As of Friday, January 9:
Israeli jets and ground troops hammered at Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip and Islamic militants fired barrages of rockets at southern Israeli cities Friday, ignoring a UN resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire after two weeks of combat.
The Israeli prime minister’s office said the UN action was not practical, and senior Cabinet ministers decided to press on with the offensive. Israel will stop only when it succeeds in ending rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory, the government said.
Hopes that Thursday night’s U.N. Security Council resolution would end Gaza’s worst fighting in decades were further tempered by dismissive remarks from Hamas, angry that it was not consulted during exhaustive diplomatic efforts at the world body.
And this has been going on since December 27 – when Israel launched a massive but targeted bombardment of Gaza, followed by a full-scale ground invasion a week later. Many Palestinians are dead – they say those are the bad guys of Hamas, but careful targeting is not that careful, as hundreds of civilians are dead, and that would be women and children. Even though the Israelis will allow no press into Gaza, images get out, and are appalling and useful – they bring home the reality of the thing, and those shots can be seen as political exploitation of the worst sort, propaganda of the nastiest sort, or a call for righteous anger and an end to this vicious business. Which it is depends on your point of view.
But we support Israel, and the president has made his statement – Israel has the right to defend itself. There should be a ceasefire, but only if the ceasefire agreement includes no more rocket attacks from Hamas, or any attacks at all, and the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, and the dissolution of Hamas, with Hamas ceding power to the Palestinian Authority, Fatah, over yonder in the West Bank – and absent all that, let it rip. Of course he confuses a peace treaty – settling matters – with a ceasefire – everyone stops fighting, in place, and we see what can be done, if anything.
The president-elect is silent. You don’t make foreign policy when you’re not yet in charge – that confuses everyone – and this is a tricky business for American presidents. Israel is a key ally in the Middle East, the one key ally, as our only real friend in the region, and in protecting themselves they may have gone too far. They may, in the end, be marginally safer for a time, but having enraged the Arab world, unilaterally, they, and the rest of the West, is now far less safe. How do you explain that to a key strategic ally when you’re not yet president, and when America’s emotional ties to Israel are so strong? Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and every conservative-leaning voice in the country would say you were an apologist for Hamas, the terrorists (they are on our list of terrorist organizations), and an ant-Semite, like any Nazi – and then they’d bring up the Holocaust. Some American Zionist Jews, and Joe Lieberman, would say the same thing, and some of the Reformed would wonder about you. It’s tricky. Being realistic and pragmatic, and fair, has enormous costs.
But change may be in the air. Consider the words on the cover of Time magazine. One would not expect this – “The siege of Gaza may punish Hamas but won’t make Israel safe.”
Israel got it all wrong – they blew it. Is Israel losing its grip on our imagination? Probably not – it’s more likely the new guy, Obama, has people feeling more comfortable about dropping the reflexive posturing, stepping back and looking at things logically, working on what might work to make things better. The cost of being realistic and pragmatic has somehow been lowered. There might be some profit, in the metaphoric sense, in dispassionately thinking things through. We’ve had eight years of righteous passion and quick enthusiasm. That didn’t serve us well. Maybe that is becoming obvious.
And it wasn’t just Time, but the New York Times – your conservative friends tell you that’s where all the Jews live, who control everything and oppress real Americans with their liberal nonsense. They ran this column from Nicholas Kristof:
At a time when Israel is bombing Gaza to try to smash Hamas, it’s worth remembering that Israel itself helped nurture Hamas.
When Hamas was founded in 1987, Israel was mostly concerned with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and figured that a religious Palestinian organization would help undermine Fatah. Israel calculated that all those Muslim fundamentalists would spend their time praying in the mosques, so it cracked down on Fatah and allowed Hamas to rise as a counterforce.
Kristof calls it the Boomerang Syndrome:
Arab terrorism built support for right-wing Israeli politicians, who took harsh actions against Palestinians, who responded with more terrorism, and so on. Extremists on each side sustain the other, and the excessive Israeli ground assault in Gaza is likely to create more terrorists in the long run.
If this pattern continues, we may eventually see Hamas-style Palestinians facing off against hard-line Israelis, with each side making the others’ lives wretched – and political moderates in the Middle East politically eviscerated.
But he wants to be fair, but fair to both sides:
Granted, Israel was profoundly provoked in this case. Israel sought an extension of its cease-fire with Hamas, and Egypt offered to mediate one – but Hamas refused. When it is shelled by its neighbor, Israel has to do something.
But Israel’s right to do something doesn’t mean it has the right to do anything. Since the shelling from Gaza started in 2001, 20 Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets or mortars, according to a tabulation by Israeli human rights groups. That doesn’t justify an all-out ground invasion that has killed more than 660 people (it’s difficult to know how many are militants and how many are civilians).
He suggests other things could have been done – bomb the tunnels used to smuggle weapons, go no further than the carefully targeted bombing, or even, as odd as it seems, ease the siege in Gaza, “perhaps creating an environment in which Hamas would have extended the cease-fire.”
Well, that’s moot now, and the rest of the column is anecdotes, like this one:
My courageous Times colleague in Gaza, Taghreed el-Khodary, quoted a 37-year-old father weeping over the corpse of his 11-year-old daughter: “From now on, I am Hamas. I choose resistance.”
And that Barack Obama has said relatively little about Gaza bothers Kristof.
At first, given the provocations by Hamas, that was understandable. But as the ground invasion costs more lives, he needs to join European leaders in calling for a new cease-fire on all sides – and after he assumes the presidency, he must provide real leadership that the world craves.
Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator for the United States, suggests in his excellent new book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” that presidents should offer Israel “love, but tough love.”
So, Mr. Obama, find your voice. Fall in tough love with Israel.
That may not be politically possible. The cost is high.
But also in the Times see this from Roger Cohen:
I had a dream: Israeli Arab students, enraged by the war in Gaza, were protesting at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A counterdemonstration by Jewish students erupted. When the head of university security, a Holocaust survivor, tried to intervene, the Arab students called him a Nazi.
Actually, I didn’t dream this. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the university, related the incident. But dreams cut to the quick. There’s no point denying that a line of sorts runs from the dozens killed by Israeli fire near a United Nations school in Gaza back to the Palestinian “Nakba” of 1948 and Berlin 1945.
History is relentless. Sometimes its destructive gyre gets overcome: France and Germany freed themselves after 1945 from war’s cycle. So did Poland and Germany. China and Japan scarcely love each other but do business. Only in the Middle East do the dead rule.
Their demand for blood is, it seems, inexhaustible.
And the oddest people get called Nazis, which leads Cohen to say this:
I have never previously felt so despondent about Israel, so shamed by its actions, so despairing of any peace that might terminate the dominion of the dead in favor of opportunity for the living.
More than dreams, I’ve been having nightmares. I cannot see a scenario in which any short-term Israeli tactical victory over Hamas is not overwhelmed by the long-term strategic cost of this war.
Columnists can say this, politicians cannot. But Cohen is literally saying that “the heroic Israeli narrative has run its course.” Someone tell Fox News and Rush Limbaugh:
Israel has the right to hit back at Hamas when attacked – but not to blow Gaza to pieces. What it does not have the right to do is delude its people into thinking that peace is achievable without coming to terms with the deeply entrenched Middle Eastern realities that are Hamas and Hezbollah.
And then the New York Times ran this from Rashid Khalidi explaining that “nearly everything you’ve been led to believe about Gaza is wrong.”
On the folks there:
Most of the people living in Gaza are not there by choice. The majority of the 1.5 million people crammed into the roughly 140 square miles of the Gaza Strip belong to families that came from towns and villages outside Gaza like Ashkelon and Beersheba. They were driven to Gaza by the Israeli Army in 1948.
And the history:
The Gazans have lived under Israeli occupation since the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel is still widely considered to be an occupying power, even though it removed its troops and settlers from the strip in 2005. Israel still controls access to the area, imports and exports, and the movement of people in and out. Israel has control over Gaza’s air space and sea coast, and its forces enter the area at will. As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention to see to the welfare of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.
And there’s that blockade:
Israel’s blockade of the strip, with the support of the United States and the European Union, has grown increasingly stringent since Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006. Fuel, electricity, imports, exports and the movement of people in and out of the Strip have been slowly choked off, leading to life-threatening problems of sanitation, health, water supply and transportation.
The blockade has subjected many to unemployment, penury and malnutrition. This amounts to the collective punishment – with the tacit support of the United States – of a civilian population for exercising its democratic rights.
There’s more, but he ends with this:
This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”
And we’re in on the deal.
Matthew Yglesias points to these columns and is only marginally encouraged:
Unfortunately, all these expressions of more open-minded thinking on the issue are useless unless they translate into some actual policy substance and I don’t see any clear signs that the new administration intends to do that.
Columnists can say such things, politicians cannot, who cannot risk shaping policy based on… what do you call them? Ah yes, the facts of the matter.
…a conflict that has lasted 100 years is not susceptible to easy solutions or glib judgments. Those who choose to reduce it to the “terrorism” of one side or the “colonialism” of the other are just stroking their own prejudices. At heart, this is a struggle of two peoples for the same patch of land. It is not the sort of dispute in which enemies push back and forth over a line until they grow tired. It is much less tractable than that, because it is also about the periodic claim of each side that the other is not a people at all – at least not a people deserving sovereign statehood in the Middle East.
There are worse places to start than that analysis. At least you’d know how things stand.
Is America ready to look at things without the name-calling and posturing? Yglesias thinks they might be:
Most Americans with strong feelings about Israel don’t actually have strong feelings about the details of Israeli policy. Had the Israeli government chosen to talk rather than start bombing back in December, Americans would have supported them. Had the Israeli government bombed for a few days and then agreed to a cease-fire, Americans would have supported that. But instead the bombing was followed up by a land invasion, so they supported that instead. And politicians follow a similar lead. As France and Egypt were working on a cease-fire proposal Wednesday, Rep. Steny Hoyer was “scrambling to push out” a nonbinding resolution in support of Israeli policy, hoping to avoid being “out hawked” by House Republicans.
Yglesias finds “this sort of politically motivated deference is understandable.” He just thinks it doesn’t get us anywhere:
The parties to the conflict aren’t really in need of any brilliant new substantive ideas from the United States – the basic shape of what an agreement would look like is well understood. Nor are our services as mediators really needed – the Norwegians have proven capable of playing that role when asked, and no doubt others could do the same.
What’s needed is something that changes the Israeli domestic calculation – a sense that the nature of the Israel-US relationship will depend, in part, on the nature of Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Any administration willing to publicly chastise an Israeli government will inevitably wind up ruffling some feathers and taking political heat for it, but it will almost certainly be for the Israelis’ own good.
So the problem becomes lowering the cost of being fair. Obama seems to be working on that.
I’m strongly inclined to believe that political actors are much too eager to believe that the aggressive use of military force will accomplish their objectives, and also inclined to believe that political actors are much too eager to believe that bloodshed is morally justifiable.
As Andrew Sullivan puts it – “Being chastened is not something Washington ever does well.”
But that is one of the key things the Obama administration is about, isn’t it? Raise the cost of partisan nonsense – chasten it with mild ridicule – and lower the cost of being realistic and pragmatic. It’s worth a try.