Is­rael and the ag­o­nis­ing end game

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Toby Greene

WHAT IS Is­rael fight­ing for? The hu­man cost of this con­flict is a source of sad­ness and de­spair, rais­ing le­git­i­mate ques­tions: What is Is­rael fight­ing for? Is it worth it? Does Is­rael have al­ter­na­tives? In ad­dress­ing these ques­tion, the over­whelm­ing im­ages of death and de­struc­tion in Gaza, have meant that in­suf­fi­cient ac­count is taken of how this bat­tle fits into a broader strate­gic con­fronta­tion with real, high-stakes goals.

The shal­low level of anal­y­sis is re­flected by Amer­i­can TV’s Jon Ste­wart sketch, in which the con­flict is re­duced to two sides bom­bard­ing each other, the only dif­fer­ence be­ing that “one side is bom­bet­ter at it.” Even some se­ri­ous com­men­ta­tors sim­plis­ti­cally ac­count for Is­rael’s de­ci­sions as driven by vengeance, fury, or the in­abil­ity to think straight.

In judg­ing Is­rael’s ac­tions, it is rea­son­able to scru­ti­nise the means. Even with Ha­mas wag­ing war against Is­rael’s home front from within a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, Is­raeli forces must be ready to an­swer: are we do­ing all we can to ful­fil our duty to the in­no­cent? Is­rael’s lead­ers must also face the fam­i­lies of fallen soldiers, and be able to say that ev­ery­thing was done to pro­tect them, and their loss served a nec­es­sary goal.

But no fair judg­ment of the means can be made with­out se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing the ends. In that con­text, I of­fer two as­ser­tions in the de­fence of Is­rael’s de­ci­sion­mak­ers, and two cri­tiques.

In Is­rael’s de­fence: first, faced with a sus­tained rocket bom­bard­ment across the coun­try and in­fil­tra­tions through tun­nels, Is­rael has no choice but to fight. Sec­ond, once in a fight, there is a strate­gic im­per­a­tive to emerge on top.

And the cri­tiques: first, there ap­pears to have been a fail­ure to an­tic­i­pate this round. Sec­ond, Is­rael has failed to co­a­lesce around a broader co­her­ent pol­icy to­wards the Pales­tinian is­sue.

So why did Is­rael have no choice but to fight? We need to re­mem­ber that if Ha­mas had not launched 100 rock­ets on July 7, Is­rael would not have launched Op­er­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge. If Ha­mas had ac­cepted the Egyp­tian cease­fire on July 15, there would have been no ground op­er­a­tion.

Ha­mas didn’t take these ex­its. Ha­mas used to man­age with Ira­nian money and a smug­gling econ­omy un­der the Egypt-Gaza border. But it fell out with Iran over Syria and the money dried up (though Iran kept send­ing the rock­ets). Then the Egyp­tian army booted out the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood in Cairo and shut down the tun­nel econ­omy. Mean­while, Is­lamic Ji­had and other ri­vals in the Gaza Strip have been grow­ing in fire­power and con­fi­dence.

The unity govern­ment with the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity didn’t help. Ha­mas hoped the PA would pick up the tab for its hefty wage bill, but Ab­bas said no. If he trans­ferred money to em­ploy­ees of Ha­mas – many of them “se­cu­rity’ per­son­nel” – his fund­ing from the US and EU was in dan­ger.

Ha­mas needed to change the sta­tus quo, make it­self rel­e­vant, loosen the bor­ders and get its wage bill paid. When faced with the choice to es­ca­late or step back, Ha­mas dove right into the abyss.

With hun­dreds of rock­ets tar­geted at its cities, and mil­lions flee­ing to shel­ters, Is­rael faced lim­ited op­tions. One op­tion was an all-out war to de­stroy Ha­mas. The hu­man and ma­te­rial cost would be con­sid­er­able and a danger­ous vac­uum would be left. De­spite some rhetoric from the right, and over­whelm­ing pub­lic sup­port for this ap­proach, few de­ci­sion-mak­ers want to pay this price.

At the op­po­site end of the spec­trum was the op­tion to make con­ces­sions, giv­ing Ha­mas some of what it needs to stay sol­vent, run Gaza and keep things quiet. Af­ter all, if Is­rael was not will­ing to pay the price of get­ting rid of Ha­mas, it is prefer­able to have Ha­mas ca­pa­ble of con­trol­ling the other groups. What’s more, if the Gaza econ­omy was opened up, there might be more do­mes­tic pres­sure on Ha­mas to avoid these fights, and less an­gry young men to re­cruit.

Is­rael did not choose this op­tion ei­ther, for sev­eral rea­sons. First, Is­rael is con­cerned to main­tain de­ter­rence. If Is­rael is per­ceived to have con­ceded to ter­ror­ism, it risks en­cour­ag­ing fur­ther such ad­ven­tur­ism, and not only from Ha­mas, but also Hizbol­lah and other en­e­mies. If Ha­mas or oth­ers can fire rock­ets or at­tack through tun­nels with im­punity, us­ing their civil­ian pop­u­la­tion as cover, they threaten the ba­sic abil­ity of Is­rael to func­tion.

But there is another, deeper rea­son. The Gaza Strip is not the limit of Ha­mas’s am­bi­tions. For Ha­mas, the Strip is both a base for the “re­sis­tance” against Is­rael, and the first phase of its takeover of the Pales­tinian na­tional move­ment. Help­fully, Ha­mas po­lit­i­cal leader Khaled Me­shaal spelled this out in a book re­cently pub­lished in English, stat­ing: “The aim of re­sis­tance is to pre­oc­cupy and ex­haust Is­raeli re­sources, deny the coun­try any se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity, and en­cour­age the Pales­tinian peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate in the strug­gle.”

As for the ul­ti­mate vi­sion, be in no doubt: “Re­al­ity re­in­forces the con­vic­tion that the Zion­ist project – Is­rael – has no fu­ture in the re­gion.”

SOME COM­MEN­TA­TORS in the UK do not take this se­ri­ously. Is­rael does. Is­raelis as­sume that feed­ing the al­li­ga­tor will not sat­isfy it, but rather whet its ap­petite, and strengthen it for its next at­tack. What­ever the out­come of this con­flict, Ha­mas’s mil­i­tary com­man­ders will pre­pare for the next round. We now know how Ha­mas fight­ers used their free time through­out 2013, when they weren’t fir­ing rock­ets. They were de­vel­op­ing in­dige­nous rocket pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties. They were ac­quir­ing rock­ets to reach Haifa. They were build­ing re­mote launch­ers un­der civil­ian neigh­bour­hoods. And they were build­ing a huge net­work of con­crete tun­nels and bunkers un­der She­jaiya to pro­tect their fight­ers and carry them un­der the border into Is­rael kib­butzim.

This ex­plains why Is­rael felt com­pelled to re­spond to Ha­mas with force, and to en­sure that any new ar­range­ment, even if it al­lows for Ha­mas to main­tain its po­si­tion in the Gaza Strip, is based on Is­rael’s terms, not Ha­mas’s. Is­rael aims to pre­vent Ha­mas from gain­ing any demon­stra­ble ad­van­tage from the con­flict, de­grade their ca­pa­bil­i­ties, re-es­tab­lish de­ter­rence, and do what­ever is pos­si­ble to limit their ca­pac­ity to rearm.

This is not just a pol­icy of the hawks. Knock­ing Ha­mas back is also im­por­tant to the peace camp, which is why there has been no dis­sent on that score from Tzipi Livni or Isaac Her­zog. If Is­rael can­not le­git­i­mately de­fend it­self from Is­lamists at­tack­ing it from ter­ri­tory it has evac­u­ated, the case for leav­ing the West Bank is badly un­der­mined. This con­flict will un­der­line Ne­tanyahu’s re­peated claim that in any fi­nal sta­tus agree­ment, a longterm Is­raeli pres­ence on the Jor­da­nian border will be nec­es­sary to pre­vent the West Bank be­com­ing another Gaza Strip.

IT IS also not just a pol­icy re­flect­ing Is­raeli in­ter­ests. With rad­i­cal Is­lamists cre­at­ing an arc of chaos from Le­banon to Iraq, it is in the in­ter­ests of Western states and their Arab al­lies that Ha­mas does not emerge strength­ened, a point re­flected in the re­mark­ably sup­port­ive EU state­ment of July 22. So what about the cri­tique? Is­raeli pol­icy has lacked fore­sight and ini­tia­tive. The widely-held as­sump­tion that Ha­mas was ad­e­quately de­terred from es­ca­lat­ing against Is­rael proved a mis­cal­cu­la­tion. Ha­mas was pre­pared to pay a much higher price than Is­rael an­tic­i­pated to change the sta­tus quo.

Fur­ther­more, Is­rael could have done much more to build com­mon cause with the PA and Mah­moud Ab­bas. Is­rael could have given a more con­struc­tive re­sponse to the for­ma­tion of a Pales­tinian unity govern­ment which in­cluded no Ha­mas mem­bers, and en­cour­aged the re­turn of PA forces to Gaza, as the ba­sis for eco­nomic re­gen­er­a­tion and more open bor­ders. In ad­di­tion, Is­raeli lead­ers should act and speak in a more con­sis­tent way about Is­rael’s vi­sion for a po­lit­i­cal end game ¬– two states for two peo­ples based on the 1967 lines plus swaps.

Is­raeli de­ci­sion-mak­ers are only now, be­lat­edly, grop­ing to­wards a co­her­ent po­si­tion on the fu­ture of the Gaza Strip: open bor­ders con­di­tioned on the rein­tro­duc­tion of the PA, and a cred­i­ble mech­a­nism for dis­ar­ma­ment.

So when the dust set­tles, Is­rael should ad­dress these short­com­ings. But just as the po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­li­gence fail­ures that led to the 1973 Yom Kip­pur War did not negate the need to win the war once it started, so too, here, Is­rael has had lit­tle op­tion but to meet force with force, and to try to come out on top.

One can only hope the out­come will both bring quiet to Is­raelis who have lived years un­der fire, and also cre­ate a more hope­ful fu­ture for the civil­ians of Gaza, who are pay­ing an unimag­in­able price for the self-de­struc­tive ac­tions of their lead­ers. Dr Toby Greene is the direc­tor of re­search for Bi­com. His book Blair, Labour and Pales­tine: Con­flict­ing Views on Mid­dle East Peace Af­ter 9/11 is pub­lished by Blooms­bury Aca­demic.

PHOTO: FLASH 90

The funeral of an Is­raeli sol­dier who died in the lat­est round of vi­o­lence

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