Why Is Israel Losing a War It's Winning?

Six reasons why Israel is on the back foot even as it wins the battle against rockets and tunnels
An Israeli officer in a Hamas tunnel (Jack Guez/Reuters)

Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza). 

This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are six possible reasons:

1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas's leadership and Gaza's civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)

2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas's achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:

The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.

3. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).

4. If you've spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel's behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler's, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.

5. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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