Again I come late to the gabfest, this time about the Hamas-IDF confrontation in and around Gaza. So much has already been said, and it falls in the usual categories: the thinly didactic, the fatuous, the banal, the shrewd and, especially, the emotional. The usual irrational Jewcentric crap, of all four sorts, too, can be readily identified: the anti-Semitic, the philo-Semitic, the chauvinist and the self-hating. For those who have endured this conflict in its several manifestations for a wilderness of forty years (or more), the whole thing—the Jewcentric mutterings very much included—is still as heartbreaking as ever. It is also something well worth ignoring for the sake of one’s sanity, which helps explain why I am so late to the keyboard. I tried mightily to resist writing this note; I failed.
So what is there to say after all? I can think of three, possibly useful, things to discuss.First, in this age of instantaneous amnesia in the segmented American cyberswirl, where the backstory to any telegenic foreign event has long since disappeared into the historical ether, it’s useful to restate for the inexpert observer a little of the relevant history. Not knowing the basics makes it seem like both sides of the conflict are made up of a bunch of hateful and insane yet regrettably determined extremists. As appealing as this description may be to those with no dog in the fight and who have an appetite for violent entertainment, and as apt as it may seem upon substituting the words “one side” for “both sides” to pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian partisans, it is not really accurate. Knowing the history shows why what’s going on is a tragedy rather than a simple, if protracted, act of mutual madness. Both sides are adept at making highly rational tactical calculations, but they find themselves trapped in a merciless strategic framework that turns every temporary advantage into a pointless sacrifice of blood and hope.Second, it is worth pointing out what is both new and true in essence about the current round of fighting. This round of fighting both is and is not the same ‘ol same ‘ol.Third, it is also worth thinking through what it would really take to turn this current crisis into an opportunity. There is a way, I think, to transform the aforementioned strategic framework so that this sort of thing actually stops happening on a fairly regular basis. But it is a way that requires multi-party coordination, boldness, courage and foresight. That is another way of saying that while a way out of the mutual Israeli-Palestinian zugzwang is possible, it’s almost certainly not going to happen.A Very Little History
The history of Gaza goes back a very long time, all the way to Samson and the Philistines, and even, if you like the Muslim tradition, to the time of Jonah. Why? Because according to the folk traditions of the region, the great fish of Biblical lore barfed out the contrite prophet in what is today Khan Yunis, one of Gaza’s largest towns. For present purposes, however, all you need to know is what I call the following Fourteen Points:
- first, that Gaza was designated part of the Arab state when the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) divided the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1947;
- second, that the results of the 1948 war left Gaza outside of Israel’s security perimeter, but inundated by refugees from Jaffa, Ashqelon, Ramla, Lod and elsewhere, leaving Gaza today with a self-identifying refugee population nearly triple that of the West Bank;
- third, that while the West Bank was soon annexed by Jordan and the Arabs there given Jordanian citizenship, Gaza was occupied by Egypt and its residents were not offered Egyptian citizenship;
- fourth, that in due course, after the July 1952 Egyptian revolution, Gaza became a source of the fedayeen attacks on Israel that led in part to the October 1956 Sinai War, even as Nasser’s Egypt used Gaza as a lever to advance its bid for pan-Arabism under Egyptian leadership;
- fifth, that while the IDF overran Gaza in the Sinai War, it evacuated it along with the Sinai Peninsula in 1957;
- sixth, that as part of the June 1967 War the IDF again overran Gaza, but did not evacuate it when, eventually, after the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of March 1979, the Sinai was finally returned in full to Egypt in April 1982—and the reason was, essentially, that Egypt refused to take Gaza back;
- seventh, that as part of a “revisionist” Zionist effort to prevent Israel’s relinquishing any further land seized in 1967, Israeli settlements (eventually totaling 21 in all) were established in Gaza;
- eighth, that the IDF military administration of Gaza was relatively placid until the eruption of the first intifada in December 1987, after which the costs of the occupation began to exceed any reasonable calculus of benefits, until, at long last……;
- ninth, in August 2005, after an exceedingly difficult and protracted political debate within Israel, the Sharon government unilaterally disengaged Israel from Gaza after a negotiated arrangement proved impossible;
- tenth, that almost immediately after the settlements were dismantled and the IDF was out of Gaza, buildings that had been used as synagogues were desecrated and primitive mortars were fired from Gaza into southern Israel;
- eleventh, that in January 2006 Hamas won a legislative election in Gaza in a vote that never should have been allowed to occur, since Hamas rejected Oslo Accords the framework agreement that established the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the first place—there is plenty of blame to go around for this inexcusable blunder, not to exclude both the Israeli government and an utterly feckless PLO, but the lion’s share of it falls on President George W. Bush and his disastrous early-elections-no-matter-what “forward strategy for freedom”;
- twelfth, after the Hamas victory Israel, the United States, the PLO and Egypt began to collude in a strategy to unseat Hamas in Gaza, but Hamas pre-empted this effort with a coup in the summer of 2007—after which it immediately closened its relationship with Iran and accelerated rocket attacks on southern Israel;
- thirteenth, in December 2008 Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against Gaza to suppress the source of escalating attacks against it, hopefully to topple the Hamas government, and in any event and to re-establish its diminished deterrence reputation writ large; and
- fourteenth, an Egyptian-mediated, U.S.-supported ceasefire ended the fighting and Israel withdrew all forces from Gaza by March 2009 in accord with a ceasefire that more or less held until about a week ago.
What’s New and What’s True
With this basic though completely inadequate history now in mind, let’s list what is both new and true about the current situation.
Everyone who really understands the underlying strategic realities of the present crisis knows that the best that can be achieved for now is another Hamas-Israeli ceasefire, after a suitable amount of pain and blood have been exacted. There is no possibility of a genuine reconciliation between Israel, with whatever government it may elect, and Hamas, at least as long as Hamas remains what it is: a particularly nationalized Palestinian form of the Muslim Brotherhood, itself a deeply authoritarian and atavistic movement. Now, it is true, as I have written before that significant changes are afoot in Arab culture, not least of them the fact that religion as a political symbol has been decisively pluralized. All sorts of interesting things percolating into Arab politics, even some positive ones, could flow from that in due course—but not very soon, not easily, and not smoothly. If we wait until a liberal democratic force rises to governance in Gaza, or even in the West Bank for that matter, we’ll be waiting not just until the cows come home, but until their bovine progeny learn to churn their own butter.Nor, for the time being, is there any prospect of the PLO regaining control over Gaza and uniting the PA under a single political-territorial umbrella. Indeed, this whole business in Gaza weakens the PLO in the West Bank, through probably not fatally so. Not that a reunified PA would then want or be able to waltz itself into a final settlement with even a center-left Israeli coalition. But it would at least be a thinkable prospect.Given those realities, the prospect is for ceasefire followed by mini-war followed by ceasefire followed by another mini-war and so on, with each successive burst of violence more destructive than the one before. With all due respect to my old friend, Ehud Ya’ari, his most recent whack at the piñata in Foreign Affairs really doesn’t amount to much. Yes, it’ll be harder to get a ceasefire now thanks to the uncertainties of the Egyptian role, but so what? Another ceasefire will be born only to be broken.So is there any way off this treadmill? Yes, there is.I promised above that I would comment on whether Israeli decision-making in this crisis has been wise or not. Well, not being in the midst of the process makes it impossible for anyone to really bring judgment; it is, as already discussed, a hellishly complex problem set, with lots of moving parts and uncertain causal vectors. But if the Israeli government is going to whack al-Jabari but not seek an overthrow of Hamas rule, then what it is really trying to do is persuade the next cast of Hamas characters to enforce a ceasefire a lot more strictly, and not let the smaller groups running around the place drag Hamas policy by the nose. A bombing campaign is the right sort of tool to accomplish that limited objective, but a ground incursion would be doing too much for too little. It wouldn’t change the basic dynamic. At best it would buy more time for the next ceasefire, before the next mini-war. Either way we’re talking about management techniques, not attempts at a real solution. We’re talking, ultimately, about the hell of half measures.The only way to really end the cycle is to remove the Hamas government in Gaza. If Israel is going to move into Gaza on the ground, the aim should be to occupy the area for as long as it takes to change the tone of governance there. That simply cannot happen, however, unless the operation simultaneously manages to empower the PA to the point that it can reassert itself in Gaza and then set up a Palestinian state whose nature is pre-negotiated in private with Israel and is ratified in effect, if not formally at first, by the Arab League. Of course, the U.S. and Egyptian governments would have to be in on this from the start, and America’s regional allies and associates would have to be carefully and discretely briefed, and their timely public support secured.So what, in very simple terms, would this plan look like as it unfolds to an unsuspecting observer?Day 1: The IDF mounts a massive invasion of Gaza.Day 1+4 : Gaza is secured; the Hamas government ceases to exist.Day 1+5: Directly on the heels of this clarifying act of violence, Israel and the PA, in Jerusalem, announce preliminary agreement on a peace settlement that includes new borders more or less along the 1967 lines (only as regards the former Israeli-Jordanian armistice lines), the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and settlers from areas inside Palestine, the application of the right of return only to Palestine, the bi-national administration of the Old City of Jerusalem and the permanent granting of sovereignty to God and God alone, the demilitarization of the Palestinian state, and an irrevocable quit-claim on both sides to any further aspect of the conflict. Both sides commit to seeking parliamentary ratification at the earlier possible moment. Phased implementation of the agreement is to start immediately upon ratification and take no longer than one year. The turnover of Gaza to PA administration and full withdrawal of the IDF is to occur as soon as possible.Day 1+6: Israel exchanges diplomatic recognition with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Morocco, Yemen, Oman, Tunisia, Iraq, Kuwait and, if it can be arranged, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Libya and Qatar.Day 1+10: The Arab League endorses the Israel-Palestine accord and announces the formation of an Egyptian-led peacekeeping force to advance the transition of Israeli-occupied Gaza to a PA-controlled Gaza. NATO agrees to participate temporarily as an adjunct of the Arab League force, particularly for its assistance in training PA police and self-defense forces (short of an army). (If someone wants to get a UN imprimatur for any of this, fine; but under no circumstances should UN personnel be seriously involved in any of this.)Day 1+12: Israel and the EU deepen their association agreement; the PA announces new legislative elections for the first all-Palestine parliament for Day 1+120. Meanwhile, the PA and the PLO Executive Council endorses the peace deal until such time as the Palestinian legislature can ratify it.The purpose of this whirlwind process would be to jolt everyone’s imagination so hard and so fast that the usual objections to everything new would be temporarily deprived of oxygen. The idea is to create a new psychological reality with a shock, and to do so along the lines of an agreement that all serious people have known for years must look pretty much the way this one looks, as described just above. If the painful concessions of both sides can be grouped and made simultaneous, there is a much better chance that leaders in concert can spin the result to make the deal stick against the crush of opposition—some of it no doubt violent—that will inevitably arise.If it were carefully enough planned and executed by adroit and courageous leaders, could this shock peace actually work? I believe it could, yes. Is there any chance of something like this really happening? Of course not.1For more detail on this point, see chapter 12 of my Jewcentricity; my “How to Deal with the Arab-Israeli ‘Condition’”, in David Pollock, ed., Prevent Breakdown, Prepare for Breakthrough (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus #90, December 2008); and Robert Satloff, “Middle East Policy Planning for a Second Obama Administration: Memo from a Fictional NSC Staffer”, Policywatch #1995, November 9, 2012.