the time, it seemed that Israel had nothing to show for its impressive military performance.

But the Sinai Campaign ultimately proved to have been a significant accomplishment. In return for Israel's returning the Sinai, the U.S. agreed that Israel would have a right to defend itself if its passage through the Gulf of Eilat were impeded. That "green light" proved critical in 1967. Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces' stunning success in 1956 overturned what had been a widespread sense that the 1949 victory in the War of Independence had been a fluke; after 1956, the world's great powers understood that Israel was on the map, to stay.

In 1973, Israelis were devastated by what felt like a loss. Surprised by an attack the military should have anticipated, Israel suffered thousands of losses in clawing its way back to the borders from which the war had started. A furious Israeli electorate tossed Prime Minister Golda Meir out of office, and four years later, ended Labor's dominance over Israeli politics.

With the passage of time, however, the Yom Kippur War also proved a great success. That's because no standing Arab army has dared attack the Jewish State since 1973. Israel's battles are far from ended, but the wars with Egypt, Jordan and Syria are over. Israelis then felt that they had lost -- but they hadn't.

What about this summer's war? Whether anyone won will depend in some measure on whether the conflict resumes and what emerges from the planned negotiations with Hamas. But who really won may depend not only on the damage inflicted on Hamas or any deterrent effect of that damage, but how Israelis felt about this summer.

In response to my column -- in which I wrote that if the fighting resumes, Hamas might well "find an Israeli populace saddened by renewed war, but profoundly committed to winning it, no matter the cost" -- one young Israeli reader responded in a way that gave me pause.

That statement is no longer true, as strong as it was or we might want to believe. ... I think that Israelis are losing the resolve that you describe by "no matter the cost." I think that Israelis my age who have grown up in constant "war" no longer have solid answers to questions [about] the standoff between Zionist ideology and the wish to lead normal lives. The cost is heavy and it is taking its toll on Israeli morale, economy, morality and conscience. In fact, I think that many Israelis during Operation Protective Edge came within sight (even if still far off) of something of a "breaking point."

That reader is not alone. As Israel's south was being shelled this summer, many newspaper articles ran with headlines that stated, simply, "It's not possible to live this way." And on Friday, YNet ran a story about European anti-Semitism. The home page headline read: "It's scary to be a Jew these days."

This summer's results are not entirely clear and may not be for some time. Israel can bomb Gaza at will, but it cannot stop the rocket fire. Hamas' leadership got nothing for its citizens, but it doesn't seem to care. Who really won, therefore, may depend on the question that Israelis often whisper, feeling somewhat treasonous when they do. Who won may ride not on bomb damage assessments or even election results, but on whether Israel's most educated and thus most mobile citizens really want to live this way, and for how long.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Daniel Gordis at

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Max Berley at

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