This piece also appears at TPM Cafe
On day 10 of the Gaza crisis I would like to weigh in with some thoughts on (1) what needs to happen next and what a more rational, more thoughtful pro-Israel position might look like, (2) on this human tragedy that is unfolding and how to create incentives to sustain a future ceasefire (3) on the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and some of the nonsense propaganda on “what would you expect America to do under these circumstances,” (4) how this is an American problem too in an already dangerously destabilized region that so impacts American security and finally (5) how congress needs to give political space to the incoming Obama administration to get to work on a very challenging Middle East, and not to box Obama in.
1. WHAT NEXT AND WHAT’S PRO-ISRAEL: There is a heated debate within the pro-Israel community regarding the Gaza crisis, and I am very much in agreement with the position of J Street, (and others such as APN, Brit Tzedek, and IPF) representing I think a mainstream, responsible line. Here, for me, is a key point – US political posturing should not deny Israel or the Palestinians an exit strategy.
Israel’s leaders are for now rejecting a ceasefire. That is to be expected. Of course the Israeli leadership has to sound tough and uncompromising in their positions, that’s part of the dynamic of who has a winning narrative and is of course part of the domestic politics (especially with elections coming up on February 10th). This should not be confused with a cold look at the respective interests at play – and for Israel getting bogged down in Gaza is a distinctly bad idea.
The way this is set up politically means that Israel has to have a ceasefire imposed on it – this seems to be what Defense minister Barak is looking for and he favored the French proposal for a truce last week even before the ground invasion began. The speculation among Israeli commentators is that an international demand for a ceasefire is pretty much the only exit strategy Israel has up its sleeve, even suggesting that Israel may intentionally exacerbate a humanitarian crisis in order to force the international community to act (that was the expert analysis on Israeli channel 10 TV last night). Things are made even more complicated by the fact two of the ministers leading the country are competing in the elections next month – MoD Barak and FM Livni. So it’s not just Israel that needs a winning narrative – each minister needs his/her own particular winning narrative. So an outside push is a prerequisite for ending this.
In this respect it is reminiscent of the dynamic in Lebanon in 2006 where it took 33 days to get a U.N. Security Council Resolution (1701) and an end to violence. This time on day 10, things may, in some short-term respects, look good for Israel but this is unlikely to be the case by day 33. An America that again sits on the sidelines and does not help work towards an urgent ceasefire is doing Israel no favors.
So what needs to happen next? The elements for a ceasefire are known – ending the rocket strikes, violence and military incursions in a sustainable way, ending the blockade on Gaza, preventing new arms from entering Gaza and international monitoring for these arrangements/border crossings — now they need to be stitched together. For that to work, Hamas needs to be a party to the ceasefire arrangements. The alternatives – ongoing Israeli occupation, Israel handing control to the PA or international/Arab forces are either highly unrealistic or highly undesirable and dangerous. However, if Israel does get tempted to go for regime change and removing Hamas then these become the only options that are left, and Gaza will descend into the kind of lawless chaos which is a gift to al-Qaeda style Salafists and will create a Somalia on its doorstep.
2. THE HUMAN TRAGEDY: There is a dire humanitarian situation unfolding here – irrespective of one’s views on Israel or Hamas, this needs to be addressed. Not even the bare minimum of supplies are able to enter Gaza. In addition to the over 500 deaths, one quarter of whom were women and children and many more civilians including police, hospitals are running on emergency power, water and sewage systems are collapsing and basic necessities are unavailable (see the UN OCHA report and ICRC for more information).
And in this respect Gaza is not Southern Lebanon, there is no hinterland for the civilian population to escape to as there was with Lebanon. Gazan borders with Egypt and Israel are totally blocked and that only leaves the sea – where there is an Israeli naval blockade.
The blockade on Gaza is nothing new and this is crucial in also understanding the political situation. Since Israel’s departure in 2005 and even during the 6 month ceasefire a closure was also imposed on Gaza (sometimes more harsh, sometimes less so). Collective punishment is never good from a moral perspective but it also makes no political sense – it meant that no incentives were created among the Palestinian public to support a continued ceasefire and to act as a pressure against those firing rockets. Hamas is attentive to public pressure and this basic equation was ignored. From the Israeli side, after 6 months in which there was no fatality, and life began to return to normal for the southern communities, there is now rocket fire extending further than ever and schools are closed.
3. REMEMBER THE BIGGER PICTURE – this crisis has to be firmly understood in the context of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes the conflict has been exploited on many sides and certainly by Iran and other hardliners in the region but if the unaddressed Palestinian grievance did not exist then it would not be there to exploit (also by Hamas although my reading of Hamas is that first and foremost they have a nationalist Palestinian agenda that would be sufficiently satisfied were there to be real de-occupation for them to end armed resistance).
The peace process and certainly in its new Annapolis incarnation has failed to deliver and there is an urgent need for a rethink. Destruction on this scale is hard to describe as an opportunity but it is a reminder that a sham peace process — that delivers more settlements and checkpoints instead of independence for Palestinians and security for Israelis – cannot produce stability.
There is also some appalling misinformation being spread – one frequently hears the claim that Israel left Gaza in 2005 in order to build peace but all it received was terror. I appreciate the Gaza evacuation of 2005 and how difficult it was and I in no way condone the launching of rockets against civilian targets from Gaza but the unilateral nature of the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake (and I said it at the time) and I don’t appreciate this rewriting of history. Israel at the time did not evacuate Gaza as part of the peace process. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explicitly said that Israel “will stay in the territories that will remain.” His most senior adviser who was in charge of the disengagement, Dov Weisglass, was even more explicit stating that the plan would freeze the peace process and “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…it supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” This was brought out by the fact that, as mentioned, Gaza was immediately placed under closure – and those who blame the Gazans for not developing their economy post-occupation should be reminded of that.
We also frequently hear the claim – what would America do if it came under rocket fire from Canada or Mexico? Again, there can be no justification for rockets targeting Israel’s south, and of course America would respond if it were under fire from Canada or Mexico. But let’s at least complete the analogy and here is that bigger picture. Gaza constitutes under 6 percent of the ’67 territory in which a Palestinian state is supposed to be created (Gaza, West Bank, Palestinian East Jerusalem), about 94 percent remains under occupation so under our scenario 94 percent of Canada or Mexico would have remained under a 40 plus year American occupation with settlements and roadblocks, and with the “liberated” 6 percent still under siege. Now I like the Mexicans and Canadians as much as the next person but is it totally inconceivable that under such circumstances some of them would have formed hardline armed groups that would even become very popular and use that 6 percent of territory to launch attacks against America? I will leave it to your imagination.
4. THIS IS ALSO AN AMERICAN PROBLEM. There is growing anger directed at the US and potential blowback for the US if it continues to be seen as facilitating the ongoing violence and preventing a ceasefire. There has been an outbreak of popular outrage in the region and well beyond – it is not only being driven by pro-Iranian or pro-Muslim Brotherhood Islamist forces, there are also popular reformist, nationalist, and secular forces involved. And while it primarily targets Israel, there is also often a focus on the impotence of America’s allied Arab regimes and American complicity. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state, the demonstration in Jakarta was outside the American embassy and this has been repeated elsewhere including Lebanon and Malaysia.
It’s worth noting that where American troops are stationed and in harms way – Afghanistan and Iraq – there has also been significant popular hostility, including a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Sistani the preeminent Shia cleric in Iraq calling for action in support for Palestinians.
To be clear, this is not the America-Israel relationship per se that is the problem (it is for some, but for most this is in the background not the foreground most of the time). The issue is the outstanding Palestinian grievance (and again for most it’s the basics –statehood, de-occupation, not the 1948 file and the very fact of Israel’s existence). It all explodes in times of crisis like this when America is perceived to be totally indifferent to Palestinian humanity and suffering and inactive or excessively imbalanced in its pursuit of a solution. This is further destabilizing an already radically destabilized Middle East.
At the very least, American politicians need to find a language that at the same time is both staunchly supportive of Israel and its security but also able to convincingly empathize with the Palestinians and their predicament. And once the U.S. finds a vocabulary – then it needs to find a policy that can actually start getting a resolution of this crisis – and not the feckless Annapolis effort (hints: encourage Palestinian internal reconciliation, engage with a broader range of regional actors and make this part of a new regional security architecture, focus on de-occupation as a priority, set down American ideas for a solution and actively pursue them, address Israeli security concerns via international forces being temporarily stationed in the new Palestinian state, use the Arab Peace Initiative to help get Israeli and Palestinian buy-in and benefits for both …etc)
5. GIVE THE NEW GUY A CHANCE. The Democrat-led congress should not be boxing in the new Obama administration to a set of failed Middle East policies even before it takes office. If this crisis is still ongoing on January 20th there will be a huge burden of expectations worldwide on the incoming administration to intervene. President-elect Obama’s credibility moving forward in the Middle East and in his efforts to restabilize the region will be greatly affected by how this crisis in handled. It touches on the iconic litmus test issue for the region – the Palestinians. Obama’s studied silence so far is probably a blessing – he cannot yet make policy, there is no good ceasefire proposal to support and there is pressure on him to spout platitudes which will undermine his future capacity to mediate.
On the bright side by January 20th it is very likely that all sides will want an exit strategy and chances for a diplomatic resolution will be greater. Then congress will have to give the new administration space to pursue a realistic ceasefire and new set of arrangements. Many of the statements in congress which mimic the existing Bush strategy are narrowing the room for maneuver of the new president.
If as one hopes this is resolved by January 20th the Obama administration will have to be picking up the pieces and restoring America’s credibility in that region. And again this will require more than the pavlovian and irresponsible pro-Israel rants that are being heard from many quarters today. It will require a more sophisticated and thoughtful approach to what is pro-Israel and to securing Israel’s future in the region, as part of an articulation of American interests and a very different American approach. Everyone interested in re-stabilizing a region that is so important to American security and to restoring American leadership should be working to create maximum political space in which the new administration can act – not the opposite. Read members of Congress Donna Edwards, Lois Capps, Joe Sestak, Earl Blumenauer, Betty McCollum, and Keith Ellison for examples of how to be thoughtful on the issue and helpful to an Obama Administration that needs to calm the region as it seeks to withdraw from Iraq, reduce the appeal of Salafi jihadism and restore American standing.
And one final thought at the end of a long post – this is so terrible for Israel, the anger it is generating in Palestinians and beyond for future generations, the immorality of this humanitarian crisis, the disaster of potentially getting stuck in Gaza and the fact that this will deliver neither peace nor security for a country that I adopted as my home and that I would dearly love to see enjoy better, much better days.
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