Though there has been a recent flare up between the Israelis and Palestinians in the last 48 hours, for the most part it appears as if the situation in the Gaza Strip has settled into an uneasy calm. Now that the smoke has settled over the Strip, the question must be asked - What lessons - if any – are to be learned from Israel’s latest round with its’ Palestinian nemesis, Hamas? Objectively, there are several that can be taken from Israel’s 22 day offensive. Among them are: - In sharp contrast to its summer 2006 engagement with Hezbollah, Israel displayed tactical precision, strategic forethought and political discipline during the recent Gaza campaign. It appears that a progressive series of tactical options and a commitment to endure the resulting international pressure and negative media coverage attendant with escalation were laid out with a strategic goal in mind before the campaign began. As the need for progressive tactical escalation became clear, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) placed the forces and elements critical to the next operational phase into place well before it occurred. The key elements to the campaign’s success were: thorough Planning/Preparation, effective Execution and a Commitment to follow-thru and completion. - The campaign was targeted at a number of audiences – both domestic and regional. Though the summer 2006 campaign in Lebanon was inconclusive, failing to obtain a clear military victory against Hezbollah’s guerilla fighters was a defacto psychological and political loss. Accordingly, the Gaza campaign was targeted not only against Hamas and its’ cadre of rocketeers, but also at addressing the lingering doubts and misperceptions that dogged the IDF after Lebanon. Domestically, the Israeli public questioned the government’s ability to marshal and wield her military might in a disciplined, focused and effective manner. In addition to this, there were lingering suspicions that the latest generation of Israel’s defenders were not up to the challenge and possibly failed to fill the boots of their storied predecessors. So pervasive was this fear that it impacted the morale and self confidence of the IDF itself. With victories that ranged from the humiliation and routing of Arab armies to those that miraculously came when Israel appeared on the brink of defeat, the IDF enjoyed an almost mythical perception of invincibility regionally. Hezbollah’s fighting the IDF to a draw in southern Lebanon shattered that image and was heralded as the first victory of an Arab army – albeit a guerilla force – against the vaunted and despised Israeli military. Emboldened by the success of their Shia compatriots and proxy, Hezbollah, Iran perceived Israel’s political will and tactical effectiveness as waning. Subsequently, Tehran hoped it could draw Hamas into its orbit and replicate the Hezbollah-southern Lebanon model in the Gaza Strip. In light of these lingering perceptions, the Gaza campaign was intended to reassure the Israeli public; restore the self confidence of the IDF; rebuild its’ image and credibility regionally; demonstrate both its’ ability and willingness to fight in challenging environments and heavily populated areas and signal Iran it would not sit idly by and allow Tehran to encircle the Jewish state with its proxies. Furthermore, the fact that the IDF continued the campaign in the face of mounting international criticism in the wake of rising civilian casualties was intended to send another message to Iran - political and public relations considerations are insignificant factors in the face of what Israel believes to be in her strategic interests and national security. At the heart of Israel’s strategic interests and national security is the existence of the Israeli state itself. The implied message to Tehran is should Iran be perceived as an existential threat to Israel, Jerusalem will take whatever steps it deems necessary to address and eliminate that the threat, regardless of the potential political ramifications. - Increasingly, the Sunni regimes in the region find their strategic interests aligning with that of Israel’s. As Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East grows, it becomes a political as well as a military threat to the Sunni-dominated states of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms and emirates. In the zero sum game of Middle Eastern politics, any success Iran or its’ proxies enjoy comes at the expense of the status quo – the Sunni-dominated and American-supported regional order. Accordingly, the Sunni states find themselves in the uncomfortable position of secretly longing for Israel’s success in confronting and rolling back Tehran’s growing influence across the region. However, having beaten the rhetorical religious and political war drums against the Israelis for years, the regimes find themselves walking a fine line between their strategic desires and a powerful anti-Israeli undercurrent flowing just beneath the surface of public opinion. Note the delicate and intricate dance the Sunni regimes have developed in response to Israeli action in both Lebanon and Gaza. Initially the Sunnis are notable by their silence. In it they signal tacit approval of Israeli action against the proxies of their mutual nemesis – Iran. Never forget the age old axiom - the enemy of my enemy is my friend. As time passes, civilian casualties mount and video of wounded and dead children begin to ignite domestic anti-Israeli passions, the regimes break their silence with half-hearted condemnations of Israeli “atrocities”, calls for an immediate cease-fire and platitudes about a comprehensive regional peace accord based on Israeli compliance with United Nations’ Resolution 242 and its’ call for a return to pre-June 5, 1967 borders – what has come to be referred to commonly as “Land for Peace”. Among the “Big Three” of the Sunni order, the Saudis find themselves in the most politically sensitive position. Still stinging from the loss of their traditional influence in Lebanon to Tehran, the Saudis take great pleasure at any Iranian set back. However, fearing that America may eventually tire of the expense associated with its’ military dominion and withdraw from the Middle East, Riyadh is loathe to openly antagonize the Islamic Republic with its overwhelming military might and its’ ability to stoke domestic unrest in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-majority oil region. Add to this the contradiction between the Saudi King maintaining the title of “Defender of the Two Holy Mosques” and the public uproar and civil unrest that would accompany an open alliance with the “Zionist oppressors” of fellow Muslims and there is little doubt the Saudis will continue to privately pray for Israel’s success against Iran and its proxies while publicly condemning it, albeit with only half-hearted platitudes. - Despite Iran’s fervent hopes, to paraphrase the late Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Israel knows Hezbollah; Hamas is no Hezbollah. In stark contrast to Hezbollah’s successful guerilla tactics that bloodied the IDF and fought them to a defacto stalemate, Hamas mounted no credible or coordinated response to the Israeli offensive. Where Hezbollah stood its ground and counter punched the IDF, Hamas fled the battlefield and went underground, often haphazardly hiding among the civilian population. Not only was Hamas unprepared for the coordinated and calculated Israeli response, it never recovered once the IDF seized the strategic initiative. If Iran hopes to mold Hamas into a fighting force on par with Hezbollah, it will take a long term commitment and substantial investments in training, weaponry, tactics, discipline and patience. - Finally, the timing and length of the offensive was tied to a distinct political calendar. As twilight fell on the Bush presidency, Israel took the opportunity to engage the administration’s political patronage one final time. Having previously supported Israeli action and effectively already turned out the lights, there was little concern in Jerusalem that the Bush White House would turn hostile at the last minute. True to form, the White House and Secretary of State Rice unequivocally supported Israel’s right to defend itself while condemning Hamas’ in the process. In addition to the timing of the offensive, its’ completion was firmly rooted in political considerations. Jerusalem did not want to crash the international media party that revolved around the historic inauguration of America’s first biracial president. Nor did it wish to have pictures of wounded Palestinian children and their crying families juxtaposed against those of enthralled Obama supporters, their faces full of hope and anticipation, coming together in universal harmony across the globe. Furthermore, there was no desire to burst the euphoria of the day for the new President. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would clearly be a top foreign policy priority for the new administration, the Israelis did not want it to be one that cast a pall over its’ historic dawn. And so, faithful readers, here endith the lesson. Stay tuned for further updates as events warrant and we see which lessons have been learned and which must be repeated, however painful they may ultimately be.