The recently suspended round of organized violence in the Gaza Strip has a depressing familiarity, being similar to other rounds between Israelis and Palestinians. The physical harm inflicted has been as usual enormously disproportionate, with the Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio being 27-to-one (admittedly, that’s down from about 100-to-one during Operation Cast Lead four years ago). There is the same callous disregard for civilian lives and livelihoods. The firing of notoriously inaccurate rockets into Israel is almost by definition an intention to harm civilians. The larger and much more accurate Israeli violence being perpetrated in the other direction is adorned with claims of wanting to minimize civilian casualties. The rubble to which civilian offices and private homes alike in the Gaza Strip have been reduced makes such claims a cruel joke. Much of the targeting of civilian structures came in a final spasm of Israeli operations in the last 24 hours before the cease-fire went into effect.
Also familiar is the U.S. posture toward all of this: acting as almost a cheering section for the Israeli operations, while offering little more than the barest acknowledgment of the suffering that Palestinians were enduring.
Finally, there is the same lack of any prospect that the latest round of violence makes still more rounds any less likely. To the contrary, this latest round makes the hatreds and antagonisms on both sides as intense as ever, setting the stage for still more Israeli-Palestinian fighting. There will be plenty of potential triggers for more large-scale violence to break out at any time. An incident Friday along the Gaza border, in which Israeli forces evidently shot to death a young Palestinian man, provided an early test of the new cease-fire. Additional tests will likely come from the actions of radical Palestinian groups Hamas is unable to control. No reasonable outside observer would say that this latest round of Arab-Israeli warfare has accomplished anything worthwhile.
It is customary after each such round to categorize the players as winners or losers, and some such scoring is fairly easy to do with this round. Egypt and its president, Mohamed Morsi, are winners for being able to get away from their own internal problems long enough to win compliments for mediating the cease-fire. Morsi, however, may be overplaying his hand by choosing this moment of international acclaim to make a controversial grab of more power for his own office.
At a political level Hamas may be on balance a winner. This is largely for the general reason that when the weak confronts the strong—in this case, Hamas’s David against Israel’s Goliath—anything that is not capitulation or collapse and that can be portrayed as standing one’s ground tends to be seen as a win for the weak. It does not appear that the latest suffering of Gazans is being translated into a movement among them to blame Hamas. Hamas’s political and diplomatic position has been bolstered by recognition and visits from a parade of foreign leaders before and during the fighting.
In an even narrower and very short-term political sense, one might say that Benjamin Netanyahu is a winner—if one accepts speculation that part of his reason for launching the war at this time was to shape the Israeli public mood in a direction favorable for him and his Likud party when Israeli voters go to the polls in January. But there is currently no strong prime ministerial alternative to Netanyahu anyway, and any election advantage he bought with the war is probably marginal.
The losers are much more numerous. Foremost among them are the residents of the Gaza Strip. They have suffered not only 162 dead and hundreds wounded at the hands of the Israeli military, but also the destruction of much infrastructure that had only recently been rebuilt with difficulty following the devastation of Cast Lead.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is a loser, mostly for slipping further into perceived irrelevance. He has lost further ground to Hamas as an essential player in dealing with Israel. He was already vulnerable to such a result because of how his treatment by Israel has caused him to lose credibility among many Palestinians.
Israel and ordinary Israelis are losers. This was not so much because of any physical damage (and the impressively performing Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system has to be considered a winner), but rather because of Israel becoming ever more deeply entrenched as a target of international isolation and condemnation. The Gaza operation also has caused Israel to sink more deeply into a mire of moral coarseness.
For related reasons, the United States also is a loser. The automatic, unthinking condoning of Israeli actions and apparent insensitivity to Palestinian suffering has provided another occasion and another reason for a substantial slice of the world’s population to resent, hate, and withhold cooperation from the United States.
We are all quite familiar with the political mechanisms in Washington that have long kept the United States from acting in its own best interests on matters involving Israel and its conflict with Arabs, and from using the leverage it could apply to this subject. For American political leaders the safest course is not to stray from what has become a firmly established, politically correct path. And perhaps we should not be surprised that even a newly re-elected Barack Obama is showing no early signs of straying from that path. Politically in Washington, everything is related to everything else, and one can always come up with excuses for not stirring up a political hornet’s nest on any one issue because one has to focus on solving some other problem such as the budget and the deficit.
But excuses are not enough. And the most recent Gaza war is a salient enough event to be the sort of break point where one could start charting a different path. We need to find ways to make lemonade out of this latest lethal Middle Eastern lemon. What those concerned about the current course need to do is to point out how—given where U.S. interests as well as justice and logic lie—it should not be nearly as politically hazardous as the conventional wisdom supposes to diverge from that course.
An opportunity to start diverging will come very soon, if Abbas’s Palestinian Authority moves ahead with its idea of seeking some kind of enhanced status in the United Nations system. The absurdity of denouncing as “unilateral” the reference of any matter to the most multilateral forum on earth ought to be self-evident. It also should be clear that any elevation of the Palestinian Authority’s status in any U.N. bodies does absolutely nothing to preclude or impede the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that are necessary to resolve the conflict at hand. If the United States has any hope of salvaging the P.A. as the “good” Palestinian organization—in the face of its loss of credibility as Israel continues to erect settlements in Abbas’s face, and now with the latest demonstration of the P.A.’s irrelevance on Gaza—Abbas needs the tidbit of some symbolic status at the U.N. Perhaps the United States has stuck to the Israeli line too long and too openly on this issue to expect the administration to do an about-face in the next week. But at least it could quietly reduce its opposition to Abbas’s move. So far it has been carrying the Israelis’ water on the issue so vigorously that it has gotten other governments, notably the British, to do so as well. The British are opposing the P.A. initiative because the United States opposes it, and the United States opposes it because the Israeli government opposes it. The Israeli government opposes it because the issue provides another way of arguing that the absence of peace negotiations is the Palestinians’ fault, and because Israel would experience still more multilateral condemnation and pressure if the P.A. had standing to bring issues related to its conflict with Israel before additional multilateral bodies.
The latest episode involving the Gaza Strip is also a good occasion and good reason for the United States to abandon its self-crippling refusal to have any dealings with Hamas. Sending Hillary Clinton to the region was a waste of jet fuel, because by refusing to communicate with one party to the conflict at hand, the United States could not do what Egypt was able to do. The U.S. position reflects another self-contradictory Israeli position. The Israelis have complained in the past about not having a united and viable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, but they scream every time Abbas has moved to repair the split between Fatah and Hamas. In any event, Hamas is a Palestinian player that, as the events of the last week demonstrate, matters and is here to stay.
All of that is still more a matter of tactics than of strategy. For the United States to be strategic means, among other things, confronting directly a strain of thinking in Israel that Netanyahu represents but is by no means limited to him, and that one can hear in some of the discourse in Israel in response to the clash in Gaza. According to this thinking, Israel was not a loser at all because of international condemnation and isolation, because the condemnation and isolation are an unavoidable part of being Israel—a sort of cost of doing business. Israelis, by this view, have to live with the prospect of being in perpetuity a militarized state in conflict with its neighbors, periodically coming to blows with them. Israel, by this view, can sustain such an existence indefinitely because it is so much stronger than the neighbors, especially the hapless Palestinians.
Major aspects of this view reflect the thinking of the old-line, hard-line Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who is often considered the ideological father of Likud and whom Netanyahu’s own father served as a private secretary. Jabotinsky essentially argued that Palestinian Arabs were predisposed to oppose the Zionist project altogether, and that the project could succeed only through implementation of an “iron wall” of force to keep the Arabs in check. The hard-liners of today actually go a step farther in reliance on force than did Jabotinsky, who said that eventually, once the Palestinian Arabs had been confronted long enough with sufficient force to lose hope, agreements could be reached with them. (He was not clear what shape any such agreements would take, and he had a territorially expansive view of what land the future Israel should embrace.) Today the prevailing metaphor in Israel is not so much a wall (notwithstanding the literal wall Israel has built in the West Bank) as it is lawns to be mowed. The periodic use of force, such as we just saw in Gaza, is likened to mowing the lawn. Sure, grass grows back, but Israel will just mow it again later. The process can continue forever—no agreements necessary.
This is not a view the United States can reason with. It is a view that represents fundamentally different values and priorities from those of the United States. The United States should present its policy, publicly as well as privately, toward this conflict in terms of a choice that parties to the conflict can make. To anyone who genuinely seeks to resolve the conflict through compromise and agreement, the United States should promise to be a very active partner. And then act on that promise.
To anyone who instead envisions, and behaves as if he envisions, unending conflict, the U.S. response will be to distance itself from such behavior. That will be the necessary response not only because of what unending conflict means for the parties to the conflict but also because of the harm it can mean to the United States, and specifically the harm that comes from being closely associated with a forceful, no-agreement, indefinite lawn-mowing approach. And then, just as important, act as necessary on that promise.
Washington can and should phrase such a policy in an entirely neutral, even-handed way. Netanyahu and his ilk have counterparts on the Palestinian side, although they are fewer because perpetuation of the status quo is so much more miserable for Palestinians than it is for Israelis. But Israeli citizens are smart enough to understand the message.