Israeli ground troops are moving into Gaza. From a purely tactical and short-term view, it makes sense. From a strategic and medium-to-long-term view, it’s crazy.
The short-term outlook has a certain clarity. Hamas militants are firing rockets into Israel. There’s no dealing with Gaza’s government, since its leaders are Hamas militants. Retaliating with air strikes doesn’t finish the job and leads to horrible errors. So, let the tanks roll.
But let’s say an invasion crushes Hamas, a feasible outcome if the Israeli army were let loose. Then what? Either the Israelis have to re-occupy Gaza, with all the burdens and dangers that entails—the cost of cleaning up and providing services, the constant danger of gunfire and worse from local rebels (whose ranks will now include the fathers, brothers, and cousins of those killed), and the everyday demoralization afflicting the oppressed and the oppressors. Or the Israelis move in, then get out, leaving a hellhole fertile for plowing by militias, including ISIS-style Islamists, far more dangerous than Hamas.
Either way, what’s the point? In an excellent online New Yorker article, Bernard Avishai, a longtime journalist and business professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, recalls former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telling him “that he launched his 2008 Gaza operation in part to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, with whom he was advancing two-state negotiations.” The tactic didn’t work then, and it certainly wouldn’t work now, given that there are no such talks or even the prospect of any.
In the abstract, it’s shrewd to play Gaza’s radical Hamas against the West Bank’s more moderate Palestinian Authority, but at the moment, Israel is offering the latter no rewards. Abbas would like to play along with this game—he has in the past—but Israel has called off peace talks, continues expanding its settlements, and has not remotely backed away from its humiliating fences and checkpoints. In short, Israel has provided nothing that might lead Gaza residents to envy a West Banker’s life to the point of pressuring or toppling their own leaders. Or, to put it another way: Israel has done nothing that might equate the weakening of Hamas to the strengthening of Abbas.
Seeing his leverage slip away, Abbas took steps in late May to form a unity government joining the West Bank and Gaza. The idea was to co-opt and thus weaken Hamas. But Netanyahu, fearing that Hamas would exploit the arrangement to its advantage, condemned the move and shut down diplomatic forums with Abbas. Netanyahu’s fears might be valid, but by cutting Abbas off (thus making it harder for Abbas to offer his people an alternative to Hamas), he’s helping to make the worst fears come true.
The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. For instance, in 2006, when Hezbollah made incursions into Israel from southern Lebanon, the entire Arab League condemned the action—an unprecedented act—and Egypt offered to host a summit where the League would consider actions. But then, Israel escalated the conflict, retaliating with massive, disproportionate air strikes, turning Hezbollah into local heroes and, more seriously, alienating the neighboring Arab states. Egypt called off the summit; the chance for a genuine strategic pivot was blown.
Now they’re blowing it again. Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north—Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements—are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has—at least for now—frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. And speaking of the beleaguered President Obama, the Iron Dome anti-missile shield, whose production he greatly accelerated, has shot down the few dozen—out of several hundred—Hamas rockets that would have exploded in Israeli cities.
As a result, Hamas’ rockets—most of which have landed in the middle of nowhere—have killed just one Israeli, while Israeli air strikes have killed more than 200 Palestinians and wounded another 1,500-plus, most of them civilians, many of them children, including the four children whose deaths while playing on the beach were captured by photographers on the scene.
Fatality ratios mean little up to a point, but a 200-to-1 ratio seems awfully disproportionate. Israeli bombs have struck 1,500 targets in Gaza so far—another remarkable fact: Who knew there were 1,500 militarily legitimate targets in that tiny, impoverished strip of land?
Instead of capitalizing on Israel’s unusually strong strategic position, Netanyahu risks squandering it—destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.
In February, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stated that a failure to negotiate with the Palestinians would “intensify” the international boycott of Israeli goods. Israeli officials and Jewish-American spokesmen accused Kerry of “anti-Semitism,” a preposterous charge. Kerry wasn’t endorsing the boycott; he was only making a factual statement, and he was right.
On Tuesday, the White House issued a statement supporting Israel’s right to self-defense but urging Netanyahu to “make every effort to avoid civilian casualties”—and that was before the photos of the four Palestinian boys struck down on the beach by American-supplied Israeli aircraft.
Two broad trends over the past decade have helped sire this awful state. First, as the veteran Middle East reporter Ethan Bronner noted in the New York Times’ Sunday Review section, there was a time, 20 to 30 years ago, when Israelis and Palestinians shared the same space. They rode the same buses, walked the same streets; Palestinians learned Hebrew, worked for Israeli companies; Israelis took their cars to be fixed by Palestinian mechanics. The sharing was hardly equal; it had a colonial bent. But they knew, and in some cases trusted each other; they were business partners, even friends. That is no longer the case. A generation has grown up with little or no contact. Dehumanization has set in; violence is easier to abide.
Second, when George W. Bush became president, he initiated a hands-off policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No longer would the American president invest time and effort into prolonged, usually fruitless peace talks. No longer would an American envoy be phoned on a Sunday afternoon to settle a dispute at some checkpoint between a Palestinian motorist and an Israeli guard. The problem was, that was how matches were put out during the presidencies of Bush’s father and Bill Clinton. With the firemen gone, the flames spread.
The nadir of this non-policy came in 2006, during the Palestinian territories’ first parliamentary elections. As I reported in my 2008 book Daydream Believers, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick advised his boss, Condoleezza Rice, to nudge the Israelis into easing up on a few border crossings in the territories and letting Abbas take the credit. Zoellick figured that might help Abbas win a huge majority over Hamas in the election. Rice refused, saying the United States shouldn’t put its thumb on the scales. She seemed to believe—and Bush definitely did—that elections themselves were a democratizing force and that, if you opened the polling stations, freedom would flow in. Hamas won the election. One result is what we’re seeing now.
Hamas is hardly blameless in this conflict, and the Israelis can’t be blamed for doing everything they can to stop a terrorist regime on their doorstep from firing rockets into their territory.
But it’s interesting that some of the most senior former Israeli intelligence officials have urged Israeli leaders to choose peace talks over war. In the stunning 2013 documentary The Gatekeepers, six former commanders of Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service, speak on camera, on the record, making just such a plea. They are hardly peaceniks. One of Shin Bet’s main missions is to infiltrate the Palestinian territories and root out terrorist cells. It was, and is, brutal work, and none of the commanders makes any apologies for it. But those who infiltrate a society often learn how it works: its culture, values, fears, and motives. They don’t condone or sympathize with what the terrorists do, but they understand its linkage to living under occupation—and they’ve concluded that this condition must end, unless Israel wants to face endless war.
Some Israeli critics of The Gatekeepers scoffed that none of these ex-commanders expressed such a view when they were arresting and killing militants with gusto. That’s probably true. The everyday pressure of fighting, policing, and—in the cabinet’s case—governing often rivets one’s eyes to short-term fixes, and away from long-term consequences or strategic calculations.
The Israeli leaders need an outsider to broaden their view, and that outsider can only be the United States. Exhausted as Kerry must be in his travels, and belabored as Obama must feel in his entire relationship with Netanyahu (and much else going on in the world), both need to immerse themselves in this crisis, work with Egypt to impose or cajole a cease-fire, then get Israel to realize its momentary strategic advantage and the need to seize the moment before it passes. That has to involve renewed negotiations for a two-state solution (even if the talks go nowhere), coupled with a freeze on settlements (in part to show good faith, in part because it’s the right thing to do), and a lavish program of aid and investment in the West Bank (to make it a showcase for Gazans seeking an alternative to their rulers who want only war).
It’s a large package, but the alternative is to watch Israel roll its tanks all the way into Gaza—and to lose a lot more than it might gain.