Again I come late to the gabfest, this time about the Hamas-IDF confrontation in and around Gaza. So much has already been said, and it falls in the usual categories: the thinly didactic, the fatuous, the banal, the shrewd and, especially, the emotional. The usual irrational Jewcentric crap, of all four sorts, too, can be readily identified: the anti-Semitic, the philo-Semitic, the chauvinist and the self-hating. For those who have endured this conflict in its several manifestations for a wilderness of forty years (or more), the whole thing—the Jewcentric mutterings very much included—is still as heartbreaking as ever. It is also something well worth ignoring for the sake of one’s sanity, which helps explain why I am so late to the keyboard. I tried mightily to resist writing this note; I failed.
So what is there to say after all? I can think of three, possibly useful, things to discuss.
First, in this age of instantaneous amnesia in the segmented American cyberswirl, where the backstory to any telegenic foreign event has long since disappeared into the historical ether, it’s useful to restate for the inexpert observer a little of the relevant history. Not knowing the basics makes it seem like both sides of the conflict are made up of a bunch of hateful and insane yet regrettably determined extremists. As appealing as this description may be to those with no dog in the fight and who have an appetite for violent entertainment, and as apt as it may seem upon substituting the words “one side” for “both sides” to pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian partisans, it is not really accurate. Knowing the history shows why what’s going on is a tragedy rather than a simple, if protracted, act of mutual madness. Both sides are adept at making highly rational tactical calculations, but they find themselves trapped in a merciless strategic framework that turns every temporary advantage into a pointless sacrifice of blood and hope.
Second, it is worth pointing out what is both new and true in essence about the current round of fighting. This round of fighting both is and is not the same ‘ol same ‘ol.
Third, it is also worth thinking through what it would really take to turn this current crisis into an opportunity. There is a way, I think, to transform the aforementioned strategic framework so that this sort of thing actually stops happening on a fairly regular basis. But it is a way that requires multi-party coordination, boldness, courage and foresight. That is another way of saying that while a way out of the mutual Israeli-Palestinian zugzwang is possible, it’s almost certainly not going to happen.
A Very Little History
The history of Gaza goes back a very long time, all the way to Samson and the Philistines, and even, if you like the Muslim tradition, to the time of Jonah. Why? Because according to the folk traditions of the region, the great fish of Biblical lore barfed out the contrite prophet in what is today Khan Yunis, one of Gaza’s largest towns. For present purposes, however, all you need to know is what I call the following Fourteen Points:
- first, that Gaza was designated part of the Arab state when the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) divided the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1947;
- second, that the results of the 1948 war left Gaza outside of Israel’s security perimeter, but inundated by refugees from Jaffa, Ashqelon, Ramla, Lod and elsewhere, leaving Gaza today with a self-identifying refugee population nearly triple that of the West Bank;
- third, that while the West Bank was soon annexed by Jordan and the Arabs there given Jordanian citizenship, Gaza was occupied by Egypt and its residents were not offered Egyptian citizenship;
- fourth, that in due course, after the July 1952 Egyptian revolution, Gaza became a source of the fedayeen attacks on Israel that led in part to the October 1956 Sinai War, even as Nasser’s Egypt used Gaza as a lever to advance its bid for pan-Arabism under Egyptian leadership;
- fifth, that while the IDF overran Gaza in the Sinai War, it evacuated it along with the Sinai Peninsula in 1957;
- sixth, that as part of the June 1967 War the IDF again overran Gaza, but did not evacuate it when, eventually, after the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of March 1979, the Sinai was finally returned in full to Egypt in April 1982—and the reason was, essentially, that Egypt refused to take Gaza back;
- seventh, that as part of a “revisionist” Zionist effort to prevent Israel’s relinquishing any further land seized in 1967, Israeli settlements (eventually totaling 21 in all) were established in Gaza;
- eighth, that the IDF military administration of Gaza was relatively placid until the eruption of the first intifada in December 1987, after which the costs of the occupation began to exceed any reasonable calculus of benefits, until, at long last……;
- ninth, in August 2005, after an exceedingly difficult and protracted political debate within Israel, the Sharon government unilaterally disengaged Israel from Gaza after a negotiated arrangement proved impossible;
- tenth, that almost immediately after the settlements were dismantled and the IDF was out of Gaza, buildings that had been used as synagogues were desecrated and primitive mortars were fired from Gaza into southern Israel;
- eleventh, that in January 2006 Hamas won a legislative election in Gaza in a vote that never should have been allowed to occur, since Hamas rejected Oslo Accords the framework agreement that established the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the first place—there is plenty of blame to go around for this inexcusable blunder, not to exclude both the Israeli government and an utterly feckless PLO, but the lion’s share of it falls on President George W. Bush and his disastrous early-elections-no-matter-what “forward strategy for freedom”;
- twelfth, after the Hamas victory Israel, the United States, the PLO and Egypt began to collude in a strategy to unseat Hamas in Gaza, but Hamas pre-empted this effort with a coup in the summer of 2007—after which it immediately closened its relationship with Iran and accelerated rocket attacks on southern Israel;
- thirteenth, in December 2008 Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Gaza to suppress the source of escalating attacks against it, hopefully to topple the Hamas government, and in any event and to re-establish its diminished deterrence reputation writ large; and
- fourteenth, an Egyptian-mediated, U.S.-supported ceasefire ended the fighting and Israel withdrew all forces from Gaza by March 2009 in accord with a ceasefire that more or less held until about a week ago.
What’s New and What’s True
With this basic though completely inadequate history now in mind, let’s list what is both new and true about the current situation.
First of all, what is new and true militarily is that Hamas’s capacity to launch missiles is vastly greater now than it was in 2007-08. It has more missiles and their ranges are much longer than before. Until this bout of fighting, missile attacks from Gaza had not been able to kill many Israelis, despite aiming (if you can call it that) at static targets like buildings housing schools and kindergartens—the Palestinians’ favorites—just across the border. This time missiles have flown to Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem, where one killed three people in one family. Israeli ballistic missile defenses have so far proven quite effective, but not perfect given the expanded area they must now cover. Anything less than just about perfect creates an intolerable situation; 50 percent and more of a country’s population cannot live in shelters constantly fearing missile attack.
Second, the motives on both sides are a bit different from before. Most of the 1,947 missile attacks that Israel absorbed this year before the most recent IDF operation began were not fired by Hamas types, but by smaller, mostly salafi Islamist groups. Hamas let them operate, within certain limits, in order to deflect growing opposition to the incompetent, arrogant and narrow neo-tribal base of its post-summer 2007 rule. That put Hamas’s military leader, Ahmed al-Jabari, in a tight spot as a kind of one-man balancing act between his political superiors, these smaller groups and the IDF. Then the rise of a new and presumably more sympathetic Egyptian government certainly tugged at Hamas calculations, pushing them in the direction of more military risk-taking.
Meanwhile, as Israel absorbed these strikes without response, the political leadership and the IDF had to keep several factors in mind simultaneously: the erosion of Israeli deterrence and the broad domestic psychological and political ramifications thereof; the tradeoff between confidence in the IDF’s missile defense and the longer ranges of the attacking missiles; the impact of a military response on a delicately evolving relationship with the new Egyptian government; as time passed, the impact of a response on relations with the Obama Administration amid a re-election campaign; and, of course, Israel’s own upcoming election on January 22.
All of this, and especially the combination of factors, made for a unique problem compared to 2008 and earlier. Israeli leaders knew that if they struck Gaza Hamas would respond with its own much more voluminous and longer-range missiles—as indeed it did. It fired more than 1,200 missiles in just a few days last week. But to have waited indefinitely while the Hamas arsenal grew in numbers and sophistication could have hardly been an appealing prospect. It is clear that the Israeli targeting of Ahmed al-Jabari, the man responsible for keeping the ceasefire, after all, signaled that the deteriorating situation was no longer tolerable. Whether this decision was the right one we’ll come to in a moment.
Also new and true is that the role of the Morsi-led Egyptian government clearly took pride of place on both sides. The Hamas leadership, seeing its sister Muslim Brotherhood movement come to power in Egypt, naturally expected a more supportive hand. Not that the Mubarak government had been an outright enemy to Hamas. Yes, it joined Israel in embargoing Gaza from the sea, but at the same time it played a complex double game, operated by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman himself, with respect to the tunnels under the Egyptian-Gazan border, without which Hamas could never has amassed its missile arsenal. (This tunnel double-game was and remains a very, very complex affair, and this is not the time or place to go into details about it.) But the Morsi government seemed a dream come true for Hamas. Sure, that government was still young and not yet ready to qualitatively downgrade its relationship with Israel, partly for fear of triggering the sequestration of its critical aid money from the United States. But it would be pulled by its faith ultimately to side with Hamas and thus to deeply harm Israel’s security situation by essentially repudiating the 1979 peace treaty. A clarifying act of violence would speed the process.
Israelis feared that this, indeed, is what the future probably looked like, which is one reason they were reluctant to trigger that clarifying act of violence. Another reason is that they still think it possible that the Egyptian military/intelligence leadership will oust Morsi before the year is up, thus shifting the likely shape of the future altogether. That is also why the violence-abstaining Israelis conducted an ongoing moving private seminar with American officials at all levels in an effort to gain credit in Washington for their forbearance, a credit that might be redeemable not only with regard to Gaza, but also possibly Iran at a future time. From the looks of things so far, the effort worked: Obama Administration support for Israel in this crisis, from the mouth of the President on down, has been full and vocal. I think it entirely reasonable to ascribe this stance to the logic and justice of Israel’s position. But it doesn’t hurt that the Netanyahu government has managed this time not to blunder its way to another mess in U.S.-Israeli relations, a most uncharacteristic and refreshing turn of events.
Finally with regard to this second theme, there are some who claim that, precisely because of the key role of Egypt in what has transpired, the events of recent days show that the Arab-Israeli, or Palestinian-Israeli, impasse really is central to American interests in the region as a whole. This is wrong. The Palestinian-Israeli impasse is obviously not irrelevant, but it is not central either.1 Central are the rise of Sunni radicalism and the joining of conflict between it and Shi’a radical mobilization; the related rise of Iranian hegemonic ambitions and, to a lesser extent, Turkish re-entry into the Arab region; and the political futures of Egypt and Syria. Israelis and Palestinians battling each other affects these larger stakes marginally, but those stakes would still exist even if the ceasefire had never been broken.
Insofar as the Palestinian issue impinges most on these other problems, it does so with regard to Egypt. But from the U.S. point of view, it is crucial to get straight what matters most to what. For many decades, as a matter of peace-process habit more than cold-blooded strategic assessment, Egypt was important instrumentally to the United States as an agent in managing and, hopefully, one day resolving the Palestinian and other Arab-Israeli issues. Today, we have to reverse the arrows: The ups and downs of the Palestinian impasse, like whether it is kinetic or not at any given time, have become instrumental with regard to the far more consequential future of politics in Egypt. Egypt is now less reliably useful to the United States as a mediator in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, but it has become far more important to the United States because its uncertain future will ramify across the entire, now destabilized Arab world, and also impinge significantly on the role of Iran and Turkey amid the Arabs. This does not make the Palestine impasse central to U.S. interests in the region, but its importance rises in rough proportion to how it impinges on the future of Egypt.
Are U.S. officials capable of reversing the arrows? Are they capable of a genuinely nuanced view of the region as a whole, one that finally grasps the intricacies and cleavages in intra-regional relations, or will they remain fixated on the more or less Manichean drama of Israel-Palestine? The jury is still out on that one, but I’m not holding my breath.
Exiting the Treadmill
Everyone who really understands the underlying strategic realities of the present crisis knows that the best that can be achieved for now is another Hamas-Israeli ceasefire, after a suitable amount of pain and blood have been exacted. There is no possibility of a genuine reconciliation between Israel, with whatever government it may elect, and Hamas, at least as long as Hamas remains what it is: a particularly nationalized Palestinian form of the Muslim Brotherhood, itself a deeply authoritarian and atavistic movement. Now, it is true, as I have written before that significant changes are afoot in Arab culture, not least of them the fact that religion as a political symbol has been decisively pluralized. All sorts of interesting things percolating into Arab politics, even some positive ones, could flow from that in due course—but not very soon, not easily, and not smoothly. If we wait until a liberal democratic force rises to governance in Gaza, or even in the West Bank for that matter, we’ll be waiting not just until the cows come home, but until their bovine progeny learn to churn their own butter.
Nor, for the time being, is there any prospect of the PLO regaining control over Gaza and uniting the PA under a single political-territorial umbrella. Indeed, this whole business in Gaza weakens the PLO in the West Bank, through probably not fatally so. Not that a reunified PA would then want or be able to waltz itself into a final settlement with even a center-left Israeli coalition. But it would at least be a thinkable prospect.
Given those realities, the prospect is for ceasefire followed by mini-war followed by ceasefire followed by another mini-war and so on, with each successive burst of violence more destructive than the one before. With all due respect to my old friend, Ehud Ya’ari, his most recent whack at the piñata in Foreign Affairs really doesn’t amount to much. Yes, it’ll be harder to get a ceasefire now thanks to the uncertainties of the Egyptian role, but so what? Another ceasefire will be born only to be broken.
So is there any way off this treadmill? Yes, there is.
I promised above that I would comment on whether Israeli decision-making in this crisis has been wise or not. Well, not being in the midst of the process makes it impossible for anyone to really bring judgment; it is, as already discussed, a hellishly complex problem set, with lots of moving parts and uncertain causal vectors. But if the Israeli government is going to whack al-Jabari but not seek an overthrow of Hamas rule, then what it is really trying to do is persuade the next cast of Hamas characters to enforce a ceasefire a lot more strictly, and not let the smaller groups running around the place drag Hamas policy by the nose. A bombing campaign is the right sort of tool to accomplish that limited objective, but a ground incursion would be doing too much for too little. It wouldn’t change the basic dynamic. At best it would buy more time for the next ceasefire, before the next mini-war. Either way we’re talking about management techniques, not attempts at a real solution. We’re talking, ultimately, about the hell of half measures.
The only way to really end the cycle is to remove the Hamas government in Gaza. If Israel is going to move into Gaza on the ground, the aim should be to occupy the area for as long as it takes to change the tone of governance there. That simply cannot happen, however, unless the operation simultaneously manages to empower the PA to the point that it can reassert itself in Gaza and then set up a Palestinian state whose nature is pre-negotiated in private with Israel and is ratified in effect, if not formally at first, by the Arab League. Of course, the U.S. and Egyptian governments would have to be in on this from the start, and America’s regional allies and associates would have to be carefully and discretely briefed, and their timely public support secured.
So what, in very simple terms, would this plan look like as it unfolds to an unsuspecting observer?
Day 1: The IDF mounts a massive invasion of Gaza.
Day 1+4 : Gaza is secured; the Hamas government ceases to exist.
Day 1+5: Directly on the heels of this clarifying act of violence, Israel and the PA, in Jerusalem, announce preliminary agreement on a peace settlement that includes new borders more or less along the 1967 lines (only as regards the former Israeli-Jordanian armistice lines), the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and settlers from areas inside Palestine, the application of the right of return only to Palestine, the bi-national administration of the Old City of Jerusalem and the permanent granting of sovereignty to God and God alone, the demilitarization of the Palestinian state, and an irrevocable quit-claim on both sides to any further aspect of the conflict. Both sides commit to seeking parliamentary ratification at the earlier possible moment. Phased implementation of the agreement is to start immediately upon ratification and take no longer than one year. The turnover of Gaza to PA administration and full withdrawal of the IDF is to occur as soon as possible.
Day 1+6: Israel exchanges diplomatic recognition with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco, Yemen, Oman, Tunisia, Iraq, Kuwait and, if it can be arranged, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Libya and Qatar.
Day 1+10: The Arab League endorses the Israel-Palestine accord and announces the formation of an Egyptian-led peacekeeping force to advance the transition of Israeli-occupied Gaza to a PA-controlled Gaza. NATO agrees to participate temporarily as an adjunct of the Arab League force, particularly for its assistance in training PA police and self-defense forces (short of an army). (If someone wants to get a UN imprimatur for any of this, fine; but under no circumstances should UN personnel be seriously involved in any of this.)
Day 1+12: Israel and the EU deepen their association agreement; the PA announces new legislative elections for the first all-Palestine parliament for Day 1+120. Meanwhile, the PA and the PLO Executive Council endorses the peace deal until such time as the Palestinian legislature can ratify it.
The purpose of this whirlwind process would be to jolt everyone’s imagination so hard and so fast that the usual objections to everything new would be temporarily deprived of oxygen. The idea is to create a new psychological reality with a shock, and to do so along the lines of an agreement that all serious people have known for years must look pretty much the way this one looks, as described just above. If the painful concessions of both sides can be grouped and made simultaneous, there is a much better chance that leaders in concert can spin the result to make the deal stick against the crush of opposition—some of it no doubt violent—that will inevitably arise.
If it were carefully enough planned and executed by adroit and courageous leaders, could this shock peace actually work? I believe it could, yes. Is there any chance of something like this really happening? Of course not.
1For more detail on this point, see chapter 12 of my Jewcentricity; my “How to Deal with the Arab-Israeli ‘Condition’”, in David Pollock, ed., Prevent Breakdown, Prepare for Breakthrough (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #90, December 2008); and Robert Satloff, “Middle East Policy Planning for a Second Obama Administration: Memo from a Fictional NSC Staffer”, Policywatch #1995, November 9, 2012.