As the politicians, pundits, and foreign policy panjandrums of the world Western world wring their hands over the chaos and carnage in Gaza, it’s worth noting that there are solid reasons why peace is proving so elusive. Both sides have reason to think they can pull off a significant victory in the current round of fighting, and neither side thinks it can live with the consequences of a defeat. Until something happens to change the thinking on one or both sides, a cease fire will be hard to achieve.
Hopes for a Win
Israel continues to fight because it believes that with more time, it can destroy enough tunnels and inflict enough damage on Hamas to significantly degrade the organization’s military strength and weaken it politically. Furthermore, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are, perhaps for the first time, quietly rooting for Israel to crush the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas. Given this, Israeli officials presumably think they have a golden opportunity for the extended and crushing war that they really need to inflict serious damage. Any war with the Palestinians involves political costs and setbacks for Israel, but at this particular moment, war in Gaza is less politically expensive than at other times. Given that Hamas is a significant and growing danger, Israeli leaders are likely to think, why not use the opportunity for all it is worth?
Hamas on the other hand is elated by its success in temporarily but significantly hampering operations at Ben Gurion Airport (arguably the most significant single Palestininan tactical accomplishment since the 1948 War). In addition its fighters have had unexpected success killing Israeli soldiers on the ground, and the Arab street is electrified by the conflict. The resulting publicity offers Hamas an opportunity to emerge from the isolation it faced after the overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt. Since more Israeli progress on the ground will inevitably and tragically mean more civilian deaths, Hamas can also hope for big propaganda victories to offset any military setbacks that prolonged hostilities will bring. Hamas and its Turkish and Qatari allies can also hope that the longer the war lasts, the worse Egypt and Saudi Arabia will look. The Gaza war isn’t just a war between Israel and Hamas; it is a stage in the struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and its Arab opponents. The longer Hamas can bear up under Israel’s military pressure, the more success it has in the intra-Arab struggle.
The hope of victory is one reason the two sides keep fighting; both Israel and Hamas also believe that defeat would impose unacceptable costs.
For Israel, there are three big reasons why losing is unacceptable. First, as a small country surrounded by enemies and facing hostile public opinion in the world at large, Israel’s security depends in large part on its reputation for military supremacy. That reputation, Israelis feel, deters many more attacks and keeps opposition passive and political rather than encouraging it to be active and military. This is an advantage that Israel will not lightly give up; hostilities are unlikely to end until and unless the Israelis feel they have made their point.
That motive is always present, but it became much more important after a rocket from Gaza caused a significant interruption in service from Ben Gurion Airport. People don’t travel much across Israel’s land frontiers; the airport is Israel’s vital link with the rest of the world. Hamas and anti-Israel forces everywhere were wildly elated by this success, and Israel’s enemies now think they can imagine a new strategy to drive the Jewish state to its knees by cutting it off from the outside world. Israeli defense officials likely feel that they must now do two things: eliminate the capacity of Hamas to repeat this attack, and make the consequences so wounding and expensive to Hamas as to reduce the attractiveness of repeat efforts. This new factor is a military game-changer, and it greatly raised the stakes of the conflict. (The biggest political mistake of the war so far? The American officials who banned U.S. flights from using the airport made a cease fire much harder to obtain.)
Second, there are specific political reasons why Israel is intent on hitting Hamas as hard as it can. Some of this is about Palestinian politics. Fatah may be corrupt, incompetent and in the eyes of many Palestinians fatally compromised by its willingness to compromise with Israel, but the more the ‘resistance’ path championed by Hamas looks like a historical dead end, the less Fatah’s flaws matter in the competition for Palestinian leadership.
But Israel is after much bigger game than Hamas in this war. Weakening Hamas isn’t just an Israeli project: Riyadh and Cairo are rooting for the Gazan terrorists to lose as well. This strange new band of brothers is Israel’s Plan B alliance in case the U.S. folds on Iran. The Saudis and their Egyptian allies also hate and fear Hezbollah; from an Israeli point of view a successful war against Hamas could be the first step in cooperative action against Hezbollah and, beyond it, Iran. Israel wants this war to go well because it could pave the way to more effective cooperation with the most populous and wealthiest of the Arab states.
It’s also worth noting, from the standpoint of very-long-term Israeli interests, that the willingness of the Saudis and Egyptians and their friends, even silently and tactically, to align with Israel is a promising sign that Israel may someday be accepted in the region. Israel has been given a chance to audition for the role of a tacit ally of the Sunni Arab world against both Sunni and Shia radicals; it doesn’t want to blow this chance and its desire to build its relations with neighboring Arab states may outweigh its concerns about annoying Europe or even the U.S.
The third big reason why Israel needs a win is the one that most of the press commentary focuses on: security. Hamas has developed a network of tunnels and a capacity to launch missiles against much of Israel. Israeli officials will want to see that capacity significantly degraded. From the Israeli point of view, the price of a war in Gaza is high, but the incremental political cost of a few more days of combat, could now be less than the benefits from substantial progress in dismantling tunnels, breaking up Hamas’ leadership and destroying its weapon and missile stockpiles.
Thus from an Israeli point of view, the costs of this particular war are lower than usual, thanks to the tacit Arab support from Hamas’ many Arab enemies, and the need for decisive military results is greater than usual. That would suggest that Israel is likely to want to continue fighting until either its goals are reached or it is clear that they cannot be within a manageable time frame or at an acceptable cost. That point doesn’t appear to have been reached yet.
The Strategy of Hamas
Like Israel, Hamas’ war strategy seems to be guided by solid calculations about the organization’s vital interests, and the leadership appears to believe that this is a war that the movement can’t afford to lose.
The chief problem and the real enemy for Hamas is not, however, Israel. Israeli hostility is something Hamas understands and can deal with. The real problem for Hamas is the Saudi-backed Sisi government in Egypt. The current Egyptian government sees Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, and crushing the Muslim Brotherhood as thoroughly as possible is Egypt’s top priority these days. Egypt’s Saudi patrons feel the same way; the Muslim Brotherhood looks to the Saudis like a challenge to their claim to lead the forces of orthodox Sunnism—and Hamas in the past has been willing to ally itself with Saudi’s arch enemies in Syria and Iran.
The change in the status quo that led to war with Israel had nothing to do with Israel itself; what has happened is that Egypt has systematically intensified the blockade of Gaza, hoping to throttle Hamas, disrupt its support, and put enough economic pressure on Gaza to force Hamas from power.
For Hamas, the pre-war status quo was a death sentence, allowing Egypt to quietly strangle Gaza. The business networks dependent on smuggling were hurting, civil servants weren’t getting paid, and residents were increasingly unhappy with a lousy economy and no progress in sight. Hamas is a cornered animal striking out in desperation. A return to the status quo ante is not acceptable to Hamas, which feels it absolutely must gain some relief or it will go under.
There are reports of splits between the political and military leaders of Hamas in the run up to war, but it seems clear that whoever is now calling the shots in Gaza, so to speak, believes that Hamas is in a war for survival, and short of crushing defeat, Hamas is unlikely to accept a cease fire that restores the status quo ante.
Hamas wants a cease fire that will allow it to import enough goods into Gaza to keep the economy going and to allow it to rebuild its military stockpiles. If Israel and Hamas were the only two entities involved, this might not be so hard to arrange. They have had cease fires before, and while each hates the other and wants it destroyed, on a pragmatic, day by day basis, Israel and Hamas have managed to work things out for long periods of time.
The trouble is that it is hard for Hamas to force Egypt and Saudi Arabia to accept this deal. The Saudis and their allies are happy for Israel to pay the political price for a war against Hamas that they want the Jewish state to win. Meanwhile, it is Egypt that ultimately can decide on peace or war: when Egypt feels that Hamas has been weakened and punished enough that it’s OK to show it some mercy, then the balance of forces will shift and some kind of truce will become much easier to achieve.
Under the circumstances, Hamas’ strategy is a convoluted one: Hamas is trying to create such a hot crisis by staging a war with Israel that the U.S., Europe and an enraged Arab street will force Egypt and Saudi Arabia to give up their drive to starve Hamas out. That may yet work, but it is unlikely to work all that quickly. Neither Egypt nor the Saudis are particularly unhappy if Israel is getting bad press around the world; as far as they are concerned, if rampaging mobs burn every Israeli embassy in Europe, it is no skin off President Sisi’s nose.
This suggests that for Hamas as well as for Israel, the high price of a long (by Israeli-Palestinian standards) war may make sense. It will take time for the kind of political pressure to build that would lead Egypt to soften its blockade of Gaza; it’s hard to see a good reason (except for the obvious humanitarian one) why Hamas would give up before giving its strategy time to work.
Will Peace Get A Chance?
Many wars come about by accident or by misunderstanding. This particular war, however it was originally triggered, seems to be driven by the real interests of the chief parties involved. In such cases, peace is hard to make until the parties have seen how things go on the battlefield.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a long, drawn-out war. Gaza is a very small place and Hamas’ reserves are not very deep. It is not in Israel’s interests for the war to drag on and some more-horrendous-than-usual event could so shock public opinion around the world and in Israel itself that the calculus could change.
Nevertheless, the peacemaking wannabes have a tricky task ahead of them and the U.S. administration in particular will not enjoy some of the choices it must make. Barring a Hamas collapse, a political solution to the war involves getting not only Israel but also Egypt (and its Saudi backers) to accept some kind of arrangement that loosens the blockade enough to let Hamas survive.
The trouble is that neither the Egyptians nor the Saudis seem interested in making Barack Obama’s life any easier these days. Both countries bitterly resented his support for the Morsi government, and the ineffectiveness of his support deepened their contempt without dulling their anger. They do not trust him over Iran, Syria or Iraq, and they increasingly feel that they must organize the defense of the region without deferring to him. They may take a certain grim satisfaction in his discomfort if a Washington failure to broker a Gaza cease fire makes the Obama administration look weak.
Unhappily for the Obama administration, the best way for the U.S. to hasten the arrival of a durable cease fire in Gaza is to promise a more robust and hawkish policy in the rest of the region. The Israelis will be more willing to make concessions on a Gaza cease fire if they believe that the U.S. will back them more effectively against Iran, and the Saudis and Egyptians are more likely to give ground in Gaza if the U.S. offers real support in the rest of the region.
This is the opposite of the way much of the left and the press understands how the Middle East works, but the new Middle East is a more complicated place than it used to be. The battle between Sunni Arabs and Israelis is no longer the most important issue on the table for key Arab governments as well as for Israel. While that old conflict has not disappeared, it has been eclipsed by the new conflict between a resurgent Iran and the leading Sunni Arab states.
We must hope that American diplomats and other hopeful peacemakers grasp the new and sometimes counterintuitive dynamics of the region. Otherwise the Gaza war could drag on as the peacemakers chase red herrings and run up blind alleys. Fundamentally this war is one of the many dangerous consequences of the regional perception that the United States is in retreat; only by changing that perception can the Obama administration hope to stabilize the region and bring the killing, in Gaza and elsewhere, to an end.
Clausewitz wrote that in war, “the side that feels the lesser urge for peace will necessarily get the better bargain.” Both of the combatants are used to pain, loaded for bear, and feel their essential interests are in play. The most likely outcome is probably an uglier and longer war than usual, followed by another unhappy truce.