Chasing ‘tactical’ wins, Israel now faces ‘strategic’ defeat

Mohamad Hasan Sweidan, The Cradle, March 11, 2024 —

For five months, Israel has been chasing ‘tactical wins’ to recover its image of military omnipotence lost on 7 October. But, this fruitless diversion means that Tel Aviv now faces ‘strategic defeat’ in Gaza.

In a fight like this, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you make them fall into the hands of the enemy, you turn tactical victory into strategic defeat.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued this warning to Israel back in December during his address at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California. Drawing on hard-earned lessons from US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Austin stressed that winning battles on the ground does not guarantee a strategic victory and may even lead to a strategic defeat – if Israel refuses to look at the bigger picture. 

This is one of the main sources of Washington’s pressure on Tel Aviv, especially in light of the allies’ differing political visions for Gaza in the post-war period and the man-made humanitarian crisis Israel has imposed on the Strip. It’s a philosophy rooted in foresight, echoing Robert Greene’s wisdom from his 33 War Strategies: “Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead.”

Israel’s declared war objectives

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet has outlined two primary objectives for the Gaza war: dismantling Hamas’ military infrastructure and securing the release of prisoners detained since 7 October. Netanyahu later expanded on these objectives, adding a crucial third goal: ensuring Gaza’s inability to threaten the occupation state’s security in the future. Consequently, the success of Israel’s brutal military assault on Gaza hinges on achieving these pivotal objectives.

Despite their shared goals, disparities have emerged between the American and Israeli approaches. While both advocate for neutralizing Hamas, the Biden administration advocates for a more politically driven strategy, while Netanyahu seeks an almost entirely military-centric approach. 

Hamas, on the other hand, announced three main objectives of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood immediately following the events of 7 October. First, success in conducting a prisoner exchange with the enemy entity. Second, retaliation against Israeli aggression in the occupied West Bank and safeguarding Al-Aqsa Mosque from settler extremists. Third, placing the Palestinian issue back on the global stage. 

Tactics vs strategy 

Chinese General Sun Tzu’s timeless wisdom in his Art of War distinguishes between tactical maneuvers and strategic foresight: “Everyone can see the tactics that are used to defeat the enemy in war, but what no one can see is the strategy from which great victory arises.”

In warfare, tactical objectives focus on short-term gains – specific engagements or territorial advances. In contrast, strategic goals require long-term vision, aligning military actions with political priorities. In essence, tactics look to answer the “how,” while strategy answers the “why” in military engagement, ultimately with a political endgame. 

Any state or party to a conflict can achieve tactical objectives by excelling in battlefield maneuvers, using superior technology, or having better trained and equipped forces. But winning battles – that is, achieving tactical goals – does not necessarily mean winning the war. 

This discrepancy occurs because the cumulative effect of tactical victories may not align with or contribute adequately to broader strategic objectives. While tactics are essential to winning battles, they must be used as part of a strategy aimed at achieving the ultimate goals of war.

History offers several sobering reminders of the perils of prioritizing tactics over strategy. For example, in the Vietnam War, the US achieved numerous tactical victories yet failed strategically. Despite inflicting heavy losses, the broader goal of fostering a non-communist South Vietnam remained elusive. The US’s longest war, in Afghanistan against the Taliban, ended in another humiliating withdrawal, only for the Taliban to return to unprecedented political power across the country. 

Esteemed Israeli historian and critic of Zionism, Ilan Pappe, believes that the failures of the genocidal war on Gaza will ultimately lead to the downfall of the Zionist entity, with the war being the most perilous chapter in the “history of a project fighting for its existence.” 

It’s not the darkest moment in Palestine’s history; it would be written as the beginning of the end of the Zionist project.

What has Israel achieved so far?

Today, after a record five months of Israeli military operations in Gaza, killing well over 30,000 civilians, injuring many times that, and demolishing most of Gaza’s critical infrastructure, it becomes evident that Netanyahu’s focus on tactical wins has led to a disconnect with the broader strategic goals of the war. 

The ‘progress’ made within the Gaza Strip, while significant on a tactical level, has not effectively advanced the strategic aim of eliminating Hamas, Tel Aviv’s number one stated war objective. On the contrary, US reports claim that 80 percent of the Palestinian resistance’s key military infrastructure remains intact.

This has left Netanyahu facing a critical dilemma: the pursuit of tactical gains has come at a steep cost, jeopardizing the achievement of his strategic objectives. His Gaza assault has resulted in the wholesale massacre of Palestinian civilians – predominantly women and children – widespread global censure, and thousands of dead and injured Israeli soldiers and officers. 

This tragic toll has permanently tarnished Israel’s international image, undermining its fairytale narratives of ‘democracy’ and ‘victimhood’ and casting Tel Aviv instead as a leading perpetrator of state-sponsored terrorism in the world. Moreover, Israel’s actions have led to accusations of genocide and human rights violations on the international stage, most notably the recent high-profile case at the International Court of Justice.

Netanyahu and his war cabinet have fallen into a classic trap: allowing pyrrhic wins to distract them from an overarching victory.

As Edward Luttwak says in his book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, strategy “is not about moving armies across geography, as in the game of chess. It involves the entire struggle of hostile forces, which need not have a spatial dimension at all.”

What is happening in Khan Yunis today is ample proof that the occupation army is still far from achieving its strategic goals. Despite Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant’s boast that Hamas has been ‘dismantled’ in Khan Yunis, continuing clashes in the area between occupation forces and resistance fighters invalidate these Israeli claims.

Furthermore, Netanyahu’s defiance of the Biden administration’s marginally more moderate approach has strained relations between the two allies. Leaked communications and official statements highlight Washington’s deep concerns over Israel’s conduct. 

While Israel remains a key strategic partner for the US, the discord stemming from the 5-month war in Gaza threatens to impact future bilateral relations, especially with continued extremist governance in Tel Aviv.

The Resistance understands strategy 

On the flip side of the war, the Palestinian resistance maintains its strategic objective of resisting occupation and thwarting Israeli military objectives. Hamas’ willingness to engage in negotiations on its terms also demonstrates its continued resilience and strength. 

Additionally, support from allied factions in the region’s Axis of Resistance has intensified pressure on both Washington and Tel Aviv, including the gradual decolonization of northern Palestine by the Lebanese Hezbollah, the ongoing Red Sea naval blockade imposed by Yemen’s Ansarallah-led forces, and routine drone strikes against US and Israeli targets by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq. 

With Tel Aviv struggling to reconcile its objectives with its methods, Washington has intervened to prevent its ally’s strategic defeat. The US proposal for resolution emphasizes a long-term political strategy aimed at integrating Israel further into the region via normalization agreements while sidelining Palestinian resistance through diplomatic and soft power channels.

History teaches us that tactical gains, without alignment with strategic objectives, are inadequate for long-term success. The crucial question that looms is whether US intervention will indeed succeed in preserving Israel’s strategic aims. 

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