There's no question that Israel's current Gaza offensive complicates matters for the United States in the Middle East. We're beginning a withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. And a critical task in that process is building a diplomatic coalition of the neighboring states to prevent any renewal of Iraqi civil war from widening into a full-blown regional war.
For Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and probably Turkey, too, the latest Israeli operation makes forming such an diplomatic cooperation with the Americans that much more difficult.
I've linked and quoted some articles below. But first I'm going to give my general perspective on the current round of fighting, from what I know of it so far.
From the standpoint of Israel's interests, the current Gaza action looks bad. It's far disproportionate to any actual threat or even retaliation for Hamas actions. And it will make a permanent peace even more difficult to achieve.
But that's assuming, as I do, that a permanent peace based on a two-state solution, the removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank, the recognition of something very close to the 1967 borders, and some form of guaranteed access for Jews and Muslims to the holy places in Jerusalem is a good thing.
It seems to me that since 1967, with some partial and temporary exceptions, the policy of the successive Israeli governments has been directed toward maintaining some settlements in the West Bank and keeping de facto control over both the West Bank and Gaza, as well as full Israeli control of all of Jerusalem. From that point of view of Israel's interests, repeated rounds of violence against the Palestinians that wreck the possibility of a permanent peace settlement are a rational choice. (The question of proportionality is still an important consideration even within that framework.)
Despite the size of the current offensive and the escalating rhetoric from the Israeli government about their war aims, it's worth remembering that Israel announced expansive goals in the Israel-Lebanon War of 2006. The end result was that Hizbullah was strengthened politically, its leader became the most admired person in the Middle East, and the invincible Israeli Defense Force (IDF) showed that it wasn't invincible after all. Israeli intentions and their ability to achieve them by the current offensive are different things.
My main focus in this is on American interests, most immediately the safety of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The best we can hope for there is that there will be no direct and immediate negative effect. But a big new round of violence like this certainly increases the risks for our soldiers, which we didn't need right now. Israel certainly has its own interests and the right and obligation to defend them. At the same time, the United States is by far the major supporter of Israel, militarily and diplomatically. And it's very much in American interests to persuade Israel not to do things that immediately increase the risk to American soldiers, if there are reasonable alternatives to such action.
Cheney's and Bush's war in Iraq made Iran the predominant power in the Middle East. Iran is calling for backing for Hamas. As Juan Cole reports, the top Iraqi Shi'a religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has made the following appeal:
Condemning what is going on in Gaza and supporting our brothers only with words is meaningless, considering the big tragedy they are facing ... Arab and Islamic nations need to take a decisive stance, now more than ever, to end these ongoing aggressions and to break the unjust siege imposed on the brave people of Gaza ...
He's not calling here for specific action against American troops in Iraq. But Iran's and Sistani's positions calling for acts of solidarity with the predominantly Sunni Palestinians remind us how broadly the Israel-Palestine conflict resonates in the Muslim world.
It's not that the US has never had differences with Israel. During the Cheney-Bush administration, the influence of the neocons, the Protestant fundamentalist Christian Zionists, and the presumed admiration of people like Cheney and Rummy for Israel's military prowess resulted in the US pretty much reflexively supporting anything Israel did. But even then, there was a dispute with Israel that was actually a pretty tense one. It was over Israeli sales of American technology to China. Rummy raised quite a bit of a stink over that, although hardly a whisper of it seemed to reach the American traditional news.
The most dramatic difference was in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Israel, Britain and France teamed up and invaded Egypt. The Eisenhower administration objected and pressured them to pull out, which they did. That was quite a while ago and conditions were different. But back then, the Republican Party's base didn't consist of people who thought that encouraging Israel to have endless wars would bring the Second Coming of Christ closer.
The United States does have a real interest in a meaningful, permanent peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. And it will have to be based on the elements I mentioned above: a two-state solution; removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank; recognition of something very close to the 1967 borders; and, guaranteed access for Jews and Muslims to the holy places in Jerusalem.
If it's not already too late for that. Or if the current Israeli offensive pushes the two-state option off the historical scene for good. As Gershom Gorenberg explains in The Case for Putting a Mideast Peace Agreement FirstThe American Prospect Online 11/14/08, "every wasted day makes a two-state solution more difficult to reach". And he writes:
No one knows when a two-state solution will become impossible - but the tipping point is approaching. Past that point, as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warns, Palestinians will demand political rights in a single state (Olmert's era will be remembered for the strange gap between his dovish and evermore desperate rhetoric and his failure to stop settlement growth or reach a peace agreement). A binational state would teeter between Bosnian-style communal violence and Belgian-style political paralysis.
I suppose we would need to add now that Olmert will be remembered for the Gaza offensive of 2008.
And that single state, with a Palestinian birth rate that will soon enough make Palestinians the majority, will face the choice of ceasing to be the Jewish state of the original Zionist vision or of becoming a Jewish state running a nationwide apartheid system. Which is what it already runs on the West Bank.
I was very impressed by something I heard Joschka Fischer say in a 2007 speech. He said that Israel does not face any "existential" threats, meaning that no force or combination of forces in the Middle East can seriously threaten Israel's existence as a nation. As current events and Israeli leaders constantly remind us, its enemies can certainly kill Israelis with mortar and missile attacks and in suicide bombings. But there is no prospect for a repeat of the 1948 war or the 1973 war, in which Israel ran some real danger of being militarily overwhelmed. Israel has sufficient military strength to defend itself from conventional attacks. And it has nuclear weapons, maybe as many as 400.
However, Fischer explained that in his dealings with Israeli leaders, he became convinced that they see themselves as facing an existential threat. He warned that even though that is objectively not the case, the fact that Israeli leaders and a substantial part of the Israeli public believe that they face such a threat is in itself a fact of which outside nations working for a peace settlement have to take full account.
Which is part of why constant official American assurances to Israel that the US will support Israel in defending their existence makes sense to continue.
What doesn't make sense is to pretend that Israel's perceived interests and concerns as a nation are identical to American interests. They aren't. The United States needs to see a permanent peace settlement in Israel-Palestine. It's not "anti-Israel" to push for it.
Taking steps to shut off donations from American Christian fundamentalist groups that are channelled to settlement activity in the West Bank would be one of many actions the US could take that would not in any way threaten Israel's security as a nation, but would send a signal that the US wants a real peace settlement after supporting the Israeli side through what has essentially been a 41-year cycle of endless violence. With no end yet in sight.
Ynet News, the English language outlet of the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, looks at the question of proportionality in this editorial by B. Michael, Déjà vu in Gaza 12/29/08. The opinion piece also points to the attacks on police, who would be indispensible partners in any eventual agreement between Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to control terrorism originating in Gaza:
To be honest, one is fatigued by the need to divide the seventh day of the Six-Day War into "operations," "wars," “battles,” “operations,” and “campaigns.” All of them constitute one ongoing war; one great butcher shop. The war of occupier against occupied, and the war of the occupied against the occupier.
And again we hear all the great words about courage, surprise, sophistication, and success. Yet the nature of the “surprise” we delivered against Hamas isn’t quite clear. I mean, did the group fail to deploy its airplanes? Did it fail to advance its armored corps in advance? Did it fail to deploy its Patriot missile batteries?
Moreover, and there is no need to deny this, there is not too much glory and valor involved in flying over a giant prison [the Gaza Strip] and firing at its people using helicopters and fighter jets. So far we have seen sophistication and success mostly in the excited commentary of dozens of generals (res.) who again enjoy the limelight. As always.
Yet out of all the big words, as usual, we see a small and ugly truth emerging: Our southern cities have been hit by dozens of missiles, while Gaza sustained hundreds of dead. Almost half of them are civilians; almost half of them are the graduates of a police course who have nothing to do with Qassam rockets. [my emphasis]
I don't see anything glorious about this either. Or anything that it benefits Americans to cheer. Even the most severe critics of Israel mostly don't deny that Israel has a right to strike back against military attacks. But no war is simply a matter of, "He hit me first! No, he hit me first!"
Johann Hari in The Independent, The true story behind this war is not the one Israel is telling 12/29/08, reminds us that the evacuation of the Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip under Ariel Sharon's prime ministership was designed to block a permanent peace settlement. And the neocons can say till we're all blue in the face that poverty doesn't breed terrorism. But the conditions in Gaza do:
There will now be a war over the story of this war. The Israeli government says, "We withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and in return we got Hamas and Qassam rockets being rained on our cities. Sixteen civilians have been murdered. How many more are we supposed to sacrifice?" It is a plausible narrative, and there are shards of truth in it, but it is also filled with holes. If we want to understand the reality and really stop the rockets, we need to rewind a few years and view the run-up to this war dispassionately.
The Israeli government did indeed withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – in order to be able to intensify control of the West Bank. Ariel Sharon's senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, was unequivocal about this, explaining: "The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."
Ordinary Palestinians were horrified by this, and by the fetid corruption of their own Fatah leaders, so they voted for Hamas. It certainly wouldn't have been my choice – an Islamist party is antithetical to all my convictions - but we have to be honest. It was a free and democratic election, and it was not a rejection of a two-state solution. The most detailed polling of Palestinians, by the University of Maryland, found that 72 per cent want a two-state solution on the 1967 borders, while fewer than 20 per cent want to reclaim the whole of historic Palestine. So, partly in response to this pressure, Hamas offered Israel a long, long ceasefire and a de facto acceptance of two states, if only Israel would return to its legal borders.
Rather than seize this opportunity and test Hamas's sincerity, the Israeli government reacted by punishing the entire civilian population. It announced that it was blockading the Gaza Strip in order to "pressure" its people to reverse the democratic process. The Israelis surrounded the Strip and refused to let anyone or anything out. They let in a small trickle of food, fuel and medicine – but not enough for survival. Weisglass quipped that the Gazans were being "put on a diet". According to Oxfam, only 137 trucks of food were allowed into Gaza last month to feed 1.5 million people. The United Nations says poverty has reached an "unprecedented level." When I was last in besieged Gaza, I saw hospitals turning away the sick because their machinery and medicine was running out. I met hungry children stumbling around the streets, scavenging for food. [my emphasis]
Hari goes on to explicitly condemn the Hamas tactic of firing rockets randomly into Israeli cities. But, surprisingly, he doesn't mention to Israeli strike weeks ago on one of the supply tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip to Israel, one of the key immediate events in ending the already-fragile cease-fire.
Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations gives a good analysis of the positions of the two sides in Israel-Palestinian Crisis Explodes onto Obama's Agenda CFR.org 12/29/08. He describes how Hamas is likely to benefit politically in comparison to Fatah as a result of the current offensive.