Wieseltier Is Right About The Lost Cause That Is The Peace Process

December 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

Leon Wieseltier has penned a eulogy for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his lifetime, and while this is not going to surprise anyone save the most Pollyannaish dead-enders, it is difficult to conclude that he is wrong. I’ll take it even further and say that absent armed U.S. intervention with the purpose of imposing a solution on the two parties, or concurrent Israeli and Palestinian civil wars, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime either (and Wieseltier has almost three decades on me). Wieseltier describes peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a lost cause, and he refers to a number of recent events that bolster his case – Hamas rockets, Mahmoud Abbas’s overheated rhetoric at the UN, the E1 settlement announcement, and the alliance between Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, among others. There is no doubt that the particulars of the last few years, or even the last few months, provide little reason for optimism, and Wieseltier recounts, “People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will.” This is actually where I disagree with Wieseltier, because he frames the issue as a lack of will or courage, but I think it runs much deeper. We are rapidly getting to the point, if we have not passed it already, where structural conditions make a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians impossible without an outside shock to the system, irrespective of who each side’s leaders are and whether they have the will of Rabin, Ghandi, and the Dalai Lama rolled into one.

Not only is the peace process stagnant, the situation is actually getting worse by the day rather than just cruising in a holding pattern. The reason for this is that each side’s position is hardening, but in different ways. On the Israeli side, the problem is literally a structural one, in that Israel is too intertwined in the West Bank to be able to exit it in any comprehensive manner. Let’s say the Israeli government struck a deal tomorrow and agreed to keep a few of the largest settlement blocs in return for proportional land swaps within Israel, and all that needed to be done was to evacuate the rest of the settlements (and to figure out the precise parameters of such a deal, check out this amazing new tool from the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and the Atlantic that lets you draw borders and see the precise implications in terms of population and percentage of the West Bank). There is just no way that the government could ever carry this out anymore. Gaza was a cakewalk compared to what will be when Israel orders settlers to pick up their stakes and move, and partially this is because the promises that Israel made to Gaza’s settlers on compensation and resettlement have gone unfulfilled. Just look at what happened with Migron, which is a tiny outpost, or the gnashing of teeth over settlers having to evacuate the neighborhood of Ulpana and literally move just down the street. The idea that Israel will be able to just pick up and leave when it finds a suitable negotiating partner on the other side would be a joke if people didn’t actually think it was true. Furthermore, the argument that Israel was able to pull out of Gaza or Yamit and so it will be able to pull out of the West Bank when push comes to shove is at this point hopelessly naive, as if those instances have any real bearing on the situation in the West Bank, or as if Israeli politics and public opinion can just be overcome with a government order to evacuate. This is not a question of political will in the near horizon, but one of whether a certain action can ever be accomplished under any circumstances. I hate to say that I don’t think it can, and trying to do so would ignite a full blown civil war in Israel, with settlers fighting the IDF tooth and nail and a significant portion of Israelis sympathizing with the settlers who were urged and incentivized by their government for decades to go put down roots in the West Bank.

On the Palestinian side, what is being hardened is not necessarily the physical situation on the ground but the ideological situation. For every poll showing a majority of Palestinians supporting peace negotiations there is a poll showing a majority rejecting a two state solution. More worrying than any specific poll is that Hamas now controls Gaza, is making inroads in the West Bank, and smart money is that ten years from now Hamas will be the face of the Palestinians rather than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (unless Hamas comes to control the PA). Lest you think that Hamas’s views toward Israel and accepting Israel inside the 1967 borders are moderating, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal wants to make sure that you are aware that Hamas is as radical as ever, as he reiterated to hundreds of thousands of cheering Gazans over the weekend that Hamas will literally fight to the death until Israel is gone. In addition, the apparent decision on the part of Sunni states such as Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey to prop up Hamas and the trend of emerging Islamist governments in the region means that Hamas is only going to grow stronger and be seen as more legitimate, and it follows that the same will happen to its views on negotiating a real two-state solution. Make no mistake, this is even more of a problem – and one that is just as intractable – as the problem I highlighted on the Israeli side, and once again making the problem disappear probably requires a Palestinian civil war, in which a Palestinian Authority led by a committed two-stater like Salam Fayyad defeats Hamas in open warfare.

So, is Wieseltier’s recent essay a depressing one? It is, and not just because one man has decided that the peace process is an irrevocably lost cause. It is depressing because it might be even more of a lost cause than Wieseltier acknowledges, and from where I’m sitting, I don’t see a good way out of the morass absent some terrible infighting and bloodshed on both sides. Ehud Olmert might have convinced some people that all he needed was a few more months and everything would have been solved, but a more realistic assessment suggests otherwise. That doesn’t mean that anyone should stop trying to work toward a two-state solution but it is as much of an uphill battle as exists anywhere.

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The Irrelevant Distraction That Is The Palestinian UN Bid

November 29, 2012 § 8 Comments

Since the topic du jour is the UN vote to grant observer-state status to Palestine, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents. Former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh argues at Foreign Policy that the Palestinian UN bid is actually a good thing for Israel by foreclosing a one-state solution, and I agree with much of what he says in his piece (although I think he is letting his politics get in the way of his objective judgement in blaming Bibi Netanyahu for placing conditions on negotiations rather than acknowledging that it was actually Mahmoud Abbas who imposed a set of preconditions that ended up freezing talks). Whether the Palestinian UN bid is good for Israel or bad for Israel though is in many ways academic, because the reality of the situation is that the UN vote today has almost no relevance to either side. If Israel or the Palestinian Authority thinks that this will mark any type of turning point in how the world conceives of Palestinian statehood, they are both delusional.

To begin with, the most important element for Palestinian statehood is whether or not people think of Palestine as being an independent state-like entity, and the world crossed the Rubicon on that issue long ago. A couple of decades ago, the West Bank and Gaza were almost uniformly referred to as the Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Territories, and only the most ardent partisan supporters of Palestinian statehood referred to Palestine. After the Oslo Accords, which were intended to be the first step on the road to Palestinian autonomy and which created the Palestinian Authority, the discourse began to change a bit and the term Palestine began gaining more currency, but most importantly people began to view the West Bank and Gaza as resembling a state since there was a Palestinian legislature, a president, and other political institutions that one associates with a state. In the subsequent two decades since Oslo, the term Palestine has gone from being a loaded political term to one that most of the world uses in a casually obvious manner, and it is difficult for me to recall the last time I heard the West Bank or Gaza called the Palestinian Territories in any ubiquitous way. What matters for Palestinian statehood is whether people think of the West Bank as constituting a Palestinian state rather than whether an entity called Palestine is a “permanent observer” or “non-member state permanent observer” at the UN. In this case, the dominant casual discourse is more important than international institution legalese.

Second, in 2012 the facts on the ground carry more weight than a UN declaration. Like I said, the Palestinian Authority has a president, a police force, the ability to collect and disburse revenues, ministers with different cabinet portfolios, and a host of other institutions that we associate with states. Partisans aside, most casual observers would look at the West Bank and dub it a separate state irrespective of what the UN thinks. I’ll let you in on another inconvenient fact, which is that Hamas is well on its way to a similar situation in Gaza. Hamas rules Gaza under the auspices of a prime minister, it runs a government with its own headquarters that levies taxes and issues permits, and it ostensibly participates in the Palestinian Legislative Council. As I pointed out last week, Hamas runs Gaza like a separate state and that situation is here to stay, and despite the fact that the UN is unlikely to ever recognize a Hamas-run state in Gaza, plenty of other countries already have. The Qatari emir and Egyptian prime minister have traveled to Gaza on official state visits, and Turkish PM Erdoğan has announced that he might do the same at any time. As much as nobody wants to admit it, Gaza is being treated in some quarters like a de facto state and this trend is only going to grow, and it illustrates again how perception and actions matter a lot more than a UN blessing.

There is an argument to be made that Israel’s primary concern here is that granting Palestine non-member state status will open the door toward prosecution of Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court, but Mark Goldberg has convincingly thrown cold water on that theory by pointing out the ICC prosecutor’s leeway in accepting or declining cases and highlighting the types of cases that have currently been brought before the court. I’m not as sure as he is that prosecuting Israelis would lead to European states withholding funding for the ICC, but I’d throw in the fact that if Palestinians go after Israel at the ICC, Palestinian officials are then opening themselves up to their own charges before the ICC as well, so it is very much a double edged sword. Given all of the above, if I were Israel not only would I not waste any time or effort trying to fight today’s vote, I would actually vote for Palestinian statehood as well. Doing so would go a long way toward rebutting criticism that Israel is not genuinely interested in allowing for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it would remove from the table an easy issue that people use to bash Israel, and it would create one less headache for the U.S. Israel is fighting a losing uphill battle on the statehood issue, and a meaningless UN vote is not going to change that one way or the other. The only way out is to begin serious negotiations with the PA and get out of the West Bank as soon as is humanly possible, and by dragging things out and losing one public relations battle after another, Israel is not doing itself any good.

Why Palestinian Reconciliation Would Be Bad

November 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

At some point Israel and Hamas are going to negotiate a ceasefire, and the question then becomes how to ensure that it holds and, more importantly, that Israel and Hamas move away from fighting a war every few years and toward a viable long term political solution. One of the sacred cows of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that in order for there to be a lasting peace there needs to be Palestinian unity so that Palestinians can speak with one voice. Israel has used the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as an excuse in the past not to negotiate because it viewed negotiations under those circumstances as a pointless exercise, and certainly having Hamas and the PA as separate and adversarial entities has complicated matters. Writing in the New Republic, Nathan Brown examines the ways in which Hamas might eventually moderate and lands on the issue of reconciliation as paramount:

The most promising way to force Hamas to become more moderate is to force it to be more responsive to its own public. (As a leading Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian in neighboring Egypt told me when I asked him whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution: “They will have to. Their people will make them.”) And the most promising way to ensure such responsiveness is to speed up the reconciliation between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza, so that those governments can agree to hold elections rather than jealously hold on to their own fiefdoms in a fit of paranoia. But that, in turn, will require that Israel and the international community show a greater willingness to countenance Palestinian reconciliation.

The thing is, it seems increasingly clear to me that Hamas moderation belongs in the same category as the yeti and the Loch Ness monster; its existence has long been rumored and many have claimed to have spotted it but no proof of it actually exists. Brown himself grants that the reconciliation gambit is a long shot but that it is the only option left as all the others have been exhausted, as he catalogs how the lack of Palestinian elections, the Hamas-Fatah civil war in 2007, and Hamas’s desire to keep an iron grip on Gaza have combined to destroy any hopes for Hamas moderation. If the fact that Hamas for much of this year was not itself shooting rockets at Israel but was allowing other more extreme groups to do so is touted as a sign of moderate pragmatism, then the term has lost all semblance of real meaning. The challenges from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and smaller Salafi groups in Gaza mean that Hamas must remain an intransigent foe of Israel in order not to lose credibility, as has happened to the PA in the West Bank, and outside of Hamas mounting a large scale military campaign to destroy these groups and risking a civil war in Gaza, this domestic political environment is not going to be altered. Everyone can hope that having to govern Gaza is eventually going to turn Hamas into a more moderate group, but it seems to be foolish to have any remaining reasonable expectation that this will occur.

So this being the case, what happens if Hamas and the PA reconcile? Rather than Hamas moderating, the likely scenario is that it transforms the PA rather than the PA transforms it. The PA’s credibility is gone, it is viewed as inept and incompetent, and as violent protests break out across the West Bank despite Mahmoud Abbas calling for peaceful demonstrations, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that the PA is out of touch and on the brink of collapse. While Hamas shoots rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and generally terrorizes southern Israel, Abbas spends his time trying to eliminate domestic opponents, feuds with his own prime minister Salam Fayyad, and mounts ineffective and symbolic Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations. While the PA has basically delivered nothing but deferred promises, Hamas is seen as the hero of the Palestinian resistance standing up to Israel, and its popularity in the West Bank is naturally growing as a result.  This is, of course, partially Israel’s doing as it has done little to prop up Abbas and has not made much of an effort to give West Bank Palestinians hope that the peace process is still alive. If these two groups reconcile, is there really much doubt which one is going to have the upper hand and swallow the other? I think that this is a recipe for a stronger non-pragmatic Hamas rather than a more pragmatic and conciliatory Hamas. This is compounded by the support Hamas receives from Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, who have yet to demonstrate that they have actual sway over the group, or that even if they do that they want it to moderate its stance toward Israel.

Given all of the above, I think rather than encourage a rapprochement and then hope to deal with a newly pragmatic Hamas, Israel’s best bet is to actually discourage reconciliation at all and officially recognize the reality on the ground, which is that we are dealing with two separate and independent Palestinian entities, each with their own territory and set of political institutions. Up until now, Israel has essentially taken the position that Hamas is an illegitimate entity and that it hopes the PA eventually returns to power in Gaza, but it’s time to drop this fantasy. Hamas is here to stay, and acknowledging that and then coming up with long term strategies to deal with the West Bank and Gaza separately is the next step. This then leads to a two-fold strategy that only works if both parts are carried out. First, rather than threaten to collapse the PA if it goes to the UN again and treat Abbas and Fayyad as if they are mere inconveniences to be ignored, actually work to establish a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority so that the PA can claim to have accomplished something by working with Israel. Second, treat Gaza as a completely separate entity and have the U.S. lean on Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar – all of whom are ostensibly U.S. allies in the region – to keep Hamas in line, but this time with the added force of arguing that Israel actually is willing to truly work with a peaceful Palestinian partner. This second part only works if the first part is there too, since otherwise the argument to keep Hamas isolated falls apart. If the Turks and the Egyptians can actually work to change Hamas’s behavior, great. If not, hopefully an actual Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead Palestinians in Gaza to reject the Hamas approach on their own once they see that there is a genuine alternative.

Is this actually viable? I honestly don’t know. It requires Abbas to come to the negotiating table without a list of preconditions and demands, requires Israel to actually do something about the settlements in the West Bank, and requires Hamas’s Sunni patrons to exert what sway they have and actually be more convincing and forceful than the prospect of amassing more Iranian Fajr-5 missiles. That’s a lot of big ifs, but if the Palestinians living in Gaza can actually see that there are tangible benefits to the more pragmatic PA approach, then maybe Hamas actually will be forced to be more responsive to its own public and Israel can finally stop pretending that there is a permanent military solution to dealing with Hamas.

The Big Picture In Gaza

November 19, 2012 § 7 Comments

Since my focus last week was mostly on the particulars of the fighting between Israel and Hamas, I thought I’d try and take a step back and look at some of the larger issues at play here, both present and future. Today’s post is really three condensed into one, and I might expand on some or all of these at length later this week, but it is useful for me to think out loud a bit here and assess what I have been right about, what I have been wrong about, and try and figure out where this whole thing will lead.

First up is Turkey. I noted Turkey’s initial silence over Operation Pillar of Cloud last week, and argued that we should expect to see a tempered response from Turkey and one that is driven by Egypt more than anything else going forward. It looks like one of those predictions was correct, and it wasn’t the one about a tempered response. It took him a couple of days, but Prime Minister Erdoğan opened up on Israel with both barrels on Friday, calling Israel barbaric, accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of bombing Gaza for “fabricated reasons,” and bringing back his old charge that Israel knows how to kill children very well. As I wrote last week, I expected a Turkish response but I thought it would be a quieter one. I think my analysis was actually correct – and let me reiterate that it took Erdoğan two days to say a thing, which is as out of character as it gets – but what I wasn’t thinking about was that at some point Erdoğan was going to feel the need to respond in a forceful way. Domestic politics and Turkey’s past statements on Israel weren’t going to let Erdoğan just sit this out, and I was too focused on the immediate short term rather than on the pressures that were going to build up the longer this went on. Nevertheless, Erdoğan so far has been deferring to Morsi and the Egyptians, and is sending Ahmet Davutoğlu to Gaza on Tuesday (in contrast to Morsi sending Egyptian PM Hesham Qandil last Friday) with a group of Arab foreign ministers. The point is that despite Erdoğan’s verbal bombast, which I should have anticipated, Turkey is not at all out front on this but is content to be following the crowd, and that is significant.

Next topic is what this whole mess does to the prospects of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. I have argued for awhile that opposition from the cabinet, the IDF, and the Israeli public meant that a strike on Iran was not going to happen. I think this might now change for two reasons. First, the rockets from Gaza underscore the threat of missile attacks on Israel, and this is only enhanced by the fact that Hamas has obviously been supplied by Iran with Fajr-5 missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. If Iran is giving Fajr-5 missiles to Hamas, many Israelis are going to ask themselves whether the assumption that Iran would never supply Hamas with a nuclear missile is perhaps wishful thinking. It was much easier to not feel it necessary to launch a preemptive strike on Iran when there weren’t Iranian missiles being launched at Israeli cities, and my hunch is that the Iranian component to this is going to make Israelis more hawkish on the subject and think about how crowding in stairwells and bomb shelters is one thing for poorly made rockets and a whole different can of worms for Iranian nuclear missiles. Second, when it comes to the security cabinet and the IDF top brass in particular, the reporting on the subject has left the distinct impression that many of the generals and perhaps Ehud Barak as well believe that Iran is rational in the sense of being deterrable and that Iran would never nuke Israel. The problem now is that Hamas is being pounded by the IDF and from a rational deterrence perspective should have ceased firing rockets long ago, but clearly hasn’t got that message. The people who argue that extreme anti-Israel Islamist groups, irrespective of whether they are Sunni Palestinian nationalists or Shia Islamic revolutionaries, are irrational now have a pretty big datapoint in their favor and will be making their argument loudly and often, and I’d think this will have some effect on the upper echelons of the Israeli security establishment. My own view is that there are significant differences between Hamas and Iran that make a parallel comparison inapt, but the point is not what I think but what many Israelis will think after having gone through the experience of air raid sirens and rockets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Don’t be surprised to see public opinion polls on a unilateral Israeli strike shift in the months ahead.

Saving the most important point for last, there is the question of what Israel hopes to gain long term from the current war with Hamas. The Israelis talk a lot about reestablishing deterrence, although it is certainly an open question whether deterrence in this case is long gone. Jeffrey Goldberg asked on Friday what Israel’s long term strategy is here and argued that there is no way out militarily and that the only viable path is for Israel to demonstrate that it is serious about a two state solution. As it happens, I agree with this completely, but I also recognize that plenty of people find this argument to be naive. After all, Israel has withdrawn from Lebanon and from Gaza, and been met both times with rockets from Hizballah and Hamas. Furthermore, Hamas’s stated goal is not a two state solution but the elimination of Israel, and thus settlements are really ancillary to the picture when it comes to Hamas. These are facts that are tough to get around, particularly in one blog post, so let me reframe this another way. In the last four decades, Israel went from dealing mainly with plane hijackings and stone throwing, to suicide bombs on buses and in pizzerias and hotels, to a constant stream of hundreds of rockets a year on southern Israel and now on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well. Over that same period, Israel went from dealing with a stateless and non-governmental Palestine Liberation Organization to a quasi-governmental Palestinian Authority with autonomy over certain areas of the West Bank to a terrorist Hamas controlling Gaza in its entirety, and despite the current military operation Israel is desperately hoping that Hamas does not fall because it is viewed as far more pragmatic than the other fanatical Islamist groups operating in Gaza. Despite Israel’s massive military advantage, by any measure this is not a track record of long term success. It is rather a record of abysmal and abject failure. As awful as Hamas and rocket attacks are, the thrust of recent history suggests that whatever comes next will be that much worse. A new approach is needed that focuses on a political solution rather than a military one and anyone arguing otherwise is being willfully blind to the limits of what the IDF can reasonably accomplish.

A Quick Note On Rockets At Jerusalem

November 16, 2012 § 3 Comments

There are all sorts of reports and firsthand accounts over Twitter that Hamas has started shooting rockets at Jerusalem and Hamas itself has claimed that it shot a rocket toward the Knesset.  It doesn’t appear that any rockets have hit Jerusalem proper, and it sounds as if they fell instead on Gush Etzion, which is a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem. Where the rockets have landed is not as important as where they were intended to go though, and shooting at Jerusalem is a big, big deal for a couple of reasons.

First, the limited historical experience that Israelis have with this sort of thing is that Jerusalem is generally not targeted. During the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein shot 42 Scuds at Israel and 39 of them landed, and they were all aimed at Tel Aviv and Haifa, but not at Jerusalem. During the 2006 war with Hizballah, Jerusalem was not targeted despite the rumored presence of long-range rockets in Hizballah’s arsenal. When Iran has made threats to attack Israel, Tel Aviv has been mentioned but not Jerusalem. The oft-stated Palestinian desire to liberate Jerusalem is a reference to pushing Israel out rather than destroying the city. Targeting Tel Aviv is not a surprise to Israelis, but sending large scale ordinance in the direction of Jerusalem is very much out of the ordinary.

Second, leaving aside the historical experience, there has been a presumption that Jerusalem would be left alone because of the makeup of its population and what the city contains. There is a large Palestinian population in East Jerusalem of over 200,000 people, and shooting notoriously unreliable and inaccurate rockets at Jerusalem is taking a huge chance of killing large numbers of Jerusalem’s Arab residents. While Hamas sent suicide bombers to Jerusalem with alarming frequency in the past, blowing up a bus or cafe in West Jerusalem meant killing large numbers of Jews. Sending rockets is a crap shoot, and while Jews are the obvious target, there is by no means a guarantee that Hamas will actually hit where they are aiming. In addition, Jerusalem is a patchwork mosaic of sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, whereas Tel Aviv and Haifa are not. Just imagine what would happen if a Hamas rocket hit the Old City and did any damage at all to the Temple Mount; the consequences of that are literally unimaginable.

Targeting Jerusalem is an enormous escalation and very risky, much more so than rockets toward Tel Aviv. Rocketing Tel Aviv to my mind guaranteed an eventual Israeli ground invasion, but attempting to bombard Jerusalem just exacerbates the situation to an exponential degree. Blake Hounshell tweeted earlier that Hamas firing at Jerusalem is the equivalent of scoring on your own goal, and I think that analogy is an apt one. It says to me that Hamas is getting desperate, and I think this move is going to backfire in a big way, both in terms of creating a more ferocious Israeli response and costing Hamas important points in the court of public opinion. Hamas is now acting in ways that could cause large numbers of Palestinian casualties and damage to Muslim holy sites, and I think that there will be consequences for this strategy.

The IDF’s Counterproductive Social Media Campaign

November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy yesterday, and I am reposting it here.

Ever since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Cloud on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari, the official IDF Twitter feed has been working overtime to publicize Israeli military exploits.

As of this writing, the feed has published 88 tweets since Wednesday. It began with the announcement over Twitter that Israel had launched a military campaign against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, continued with posting video footage of Jabari’s car being blown up by an IDF missile, and then moved on to taunting Hamas fighters not to “show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

This prompted a response from Hamas over Twitter that Israel had “Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves” and that Israeli leaders and soldiers would be targeted no matter where they were, lending new meaning to the term cyberwarfare. The IDF’s utilization of Twitter became such a big story that there were rumors, which turned out to be uncorroborated, that Twitter had suspended the IDF’s account over terms of service violations for posting the Jabari assassination video. All in all, it is clear that using Twitter to encourage its supporters and drive media coverage is a purposeful component of the Israel’s public diplomacy strategy while it is fighting Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The strategy certainly has its supporters, as it has been described as an effective way to explain “the morality of the war it [the IDF] is fighting” and as “the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years.”

But the IDF’s barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one. And while Israel always faces an uphill battle in winning the world’s approval for reasons that are beyond its control, there are some lessons it has not absorbed.

The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base. In posting a video of Jabari’s car exploding in a fireball or issuing blustery warnings to Hamas to stay hidden, the IDF is trying to galvanize its supporters and mobilize the pro-Israel community into retweeting and posting messages on Facebook that bolster Israel’s case and create the impression that Israel will be able to rout Hamas and eliminate the rocket fire coming from Gaza. This is an effective way to rally those who are already with you, but it is unlikely to win any new supporters. People inclined to criticize Israeli military action are not going to be swayed by such appeals, and the evidence suggests that Israel is not trying very hard to target this demographic. Mobilizing your own supporters is great, but ultimately widening your circle rather than deepening it is going to be needed in order to blunt some of the criticism that is bound to come once Operation Pillar of Cloud has concluded.

Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation. Partly this was fueled by the sheer number of casualties — a number that was deeply tragic but also unsurprising given Hamas’s strategy of purposely embedding itself in the civilian population — but partly it was fueled by things like T-shirts depicting Palestinians in crosshairs, suggesting disgustingly poor taste at best and a disregard for the terrible consequences of war at worst.

Publicizing posters of Jabari with the word “Eliminated” do not rise to the same level, but do not send the message that Israel should be sending. The IDF in this case is trumpeting the killing of an unapologetic terrorist leader, and nobody should shed a tear for Jabari for even a moment, but the fact remains that many people, particularly among the crowd that Israel needs to be courting, are deeply skeptical of Israeli intentions generally and tend not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. They cast a wary eye on Israeli militarism and martial behavior, and crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF’s Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.

Israel is proud of its ability to hit Hamas where it most hurts, and understandably wants to make Hamas leaders think twice before escalating rocket attacks against civilian population centers. Nevertheless, the IDF Twitter feed over the past two days is going to great lengths to inadvertently ensure that Israel once again wins a tactical military victory but loses the overall battle, further contributing to its own international isolation and a fresh round of vociferous condemnations once the dust has cleared.

Guest Post: Egypt’s Gaza Conundrum

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

After I analyzed the Israeli decision making calculus on Gaza on Monday, Zack Gold, who is an astute Middle East analyst and tweets from @ZLGold, rightly took me to task for neglecting to examine the Egypt angle. I asked Zack if he’d be willing to write a guest post filling in the large gap that I had left, and between now and then Israel has launched Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza and Egypt has responded, making Zack’s post all the more timely. In addition, I argued in the Atlantic that Egypt is likely to be more active in pressuring Israel over the Palestinians, but Zack has a different view contrary to mine and comes at it from an interesting angle, and I like to air as wide a debate as possible here at O&Z. So without further ado, here is Zack on the Egyptian reaction to Israel’s operations in Gaza.

The recent flare-up in tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Gaza, and especially the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense yesterday, has had me watching for reaction across the border in Egypt. Michael wrote a post on Monday on the likelihood of a wider Israeli operation in Gaza. I agreed with many of his points, but I was surprised that a post on Israeli policy towards Gaza didn’t take into account the reaction of a post-revolution Egypt. Michael graciously invited me to write a guest-post on the topic.

The theory that Israel lost its strategic depth on the Gaza front with Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, is two-fold. First, a democratic leader of Egypt will have to be more responsive to public opinion; and whether Islamist, liberal, revolutionary, Nasserist, Muslim, or Copt, pretty much the only thing that all Egyptians agree on is animosity towards Israel.

In addition to the pressure from the street, it was likely that any Egyptian leader not from the ancien régime would view Gaza differently than had Mubarak. This is not because Mubarak was an American-Zionist stooge, but his regime viewed Hamas in the same light as he viewed his most powerful opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. That Egypt’s post-revolutionary president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from the Brotherhood is all the more reason to assume the Egyptian government would not sit still during a major Israeli operation in Gaza, as Mubarak’s had during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

So the Israeli government has gambled that Egypt will not react as a changed nation or decided that even if it does the reaction is worthwhile because the threat from Gaza is too great. More worrisome would be that Operation Pillar of Defense is a short-term political decision: acting against an immediate threat to the homeland, right before an election, in a way that may damage longer-term strategic interests.

As of this writing, Egypt has not acted in the tempestuous way one might expect. It is possible that—the Israeli operation so fresh—the Egyptian government has been able to issue harsh statements, to recall its ambassador, and to call for discussions at the United Nations, but not had enough time to plan a more thorough response. Indeed, the “street” has not even had a chance to mobilize yet: small gatherings of leftists and revolutionaries have rallied and marched in Cairo, but the Muslim Brotherhood has called for nationwide demonstrations this afternoon (a public holiday) and tomorrow.

At the same time, there are several reasons the Egyptian government may not react as expected. First is the issue of proximity. Unlike Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to Cast Lead, it is difficult for Morsi to be a champion on the “Arab street” when his actions will have important consequences for his own nation. He may refuse to utter the word “Israel,” and his Muslim Brotherhood seeks to quietly diminish relations, but the Egyptian president has continued to stand by the peace treaty. Max Fisher speculated that Egypt could open up the Gaza border: breaking the blockade and allowing in necessary aid. But opening the border is a two-way street, which could allow a portion of 1.5 million Palestinians to flow freely across the border: giving Egypt more responsibility for Gazans’ wellbeing.

An overflow of Palestinian refugees would also exacerbate Egypt’s own economic woes, which also limit its actions towards Gaza. At the very moment the situation unfolds across the Gaza-Israel border, in Cairo the government is sitting down with IMF officials to negotiate a much need $4.5b loan. Egypt just secured $6.3b from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but that money will be tied to IMF approval. Not to mention the $1.5b annual contract with the Americans. In addition to government loans and grants, Egypt needs private investment. But if Egypt breaks its post-revolutionary commitment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel then investors are less to risk whether it will stand by other commitments.

Finally, post-revolutionary Egypt is still struggling to make the transition to a post-revolutionary system. Morsi is also held back by the Egyptian military and interior ministry, which are “chasing ghosts” in the Sinai: smugglers and Salafi jihadis with links to Gaza. Indeed the Egyptian president’s first attempt to change the status quo was cut short by the August 5 attack that left 16 soldiers and guards dead near the border with Israel and Gaza.

Morsi is trying to raise Egypt up as a regional powerbroker, but he is stunted by domestic problems. For now, it seems, Morsi has settled on statements and for calling on others (namely the United States and the United Nations) to halt the violence. As he meets with members of his cabinet and security apparatus—and as Egypt’s population mobilizes in support of Gaza—it has yet to be seen if Egypt’s first post-revolution president will act any differently from his pre-revolution predecessor.

The Israel Calculus On Gaza

November 12, 2012 § 11 Comments

Israel has been dealing with a constant barrage of rockets and shelling from Gaza since last week, and despite Egyptian claims to have mediated a ceasefire yesterday, it has apparently had no effect as the rockets have continued unabated today. Bibi Netanyahu warned foreign ambassadors yesterday that Israel might have no choice but to launch a ground operation into Gaza, and the Israeli press is rife with speculation that Cast Lead redux is about to begin.

On the face of it this may seem like a risky move. A ground operation into Gaza is bound to lead to civilian casualties and international opprobrium, along with the inevitable resulting Israeli investigatory commission. Also factoring in is that this is the second day in a row that Israel has fired at Syria in response to Syrian shooting at Israeli positions in its attempt to hit rebel fighters – the same dynamic that has been occurring along the Turkish border. If Israel goes after Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza, the possibility always exists for Hizballah to seize on Israel’s preoccupation in the south and launch its own rockets in the north, and between Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and Hizballah, it is the latter that is the far graver danger and more serious threat. Looming in the background of all of this is Iran, and how a large scale operation in Gaza might danger Israel’s diplomatic efforts to keep the pressure on the regime in Tehran. And of course, with elections coming in January, Netanyahu might be loathe to undertake any big risks right now that will endanger his presumptive reelection, and any large operation into Gaza is undoubtedly a big risk.

Despite all this, unless Egypt is actually successful and the rockets stop in the next two or three days, I think we are going to see Israel go into Gaza with air strikes and ground forces. To begin with, Israel has never been hesitant to do what it must to establish deterrence against Hamas, and the IDF is probably concluding right now that any hint of deterrence it might have created following Cast Lead is gone. It is an open question as to whether such deterrence ever existed, but the rocket escalation leaves little doubt that Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed groups in Gaza have zero qualms right now about targeting Israel civilians with rocket fire. No government can afford to let such attacks continue, and certainly the Israel government has not historically been shy about going after Hamas when it feels it is necessary.

The security angle is prominent, but there is a political angle as well. Netanyahu has been campaigning on security issues pretty much his entire political life, and the current campaign is no different. His focus on security is so strong that Kadima, in what can only be described as a last ditch effort amongst its death throes, has adopted as its campaign slogan “Bibi is endangering us” superimposed against a backdrop of a mushroom cloud. The irony of Netanyahu’s hawkish public persona is that he has never presided over a large military operation during either of his two tenures as prime minister, but as risky as it may be to send ground forces into Gaza right now, he cannot afford to just sit on his hands. A man running for prime minister whose primary rationale for reelection is that only he is prepared to do what is necessary to keep Israel safe cannot sit idly by as rockets rain down on southern Israeli towns and have any hope of winning the election. From an electoral standpoint, I don’t think Netanyahu has any choice but to respond with force and hope that the IDF is prepared for what it will encounter in the streets and warrens of Gaza City. If Netanyahu cannot deal with the threat emanating from his own backyard, he cannot credibly claim to be able to deal with the threat coming from Iran.

Compounding this situation is the fact that the other Israeli political parties are egging Netanyahu and Likud on. Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Habayit Hayehudi have all called for military operations hitting Hamas or the resumption of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and even Labor has made a nebulous recommendation for “military and diplomatic pressure.” The only significant party urging a ceasefire is Meretz. This means that the longer Netanyahu waits to move on Gaza, the longer he will have to face calls from political rivals urging immediate actions, and every day this goes on endangers Netanyahu’s electoral prospects. It is one thing to take your time when the other parties are calling for calm, but quite another when elections are coming up and nearly every party across the political spectrum is calling for some form of action. As an aside, this also goes to show just how dead the peace camp is in Israel, and why Ehud Olmert’s apparent plan to reenter politics and campaign on the basis of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians is going to be a disastrous miscalculation (more on that later this week).

As I noted yesterday on twitter, I think Israeli military action has crossed the threshold of being a lot more likely than not. As historically risk-averse as he might be, Netanyahu is not going to just wait this out. Security necessity and political calculations are both moving in the same direction here, and I think that we are about to see a Cast Lead-type incursion.

P.S. If this does indeed happen, I am going to be a busy man given what it will do to Turkish-Israeli relations in light of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas and imminent trip to Gaza.

Exposing the Lie of Hamas Moderation

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hamas seems to be begging Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead, The Sequel. 45 rockets were fired by Hamas into Israel on Tuesday following the cross-border attack from Egyptian territory on Monday, confining much of southern Israel to bomb shelters. There is never an excuse for rockets directed toward civilians, and Hamas is barely even pretending to have a justification this time around. Hamas claims that the rocket barrage is a response to Israeli airstrikes, but the real reason Hamas is now returning to its strategy of indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians is that it is beginning to feel squeezed by other groups that are questioning Hamas’s commitment to armed resistance. As pointed out in the New York Times, Islamic Jihad’s more militant approach has garnered it growing popularity and Hamas does not want to be eclipsed by its smaller competitors. More saliently though, the attack on Monday coming from the Sinai and for which a group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida has claimed responsibility put even more pressure on Hamas, since it cannot afford to be seen sitting on the sidelines while an outside non-Palestinian group carries the banner of resistance against Israel. Hamas is madly trying to reestablish its credentials of taking the fight to Israel, and it does so by firing rockets from Gaza because it has no other long term strategy and no interest in a productive solution. It is being tarred as too compliant and willing to live with the status quo, and so Israeli civilians have to bear the brunt of it reflexing its muscles. Let’s also not pretend that any of this is a “legitimate response to Israeli aggression” since it’s pretty clear who made the first move here, not to mention that purposely targeting civilian communities with rockets is never a legitimate response to anything.

Hamas is gambling that with Israeli tanks moving toward the Egyptian border and Iran presumably occupying the Israeli defense ministry’s attention, the IDF will have neither the time or the inclination to bother with a large scale response to rocket fire that has thankfully not killed any Israelis yet. This is a bad miscalculation on Hamas’s part. Israel’s first priority is protecting its citizens from attack, and should this rocket fire continue, I fully expect to see an IDF incursion into Gaza. Israel is not going to be frightened off by a Morsi victory in Egypt, and is also unlikely to sit back and absorb rocket fire as a favor to the Egyptian military, which does not want to be pressured by public opinion into fighting Hamas’s battles. This is not destined to end well for Hamas should it provoke a real Israeli response, and yet Hamas is bafflingly more concerned with not being outshined by smaller resistance groups.

In this vein, the most important takeaway from this episode is that it is time to lay to rest forever the idea that Hamas is moderating or will moderate. When Israel pulled out of Gaza and Hamas took control of the strip from the Palestinian Authority, I thought there was a small but legitimate chance that Hamas would begin to transition away from terrorizing Israeli civilians and start focusing on governance. Any hopes I had on this front have been thoroughly dashed. Despite the recent relative quiet, it is clear that Hamas is not changing. It remains a revanchist group dedicated not to building a state but to seeking the elimination of Israel entirely, and it continues to be a hostage to small bore thinking without seeing the larger trends at work in the region. Islamist groups throughout the Middle East, from Ennahda in Tunisia to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are devoting their attention to governing, and while they are not necessarily forces for moderation or social progress, they recognize that the key to long term survival and relevance is basic party politics and the nitty gritty of learning how to run a state. Hamas evinces zero interest in following this path, which should permanently kill the notion that it is a legitimate Islamist political party that also happens to have a military wing. It is everlastingly obsessed with the idea of resistance above state building, purity above compromise. Is there anyone left still so naive as to think that a complete and total Israeli pullout from the West Bank would put an end to Hamas rockets, attacks on civilians, and efforts to abduct Israeli soldiers? Rather than prepare its constituents to live with the inevitability of Israel and attempt to improve their lot, Hamas is more concerned with looking tough and whether other groups are damaging its street cred. What a terrible and pathetic representative for the people of Gaza.

Look at the revolutionary trends rocking the rest of the Arab world, and then compare that to the stale stasis that grips Hamas as it remains impervious to change or adaptation and refuses to embrace any new role other than resistance in the form of barbarism. It is as it always was: an opaque organization with a super secretive process for selecting its leaders and making decisions, with the only difference that it now shoots rockets at Israeli civilians rather than blowing them up on buses or in cafes. I desperately think that Israel needs to deal with the Palestinian Authority to end the occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state, but Hamas is an altogether different breed and its actions yesterday were the latest abundantly clear demonstration of this. The attack from the Sinai and the rockets from Gaza are an important reminder that Israel lives in a nasty neighborhood and that there are some things which it will never be able to inoculate itself against no matter how it resolves the Palestinian issue. Nobody argues that Israel is threatening or occupying any part of Egypt and yet it still faces attacks coming from the Sinai, which pose a terrible dilemma for Jerusalem since it does not want to enter into any hostilities with the Egyptians but cannot afford to just let these provocations continue. This is where the double standard that governs all things Israeli kicks in, since every country in the world has the absolute right to respond to cross-border attacks (and this applies both to Egypt and Gaza) but by doing so Israel walks into an inevitable public relations trap. If Israel goes back into Gaza, every Palestinian civilian life that is lost will be an unqualified tragedy, but it will be entirely on Hamas’s head.

Not All Unilateral Withdrawals Are Created Equal

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

There has been lots of buzz in Israel lately about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Ami Ayalon and his colleagues at Blue White Future wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in April arguing that a unilateral approach would lay the groundwork for a two state solution by allowing settlers to voluntarily relocate west of the Green Line and reducing tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides while establishing a preliminary border based on the security fence. Then yesterday at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference, which draws nearly every important Israeli politician and defense heavyweight, Ehud Barak said that a unilateral withdrawal must be considered by the government if negotiations with the Palestinians remain at an impasse. Barak immediately came under fire from the Palestinian Authority, which said that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would destroy any hopes for a negotiated two state solution, and from other Israeli government ministers such as Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who called Barak’s suggestion a dangerous idea and accused him of naivete. The prime minister’s office also distanced itself from Barak’s remarks and made it clear that Barak was speaking for himself rather than for the government.

There are two major objections to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, one from the left and one from the right. The one from the left is that Israel has committed itself to negotiations with the Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state, and any moves to sidestep a negotiated solution are a violation of the Oslo Accords. I find this argument to be unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the Palestinian Authority has itself embraced unilateralism when it finds it to be convenient, such as its efforts to have the UN recognize an independent state of Palestine outside any negotiating framework with Israel. If unilateralism is ok for one side, then it is ok for the other. Second, and more importantly, the party that is currently refusing to return to the negotiating table is not the Israelis but the Palestinians. I have written before about the strategic foolishness of setting negotiating preconditions but the additional problem here is that whatever one may think of Bibi Netanyahu’s policy on settlements or his actual desires regarding an independent Palestinian state, he is not currently the obstacle to restarting negotiations. If the Palestinians were willing to sit down tomorrow, the Israelis would meet with them immediately, so the PA blasting unilateral moves as an unwillingness to negotiate when they themselves are refusing to hold talks smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order. There simply cannot be a negotiation when one side refuses to enter the room.

The objection to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank from the right is that the Gaza withdrawal was a terrible mistake that created a terrorist enclave, emboldened Hamas, and subjected Israel to a constant barrage of rockets raining down on southern Israeli towns. These are all valid concerns, but I think the comparison to the Gaza withdrawal is not the correct one to make since the circumstances are different in a few important ways. To begin with, Israel withdrew from Gaza completely and not entirely on its own terms. In contrast, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would still leave Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley and Israel has determined the precise spot to which it would withdraw by constructing the security fence. Furthermore, while Gaza was a Hamas stronghold before Israel pulled out, the West Bank is under the firm control of the Palestinian Authority and that control has only increased in recent months as Mahmoud Abbas has cracked down on dissenters. The Palestinian Authority is far from perfect, but no serious observer would suggest that there is not a large qualitative difference between the PA and Hamas, both in terms of temperament and willingness to coexist with Israel. In addition, while Hamas has been able to smuggle rocket parts and weapons into Gaza through the Rafah tunnels along the border with Egypt, a tunnel system in the West Bank would be impossible since it shares a border with Israel and the Jordan River. Even if Hamas were to come to power in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority reversed course and decided to launch a rocket war, the means to do so would be extremely limited as any smuggling taking place would be above ground and far easier for Israel to detect and stop.

There is also an important difference between Gaza and the West Bank in terms of environment and incentives. Gaza has always been more crowded and impoverished than the West Bank, and when Israel withdrew there was an argument embraced by many that there was little left to lose by taking the fight to Israel. There was also the fact that Israel wasn’t holding any more cards; it had withdrawn completely and Hamas was not interested in any negotiating toward a state anyway, so until Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead, there was little incentive for Hamas not to shoot rockets over the border. The West Bank, however, is not Gaza. The economy is much better, the quality of life is much higher, and Palestinians in the West Bank have a lot more to lose by risking a large scale Israeli military incursion. In addition, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal does not mean that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has nothing left to gain through negotiations. There will still be an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians will still not have a state along the borders that they desire and certainly will not have any part of East Jerusalem as their capital  (and unlike Hamas, the PA’s stated goal is establishing a viable state). In short, the incentive structure for West Bank Palestinians following a hypothetical Israel withdrawal is vastly different than it was for Gazan Palestinians following the Israeli disengagement in 2005.

An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank certainly is fraught with dangers both known and unknown. That does not, however, mean that it will automatically carry with it the same consequences as the Gaza withdrawal did. Barak is right in noting that Israel at some point is going to have to do something, since holding onto the West Bank indefinitely is not a real option and Palestinian intransigence in negotiating needs to be met with some sort of response. The immediate PA attack on the idea itself gives you a good idea of whether Palestinian officials think that a unilateral withdrawal is in their best interests, and perhaps the credible threat of withdrawal will give them the kick they need to resume negotiations. In any event, the idea of unilateral withdrawal should not be so casually dismissed with facile comparisons to Gaza.

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