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January 02, 2009

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 Israel Defense Forces recommends a diplomatic exit plan be prepared while a cease-fire agreement is formulated. Defense officials tend to favor a clear agreement with Hamas, even if it is not enshrined in a written document. (Foreign Minister Tzippi) Livni, however, reportedly believes that it might be better to aim for a situation in which there is no clearly set-out agreement, but Israel would make clear beforehand that it would respond forcefully to any firing from Gaza after hostilities ended. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for his part, has conditioned any future truce between Israel and Hamas on the establishment of an international mechanism to monitor the cease-fire.

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.


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Great analysis, thank you.
Looking at the sitution empathically:

Scenario 1: If I am an Israeli, I want to stop the rockets from Hamas on my people so I can live in peace. Israel will not negotiate with Hamas who doesn't renounce violence, they will negotiate with Fatah, but that's come a bit too late, Yasser Arafat was seen as a terrorist....while the settlements were being built and established....

Senario 2: If I am a fundemntal Islamist, then I believe that Israel should not exist and will not renounce violence against the Jewish state. Plus there are no shortage of militants who are willing to die for this cause.

I agree that US policy has been one sided be it from the Israel Lobby or evangelical Christians but we also must not forget that there are key Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and UAE who bluntly oppose Hamas, these are autocratic regimes that do not want change and if anything, the USA is protecting them, the existence of Israel acts as a guarantee for their existence....and vice versa, their existence is also a guarantee for Israel to where do we go from here....

Would appreciate your opinion and analysis on this....

Thank you

One of the most fundamental problems with the US approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the United States has abandoned a consistent approach to the conflict based on international law, and has instead moved over the years toward an unprincipled approach to the conflict based on horse-trading. The requirements of international law and order have been deferred, muddied, denied and haggled to death. This approach has undermined US prestige, credibility and effectiveness. It has diminished the integrity and majesty of international law and international institutions. And it has perpetuated hopelessness, frustration and anger among Palestinians, and dreams of a total, uncompromised victory among Israelis.

Since Israel is prosperous, and is one of the world’s major military powers, as well as being one of the world’s few nuclear powers, while the Palestinian fragments in the West Bank are impoverished, divided, stateless, confined and weak, it is quite absurd to base an approach to a resolution on “negotiations” between Israel and some hoped-for Palestinian negotiating partner who can speak for an entire decimated, immiserated and divided people. The US and other powerful nations must stand up for justice for the Palestinians, since they are not capable of doing it themselves. The US should at least strive for a resolution based on law and justice, not one based on who has the more powerful friends, the biggest guns, the most money, the slickest negotiators or the most favorable situation on the ground. Approaches that tolerate the results of the continuous Israeli moves to alter the facts on the ground, and then in effect ratify those facts on the ground by building them into starting baseline of the next round of negotiations, reflect an atavistic reversion to the old law of the rights of conquest, a collection of principles that were decisively rejected in the 20th century.

Defenders of international law, and of the reasonable norms of global order and conflict-resolution that international law embodies, should reject any continuation of the "land for peace" formula. For the United States to endorse this approach puts our country on the wrong side of the law. The land that Israel occupies, and that sits under its West Bank colonies, is simply not Israeli land. It is thus not legitimately theirs to trade for anything. Since the land is not Israeli land, Israel holds it only as a sort of "land hostage" in its struggle for an optimal outcome. For the United States, then, to endorse peace plans that make Israeli relinquishment of this land conditional on any kind of Palestinian reciprocation is morally equivalent to an endorsement of hostage-taking, and the trading of hostages for ransom. That is an abomination, and an embarrassment to US diplomacy.

By the same token, the United States should never endorse an approach to peace according to which Palestinian organizations might be allowed to "trade" a cessation of terrorist activity in exchange for Israeli reciprocation. Terrorism – the intentional targeting of non-combatants in order to achieve political goals - is a clear violation of international law, and the US position should be that adherence to international law by all parties is simply not negotiable. The US should be unequivocally opposed to terrorism; it should be unequivocally opposed to hostage taking; it should be unequivocally opposed to the acquisition of territory by force.

There is a long-running debate about the content of UN 242, about what it does and doesn’t require, and about the order or staging of the requirements. There is a dispute about whether UN 242 requires the withdrawal of all Israeli armed forces from all of the territories occupied in the 1967 war, or only the withdrawal of some of those forces from some of the territories. I side with those who favor the “all” reading. But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that UN 242 only requires the withdrawal of some of the forces from some of the territories, at least until such time as there is an agreement on “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

To grant this is only to grant that there might be a reasonable dispute about the legitimacy of the continuing occupation of certain territories by Israel’s armed forces. The UN has obviously sometimes permitted the temporary continuation of a military occupation of territories that the occupying states are not recognized as possessing. But, surely, everything that goes beyond the mere occupation of territory and moves toward the acquisition of territory by the assistance of armed force is affirmed as explicitly forbidden by the resolution. The illegitimacy of the acquisition of territory by war is the very guiding principle of the resolution, and also of much international law before and since. And, clearly, the state-sanctioned colonization of territory by a country's private citizens under the protection of the country’s fighting men is in no sense part of a mere military occupation, but is an attempt to acquire territory. So even granting the latitudinarian reading of UN 242, the West Bank colonies are simply and obviously illegal. We shouldn't allow any of these debates about whether and when Israel must withdraw its armed forces from territories occupied during the 1967 war, and from how much of the territory these forces must withdraw, to cloud the point that there is nothing at all in the resolution that so much as hints at a suggestion that Israel might be permitted to move colonists into those occupied territories. Obviously, colonizing territory is a move toward acquiring it, and is by no means a mere natural extension of occupying it.

The US position, then, should be that it interprets UN 242 to require Israel to dismantle these obviously illegal colonies, and to make no further attempts of any kind to use force to convert that land to Israeli possession. If the US wishes to take the position that Israel may continue to occupy some of the West Bank territory with its armed forces until there is a peace agreement, it must still take the position that any Israeli colonies sitting on that occupied land are thoroughly illegitimate, with no sanction whatsoever in international law, and that the colonies must be dismantled with all practical haste. To the extent that the occupied land is “tradable”, it should be the US position that only the Palestinians may choose to trade some of that land for Israeli payment or concessions. If Israel gets to keep any of the territory beyond the Green Line, it should have to pay for it in some way. And only the Palestinians can make a decision as to whether to accept that payment. To tolerate Israeli offers of the form, “We will give you back some portion of this land in exchange for such-and-such” is to involve the United States is an illegal shakedown, not a legitimate bargaining process.

The occupied territories are not disputed territories. They are occupied territories. By law, then, the colonies must be dismantled.

The warrior state Israel, and the terrorist-ridden Palestinian national community that has emerged from the conflict with Israel, and defines its identity by its opposition to Israel, are societies that have known only war for a century. War is built into their national fabric and ethos. They have both descended into a quite barbarous condition, and are addicted to violent struggle. And although one is much more powerful than the other, they are also both very small, and heavily dependent on the outside world for their prosperity and survival. And finally, neither can really make much of a credible case anymore that they possess significant inherent strategic value on the global chessboard. The strategic linchpins in the Middle East are clearly further to the east.

So perhaps the time has come for the United States and other members of the international community to take a step back from both parties, distance themselves from them, and treat the Israeli-Palestinian struggle as a single entangled problem case to be solved by outside coordination and a firm imposition of international discipline. The international community has already heard quite enough from the two warring parties, and knows the issues. It should thus determine the shape of a resolution in consultation among key states, with minimal further participation from the two parties themselves. It should then impose that resolution on the two parties, and use stringent sanctions and isolation to make its point if the Israelis and Palestinians refuse to accept the community’s determinations, and continue their stupid, seemingly eternal, yet strategically inconsequential war. If they won’t stop fighting, at least their fight can be quarantined so the rest of the world can move on to more important business.

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.)

Egads, Michael. The Jordan Valley is in the West Bank, is it not? You seem to be presenting this gambit as a case of Israel's willingness to trade land of its own in compensatory exchange for being allowed to keep some of the settlements in the occupied territories. But the Jordan valley is not Israeli land. What you are apparently referring to is that Israel softened its position somewhat on the Jordan Valley. Whereas their previous position was that they must be allowed to retain it and annex it, the new position was that they would seek only a long-term leasehold on the Jordan Valley. But declining to annex land one does not own, while demanding the right to lease that land and station troops there, is hardly any kind of trade or swap.

This seems of a piece with much of the often humorously obtuse Israeli discourse about "generous offers" and such. Israelis tend to regard the release of hostage land back to its parents, in exchange for ransom, as a generous move. It is to laugh.

One of the stumbling blocks at Camp David was that the the Palestinians wanted to use the Green Line as a starting point, and then negotiate a deal that involved an equal exchange of territories: Israel would get to keep some of the settlements in the occupied territories, and in exchange the Palestinians would get compensatory land on the Israeli side of the Green Line in precisely equal amounts. This seems quite fair, but the Israelis were horrified by the notion that they should have to give up anything in exchange for the land they have illegally swiped in the occupied territories. For them, the territorial part of the Camp David meeting was supposed to be a round of haggling over what percentage of the pirated booty land they would be allowed to keep, and how much they would be required to return.

This approach is clearly at odds with the UN 242 emphasis on the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. Israelis seem to think that the only issue is how much territory they will be permitted to acquire by war.

For insisting that the Camp David meetings should be guided by UN 242, and aim at the implementation of that resolution, the Palestinians were angrily and sarcastically mocked by Bill Clinton, even though the the Oslo accords had been specifically amended to include the idea that the final settlement should implement UN 242. The percentages were important. Clinton and Barak tried to make Camp David an Israeli-American tag team, working hard to mug Arafat and pound out a deal on the backs of the Palestinians for Clinton's "legacy". But how could Arafat have gone back to his people with the message that, having already lost 78% of the Palestine Mandate to Israel, they would now be required to cede a large additional piece?

I suspect you are far too sanguine about the capacity of the Israeli government to "tackle" the settlement issue during peace negotiations and extract its colonists and dismantle the colonies. Sure, an Israeli government might some day be compelled to make such a deal. But good luck prying the colonists out of Judea and Samaria. I worry, rather, that religious and ultra-Zionist Jews from around the world would in such a circumstance flood into the country, screaming bloody murder about a betrayal, and would drive the country into civil war. The political and social character of Israel has already shifted in a starkly rightward direction over the past decade or so, partly due to immigration decisions.

So the situation is actually quite parallel to the situation with Hamas. Just as some Palestinians will hold onto maximalist aims, even if Palestinian negotiators agree to a two-state deal, so many Israelis will hold onto their own maximalist aims in the occupied territories, even if Israel's government negotiates a deal requiring Israeli withdrawal.

Israeli settlements on the West Bank could be "...tackled in the context of peace negotiations," but they haven't been in over 30 years. The prerequisite on the Israeli side has always been (and remains) a government that feels itself secure enough in the absurdly factionalized world of Israeli politics to deal on this sensitive subject. Israel has not had such a government, does not have one now, and is not likely to have one in the near future.

On the Palestinian side this naturally looks like bad faith. How could it appear otherwise, when Israeli settlements on the West Bank have been expanding on the very land a Palestinian state would need to sustain itself year after year, when peace negotiations were active and when they were stalled, when Israel was fighting its neighbors and when it was not -- and even during the whole Camp David period? All very well and good to point to what Ehud Barak was willing to commit to behind closed doors during the final stages of that negotiation, but the question remains whether he could have made that commitment stick. Why should any Palestinian, or anyone else, believe that he could have?

The issue is not moral equivalency; let the partisans on either side, to whom the local issues of this dispute are more important than anything else, continue that sterile debate as long as they want to. The issue is not reverence for, or even compliance with, UN resolutions either. The issue for the United States, the country that matters, is whether its interests should be indefinitely subordinated to the desire of one faction in a foreign country's politics to displace people outside that country's borders and take their land for itself.

The Bush administration believes that they should be; many self-styled "progressives" agree, or think it best to fudge the issue by insisting that every other issue must be solved before the settlements question can be addressed in any substantive way. From the Israeli perspective -- and let's be direct, this IS the Israeli perspective -- this makes perfect sense. No American has any business taking this position without averring the reasons for it; if by reason of his religious identity, or because he believes Israeli control over the West Bank necessary to bring about the End of Days, or simply because he has no clear views on what American interests in the world are and thinks foreign counsel is required to fill that vacuum he feels that the United States must not deviate from the Israeli view on West Bank settlements, he ought to say so.

Zathras, I don't think Obama should have been sniping at the Bush administration. He should have ignored the Bush administration. Bush is irrelevant now, and few around the world are paying him any attention. Obama should have stepped forward to speak directly to global audiences, over Bush's head, and use some of his abundant political capital to try to do some good. he could have also been laying a rhetorical foundation for the day he takes office.

It seems to me that by sitting on his political capital, he has devalued and squandered it. The world is perplexed by his silence. he looks weak and diffident.

Taking Hamas out of this equation does not solve the problem. People seem to forget that the principles Hamas espouses (namely their refusal to renounce violence/terrorism and their unwillingness to accept Israel's right to exist) are the reason for their existence. Unless we start to change the hearts and minds of every day Palestinians (probably by giving them some sort of hope and increasing their standard of living) we will never get any closer to an Israeli-Palestinian solution or create an environment for sustainable security and peace. Let's stop saying that Hamas is the only problem.

Dan Kervick, perhaps these articles might explain Obama's silence. by Gideon Levy

I find the comments far more relevant, accurate and on point than the original post with which I disagree on many counts.

There were some Hamas members who were willing to talk in terms of a hundred year truce. That's the kind of face-saving approach that the US and Israel could have worked with, if they had any interest in early 2006 in exploring that possibility. But they didn't.

"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. "

your full of ****, misinformation.

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. "

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