As I write, the ceasefire in Gaza has held for going on two days. Every day is likely to bring a new provocation which will test the willingness of both sides to keep their arms sheathed; the most recent is the killing of a Gazan protestor by Israeli soldiers at a border crossing. For the moment, though, we can be thankful that Israel's security cabinet agreed, by what appears to be a hairsbreadth, to accept the ceasefire terms fashioned in Cairo and pressed on them very hard by President Barack Obama.
Usually the act of contemplating the might-have-been requires a leap of speculation -- but not in this case. Part of the horror of watching the drama of the last week was the sense of an almost mechanical, and thus helpless, re-playing of past events. As in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel would follow up an extensive air assault with a ground operation designed to destroy Hamas's fighting capacity as well as the infrastructure of the state and the economy. Many innocent civilians would die, though of course the definition of "innocent" and "civilian" would be hotly disputed. Israel would be condemned for wanton destruction, and further isolated in world opinion. The United States would stand by its ally, and earn the further hatred of Arab peoples.
Actually it could have been worse this time. In 2009, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to allow journalists access to Gaza until after the fighting ended. The consequence was that when investigators for the so-called Goldstone Report sought to investigate claims that Israel had committed war crimes, they had to depend on accounts from the Palestinian victims, which Israel and its supporters naturally viewed as unreliable. This time, however, the IDF allowed journalists to cover the battlefield. I'm not sure why; maybe they thought they could win the propaganda war through Twitter. It's safe to say that they didn't succeed. The appalling imagery of bulldozers pulling masonry off of the corpses of Palestinian children killed by an Israeli airstrike inevitably overwhelmed Israel's arguments about its own security.
But that was just the air campaign. This time, as last time, a ground assault would have caused far more casualties and far more intimate destruction. In this case the world's media would have been watching, and the inevitable targeting mistakes and excesses would have been documented in real time. What's more, the parallels between Israel's assault on Gaza and Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian opposition would have been unavoidable: Israel decimates al-Shifa Hospital; Assad's forces obliterate the main hospital of Aleppo. That's bad company for Israel to be in.
Does it matter? Liberal American Jews like me may writhe over the Goldstone Report, but the Israeli leadership, and many Israelis, view the periodic denunciations as the cost of doing business. Hamas "wins" by further undermining Israel in world opinion and bringing new Arab allies to its side; but Israel doesn't actually lose, at least so long as it can count on Washington to supply it with arms and funds, and to stand by its side at moments of crisis. Israel now lives in an Iron Dome world: incoming missiles clang off its miracle shield, while America stands ready to repel any assaults on its legitimacy at the United Nations or elsewhere.
This is not a recipe for long-term security; but Israelis seem to feel that they can no longer afford to think long-term. Every few years they have to "cut the grass," with at F-16 as their scythe. As a metaphor it sounds grotesquely cynical, though what it really reflects is a policy founded on despair. There is no political solution, and neither is there a lasting military solution. The real goal of policy is to lengthen as much possible the period of time between these acts of lethal maintenance. In this respect, the ceasefire agreement may turn out to be a failure, because Hamas will be able to regroup faster than it had after Operation Cast Lead in 2009. And even if Hamas concludes -- as Hezbollah has since the 2006 Lebanon war -- that its interests are best served by husbanding its resources, one of the more radical factions in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, maybe be delighted to invite another round of Israeli grass-cutting.