A Few Thoughts on Gaza - UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen
There are few topics more difficult to discuss in foreign policy circles than the Arab/Israeli conflict. Opinions on both sides are so hardened that it's become nearly impossible to have a cogent and unemotional conversation on the topic. But, I love a challenge - and after all we are a foreign policy blog -- so I'm going to give it a try.
First, as I noted over at TPM cafe the other day, the root of the current crisis is not Israel's settlement policy or even Israel's economic blockade of Gaza (both of which are odious), it is the continued refusal of Hamas to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist. This is not to say that one side in this conflict is wrong and the other is right, but that the presence of a group (Hamas) that rejects the very outlines of a two-state solution and the land for peace model is not a group that is going to play a positive role in peace negotiations. If Israel dismantled all its settlements tomorrow, Hamas would not turn around and renounce violence; but if Hamas were to recognize Israel the path to reconciliation would be far easier to achieve.
It's worth noting that the acceptance of a two-state solution is today largely the norm in the Arab world (as demonstrated in part by the Saudi peace plan, which is now more than 6 years old) and in Israel - Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's extraordinary September interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, a fascinating example of the movement even by former Israeli hawks toward tacit recognition of the need for a viable Palestinian state.
Considering Hamas's continued rejection of this solution - and it's continued reliance on terror tactics -- it's hardly surprising that Israel would respond with devastating attacks on Gaza. To be honest, it's also rather justified. After all, Israel has a right and need to defend it's citizens from terrorism.
But, just because something is right doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. What I find sort of crazy about Israel's attack in Gaza is that there seems to be little sense on what Israel should have done after its initial shock and awe bombardment. Take for example this quote in Ha'aretz:
The lack of consensus among Israel's top policymakers on what to do next is sort of astounding. This is all military tactics with no political strategy. Now we read that a ground operation into Gaza is practically inevitable even though most observers agree that a ground war would be a) military disadvantageous b) would play into Hamas's hands by narrowing Israel's military advantage and c) would pretty much guarantee a repeat of the disastrous 2006 Lebanon war.
Moreover, the focus on the brute tactics of war and the unceasing urge for escalation demonstrates a continued lack of imagination by Israeli military leaders. Perhaps Israel would have been wise to take the advice of peace advocate David Grossman and declared a cease fire after 48 hours, opening the door for possible diplomacy and a better cease fire arrangement than Israel might have gotten otherwise.
Or here’s a really creative notion; after 48 hours of bombing that has, for the most part, narrowly targeted Hamas leaders, allow for a partial lifting of the economic blockade against Gaza. Make clear to Gazans that the lifting will remain in place unless more rockets fired into Israel (placing the burden for their hardship as clearly as possible on Hamas). Either of these ideas, while tricky, is certainly more creative than the approach Israel is taking right now.
In the end, Israel seems more than justified in attacking Hamas targets in Gaza, but the lack of planning and/or a coordinated political-military strategy is nothing less than scandalous.
Now, if any consensus has developed out of this current conflict it is that the U.S has wrongly disengaged from its historical mediation role in the Arab/Israeli conflict and needs to re-engage in the process. For example, just yesterday in the LA Times, my friend and colleague, Rosa Brooks noted that "Only the U.S. -- Israel's primary supporter and main financial sponsor -- can push it to make the hard choices necessary for its own long-term security, as well as the region's."
I generally agree, but I'm not convinced that today the hard choices need to be made by Israel. With a proper negotiating partner, they would likely be willing to make these choices; but how can Israel reach a deal with a negotiating partner like Hamas, which fundamentally rejects Israel's right-to-exist? How does the U.S. put pressure on Israel to take steps toward peace when the sovereign government in Gaza refuses to renounce terrorism? There is plenty of justifiable criticism of the Bush Administration’s abdication of responsibility in the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past 8 years, but, considering Hamas’s continued intransigence, I’m not so sure the path ahead is as simple as pushing Israel to make hard choices.
The striking unanimity of support for Israel from America politicians has been noted by several commentators, including – in typically restrained fashion – Glenn Greenwald. He has a good point. One is not hearing much in the way of criticism of Israeli actions in Washington; perhaps that is because, in some measure, Israel’s are justified. Or more likely it is because Jews vote and give money to congressional and presidential campaigns in far greater numbers than Arabs do (oh and because evangelicals tend to also be even stronger supporters of Israel).
Indeed, I noticed with great amusement that Greenwald trumpets poll results showing that 71% of Americans think that the US should not take sides in the conflict and that a majority of Democrats oppose the Israeli offensive. This speaks to one of my greatest pet peeves about how public opinion data is interpreted. What matters, from a political perspective, is not what 71% of Americans think; what matters is what those Americans who care passionately about the issue think!
Overwhelmingly, those people support Israel. Now I'm not making a value judgment here as to whether this is right or wrong; it just is. So it should hardly be surprising that Israel has near uniform support in Washington.
We see a similar phenomenon with gun control. A majority of Americans think that the government should place greater restrictions on gun ownership - and yet gun control measures are near impossible to pass. The reason is simple, those are care most about not passing more gun control laws tend to exclusively on the issue - and those who support gun control measures almost never do.
In fact, the near unanimous support for Israel is not as Greenwald suggests, "compelling evidence of the complete disconnect between our political elites and the people they purportedly represent." It's actually compelling evidence of the exact opposite, namely a a close connection between political elites and some of their constituents. This isn't some grand conspiracy - it's one of the pitfalls of pluralistic democracy. I'm surprised that anyone is really surprised by this.
Over at ThinkProgress, Matt Yglesias argues that my formulation about the parallels between Israel's settelement policy and Hamas''s refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism manages, "to put a heavily pro-Israel spin on the banal observation that both sides could do more to improve the situation but that achieving real peace requires steps on both sides."
This is hardly a banal observation; because Israel's settlement policy, while odious, can and likely will be tackled in the context of peace negotiations between the two sides based on a land for peace, two-state formula. (Indeed this happened without a great deal of acrimony during the 2000 Camp David negotiations, where there was agreement on the issue of apportioning territory in the West Bank - Israel would annex some of the settlements in return for turning land in the Jordan Valley over to a Palestinian state.) But, there is little possibility of movement on the peace process so long as Hamas rejects these tenets as the oulines for negotations on a final resolution to the conflict.
After all, movement on the peace process only began in 1993 when the PLO pledged to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism and Israel accepted the idea of a two-state solution that would involve the creation of a Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, Israeli accepts the two-state formula; so does Fatah. Hamas does not.
This isn't a pro-Israel observation; it's a pro-common sense observation.