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January 02, 2009

Gaza and the Perils of Progressives: Welcome to 2009
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

As I write with my dual hats as sometime DA blogger and executive director of the National Security Network, DA's editorially-active but non-editorially-interfering parent organization, the Arsenal, and NSN, are a bit of a progressive community microcosm on Gaza.  We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said:  Rosa Brooks, who says "Israel can't bomb its way to peace;" Michael Cohen, who says Israel's attack is "hardly surprising" and "justified" but also "just because something is right doesn't mean it's the right thing to do;" and Les Gelb, who focuses on the incoming Obama Administration's ability to surprise us on the Middle East, but suggests that President Obama should not begin with the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

I disagree profoundly with commentators who say that there is uniform support for Israel's actions in Washington and that "nothing has changed."  The editorials in the Washington Post and New York Times last week, with their questioning Israel's effectiveness, calling for ceasefires and criticizing the Bush Administration's slowness to get involved belie that.  No, something much more interesting is happening:  the "Establishment," in its progressive, realist and conservative guises, is working through what a different mode of US friendship toward Israel might look like -- one which, like real friends, is willing to disagree and offer critical support.  (And by the way, it's very much worth checking out the lively debate going on within Israel -- this piece about Muslim responses to Hamas that ran in Ha'aretz, for a start.)

I look forward to some of that working through and debate happening on this site, and I trust that posters and commenters alike will treat each other with respect, in the understanding that we are all working in good faith toward the same goal.

Finally, let's just make my personal views clear:  killing and terrorizing civilians is always and everywhere a bad thing.  In our times, with non-governmental entities having increased access to the means of sowing terror, it very rarely produces beneficial results.  (Or, to steal Rosa's phrase, "dropping bombs in densely populated areas is a surefire way to radicalize civilians and get them to rally around the home team, however flawed.") Hamas' rocket attacks have been wrong and counter-productive for years; Israel's current attack shows little sign of producing any result that could conceivably make it worth the costs, above all in lives but also in Islamic and world opinion.  (I suspect it will not change Israeli election results much either.)  I've outlined my views in detail over at bloggingheads, with a key excerpt at the New York Times.

Hat tip to AA in Ann Arbor for the Ha'aretz link:  the Israeli author talks about a number of Muslim critiques of Hamas and then offers this:

Many pro-Israel readers will see this statement, along with the ones above, and feel vindicated. But that would be a mistake. These letters should not be seen as an endorsement of Israel's Spartan policies - which most of the writers correctly see as futile and morally abhorrent - but rather as a type of self-reckoning; a kind of honest awareness that is necessary for peace to flourish.


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Some of us had a good exchange at TPM Cafe over the past few days about Obama's obligations in this crisis. My view? He is behaving irresponsibly by remaining silent. I agree Obama should not make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict his top priority, and that the global and domestic economic crisis is clearly the top agenda item. But the turbulent world does not stand still just because we and Obama have other things on our plates. The Israelis are responsive to signals from Washington, lives are at stake, and the most pressing need now is to get a cease fire before a bloodbath is unleashed with a ground invasion of Gaza. Despite the fact that he has not yet been inaugurated, Obama's voice is already the most important voice on the world stage, and he therefore has an obligation to use it to do what good he can. Here is the exchange.

I've watched Heather infrequently on Bloggingheads and would like to add my two cents. If the Israeli incursions are "surgical" and if they do turn up caches of rockets, I think the campaign will be a net benefit. Forebearance is seen as fecklessness by Hamas, and for all our platitudes about the uselessness of bombing, I do think seeing their ranks eviserated will make the idea of compromise a little more appealing after a few weeks of posturing.

Since the pixels are free, let me throw out a Larry Summers-like thought experiment. How about if the Obama administration tries to make contact with the "moderates" in Hamas, and instead of sending them a plane with spare parts and weapons, we send them a plane of medical supplies and generators to break the ice. In addition, we get an agreement from Hamas leaders that we can include all the hard cases we can't dispose of from Gitmo, with the understanding that they will be allowed to remain in Gaza or be turned over to their home countries' governments if they tire of Sharia law.

The small issue is Gaza; the big issue is who runs American foreign policy.

An Obama administration that wishes to contrast itself dramatically with its predecessor is better served by making that contrast when it can do so effectively, which will be after Obama's inauguration. No purpose would be served by sniping at the incumbent administration from the sidelines now; by the same token, criticism of the Obama administration from Bush administration officials after January 20 should never be addressed without mention of how badly President Bush and his associates let the American people down while they held office. They had their chance, got to do everything they wanted to for eight years, and were repudiated by the American people. After January 20, they are all the way out, and American foreign policy is someone else's job.

Following this course, incidentally, enables Obama to postpone resolving the question of which prospective administration appointee speaks for him until he is actually President. As this question will be a difficult one even then, postponement is in his interest now.

[I mistakenly appended this comment to Michael Cohen's thread too.]

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.

This discussion is beyond offensive.
Uri Avnery

As a matter of fact, the cease-fire did not collapse, because there was no real cease-fire to start with. The main requirement for any cease-fire in the Gaza Strip must be the opening of the border crossings. There can be no life in Gaza without a steady flow of supplies. But the crossings were not opened, except for a few hours now and again. The blockade on land, on sea and in the air against a million and a half human beings is an act of war, as much as any dropping of bombs or launching of rockets. It paralyzes life in the Gaza Strip: eliminating most sources of employment, pushing hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation, stopping most hospitals from functioning, disrupting the supply of electricity and water.

Those who decided to close the crossings – under whatever pretext – knew that there is no real cease-fire under these conditions.

That is the main thing. Then there came the small provocations which were designed to get Hamas to react. After several months, in which hardly any Qassam rockets were launched, an army unit was sent into the Strip “in order to destroy a tunnel that came close to the border fence”. From a purely military point of view, it would have made more sense to lay an ambush on our side of the fence. But the aim was to find a pretext for the termination of the cease-fire, in a way that made it plausible to put the blame on the Palestinians. And indeed, after several such small actions, in which Hamas fighters were killed, Hamas retaliated with a massive launch of rockets, and – lo and behold – the cease-fire was at an end. Everybody blamed Hamas.

And then there's this from The Guardian
A new information directorate was established to influence the media, with some success. And when the attack began just over a week ago, a tide of diplomats, lobby groups, bloggers and other supporters of Israel were unleashed to hammer home a handful of carefully crafted core messages intended to ensure that Israel was seen as the victim, even as its bombardment killed more than 430 Palestinians over the past week, at least a third of them civilians or policemen.
Know anyone on the payroll?

I think it unwise to confuse world opinion with my opinion, and even more unwise of a President-elect to act as if he is already in the White House before he is. There is nothing Obama can do about the Middle East before he has formed his administration, and even after that time the key issue he will have to deal with will be the West Bank, not the issue of this moment in Gaza. To paraphrase the old proverb, it is better to remain silent and be thought impotent than to raise one's voice and remove all doubt.

There is nothing Obama can do about the Middle East before he has formed his administration.

Zathras, I think if you reflect on it a bit, you will conclude that this statement is not at all true. Obama's stored political capital is right now probably at the highest level it will ever be. Israel is heavily dependent on the United States, and needs to guarantee good relations with an incoming US president it will have to work with for at least four years. Obviously, Obama can't do much right now to address the deep systematic problems in the Middle East. But if he so chooses, he could add an extremely powerful voice to the rising international calls for a cease fire, and help ratchet up the pressure on Israel. I suspect Israel would then find itself compelled politically to offer something in return, or else risk finding itself in Obama's doghouse.

Much of the American public is quite infatuated with Obama right now. Israel knows that if Obama issues a call for an immediate cease fire, and then is publicly rebuked or embarrassed by the Israeli government, Israelis risk doing enormous damage to their reputation among the US public. The fact that Obama has this latent power over the situation is the reason, in my view, why Israel's mouthpieces and defenders are all over the media offering reasons for Obama to stay out of it.

An intervention from Obama would not at all be a case of acting as if he were already President. Obama is a prominent global and national leader and statesman, even before he takes office. Thus, he is just as entitled as anyone else to speak out and add his voice to the debate, as he has on any number of other occasions over other issues. We are all entitled as citizens to exert whatever rhetorical power we possess to influence the behavior of other governments and our own government.

Given that he has chosen not to speak out on a crisis about which just about everyone else in the world has offered his opinion, I reach the conclusion is that Obama actually supports the Israeli operation, including the ground operation, but that he has decided to keep silent on his support so as not to alienate supporters on the left, many of whom are easily manipulated by wishful thinking and fantasies about secret progressive agendas that will be revealed in the fullness of time, and are easily duped by "one president at a time" obfuscations.

Of course, once we saw that Obama had named Rahm Emanuel and Hilary Clinton to two of the top jobs, and kept on Robert Gates, it should have been apparent that he was not going to introduce a foreign policy in the Middle East that is significantly discontinuous with the Bush administration's policy. It now looks to me like the only major change is that he plans to substitute a doomed Afghanistan quagmire for an Iraq quagmire that has already run its course.

Obama's first foray into the mideast thicket is going to be after the Israeli elections - any statement now that people like Dan want him to make would guarantee a Lakud victory - do you really think that result would be worth a feelgood denunciation of Israel now? Better to let Israel conduct it's justified retribution on Hamas, then demand real progress on dismantling settlements after their wrath is spent a few months from now.

Obama's silence on the issue is actually promising because he is not giving unconditional support to the Israeli actions like the Bush administration. Obama's NSA advisor James Jones, signals a definite shift in US policy towards the Israeli-Palesininan conflict since he favors negotiations with Hamas.

from Michael Lerner, a peace proposal. Your thoughts?

Heather and Andrew Good Stuff - Watch this
The Prodigal Nation
Andy’s new book, “The Limits of Power” (06:25)
How the Iraq War military leadership failed upward (06:13)
Will Petraeus run for president? Should he? (09:48)
Solutions for Afghanistan (08:11)
Andy on how to meet our moral obligations in the Middle East (07:39)
How limited is American power? (11:12)

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The Prodigal Nation

Great comments! You are so nice, man! You never know how much i like'em!

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