Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why Israel vs. Palestine Is Different This Time Around


Because the conflict that seems like old news is actually very different this time around.

Israel-Palestine, erupting again. This feels like very old news.

From a distance, the current fighting between Israel and Hamas — the Palestinian faction that rules the small and highly populated Gaza Strip — seems much like the hostility the region has known for decades.

But this time, it’s different — because this time, the two are at war just as the surrounding Middle East descends into total turmoil. And when everything abates, the two sides will end up even further from an agreement than they have been for years.

This spate of fighting began three weeks ago. So far, upward of 1000 Palestinians have died in Gaza; Israel has lost over 50 soldiers. Who started it? Israel blames Hamas for breaking a 2012 ceasefire and abducting and murdering three Israeli teenagers. Hamas says Israel captured 50 or so Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank, some of whom had been released back to Palestine under a 2011 prisoner swap.

The last time the two nations fought was before the Arab Spring in 2012, after instability had begun to escalate in the region — but before the crumbling of Iraq and the extremist surge in Syria, and well before the now-discredited Morsi government in Egypt had even come to power. In other words, Israel and Palestine have fought before, but never have they fought in a Middle East that looks quite like today’s.

Which means…


…Because it’s all going down in a region where, frankly, the neighbors have it worse. It’s no longer possible to credibly argue, as the U.S. and others did for decades, that settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would be a “game changer” in the Middle East. America and Arab nations alike routinely claimed that resolving this conflict would help undermine the entire global terrorist narrative; that it would reduce hostility between Arab nations and Israel; and that it would dent the influence of extremist regimes like Iran. I heard this from Arab officials consistently over many years.

But now, the entire region is so troubled that no one, not even the U.S., can give the Israeli-Palestine conflict the attention it once demanded. And American officials can no longer argue that a settlement would ripple positively across the Middle East.


Relations within the Palestinian community have become more complicated. During the last two wars, in 2009 and 2012, Palestinian governance was split between the extremist faction, Hamas, in Gaza, and the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

But since June, the two factions have been uneasily allied in a power-sharing government. Which has pulled the Palestinian Authority more directly into the conflict, despite its minimal presence in Gaza. At the same time, the United States can’t deal directly with the Palestinians because we’ve labeled Hamas a terrorist group. And we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Moreover, the moderates among Palestinian factions now feel obliged to aid Hamas, rhetorically if not more directly, rather than treating them as errant brethren. This, in turn, makes it harder for the U.S. and others to succeed in negotiations to the degree we have when more moderate Palestinian Authority officials could distance themselves … or even contemplate compromise with Israel.


The priorities and alliances of the surrounding region have also shifted. Most consequential: Egypt, at peace with Israel since the 1979 Camp David Accords, no longer has the same clout to negotiate with the Palestinians (especially with Hamas). Once upon a time, the U.S. could count on Egyptian help to engage the Palestinian side. In fact, deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was instrumental in negotiating the ceasefire in 2012, in part because Hamas is a branch of the Brotherhood (and therefore, part of the family).

But new Egyptian President el-Sisi has outlawed the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Which makes Egypt pretty much absent this time around.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ most significant support comes from Qatar, which shelters the group’s leadership, and Turkey. Neither nation enjoys warm relations with Israel. And Iran, a long-time Hamas supporter, has reversed its position — not long ago, Iran’s Shia leaders had removed support for Hamas because of Hamas’s allegiance to Sunni Syrian rebels. But, apparently surmounting this internal Islamic Civil War, Iran has just called on the Muslim world to send arms to Gaza.

All bets are off.


Lastly, although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pouring huge energy into the search for a solution, the simple truth is that American influence in the region is diminished. What’s the cause of this saltier relationship between the Arab world and America? Take Egypt and Syria to start. Unfairly or not, most Middle Easterners point to the rapidity with which the U.S. turned against longtime ally Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the American decision not to use military strikes against Syria — despite the fact that President Obama had declared that he would. In short, the Middle East doubts America’s commitments.


All of this leaves zero hope that the U.S. will resume the moribund “peace process” — which was intermittently an obsession of U.S. diplomacy for decades.

The most one can hope for in the event of a cease-fire is a process that, over time — a very long time — begins to set the conditions for resuming peace talks. But by then, we can be sure neither side’s public will warm to negotiating with the other.

As for the immediate violence — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to end Hamas attacks on Israel, either by rockets or via the infamous tunnels that carry Hamas militants secretly into Israeli territory. And the Israeli public supports the war overwhelmingly, by over 90 percent. The dilemma for Netanyahu is one that world leaders have always faced when battling extremists like Hamas or the Iran-backed Hezbollah: The extremists don’t have to win to win — all they have to do is not lose. In other words, if they are still standing at the end of battle, they will claim they stood up to Israel and then rally recruits for another fight on another day.

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

[Another article in the same vein.]

Nothing routine in this Gaza war


At 6.02am on Saturday, the air raid siren sounded over Tel Aviv. I was rousted by the hotel staff from my room and ushered into the windowless service elevator area with two French families, everyone in their pyjamas.

After 10 minutes, when the Hamas missile threat had passed, we were allowed to go back to our rooms. As I slipped back into bed, the hotel loudspeaker bellowed: “Dear guests, you may return to your routine.”

With Israel and Hamas winding down their latest war, I could only wonder whether the hotel manager was also speaking to them. Is that it?

More than 60 Israeli soldiers and about 1,800 Hamas fighters and Gazans — many hundreds of them children and civilians — killed, and everyone just goes back to their routines? I do not think so. Some new and significant things were revealed here.


Let us start with the fight. Since the early 2000s, Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and, until recently, Hamas, have pursued a three-pillar strategy towards Israel.

The first is asymmetric warfare, primarily using cheap rockets, to paralyse Israeli towns and cities. For now, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system appears to have nullified this weapon; Hamas rockets did virtually no damage.

The second pillar, which debuted in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, is to nest Hamas fighters and rocket launchers among the densely packed Gazan population and force Israel into a war where it can defeat or deter Hamas only if it risks war-crimes charges. No one here will explicitly say so, but one need only study this war to understand that Israel considers it central to its deterrence strategy that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will “outcrazy us”.

I do not believe Israel was targeting Gaza civilians — I believe it tried to avoid them — but, at the end of the day, it was not deterred by the prospect of substantial collateral civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza’s civilians as war-crimes bait. And Israel did whatever was necessary to prove to Hamas, “You will not outcrazy us out of this region”. It was all ugly. This is not Scandinavia.

The third pillar of the Iran/Hezbollah/Hamas strategy is: Israel must forever occupy Palestinians in the West Bank because the perpetuation of that colonial occupation is essential for delegitimising and isolating Israel on the world stage — especially among young Westerners — and energising Muslims against Israel. On this, Hamas scored a huge victory.

We saw that clearly in the decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to briefly order a ban on US flights to Tel Aviv, after a single Hamas rocket landed just over a mile from the airport.

That was exactly the message Hamas wanted to deliver: “If we can close your airport, your global lifeline, with one rocket from Gaza, imagine what happens if you leave the West Bank, right next door.” That FAA ban will now be used here as a key argument for why Israel must never cede the West Bank. I can hear the applause in Tehran from here.


And then there were the Hamas tunnels and what they revealed. I toured one just across the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. It was lined for a couple miles with prefab concrete siding and roofing. It had electricity and railroad tracks.

What struck me most, though, was the craftsmanship — the way all the prefab concrete pieces were perfectly designed and fit together.

This tunnel took years and millions of dollars to build and required diverting massive resources from civilian roads, buildings and schools.

It had one purpose and it was not fruit exports. It was to shuttle fighters into the kibbutz. And there were many of these.

I must say I was awed by the sheer dedication it took to dig this tunnel, but sickened by what fuelled that dedication: An apocalyptic jihadist agenda. The religious-nationalist forces have the real energy in this region today. More and more, this is becoming a religious conflict.

The Times of Israel reported that, at the start of this war, “in an official dispatch sent to battalion and company commanders on July 9, Givati Brigade commander Colonel Ofer Winter” — one of Israel’s top officers on the Gaza front — “told his subordinates that ‘History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting (against) the terrorist Gazan enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s (defence) forces’.” Frightening.

Jihadists are now sweeping across Iraq and Syria, wiping out Christians and other minorities. As the Lebanese writer Mr Hanin Ghaddar noted this week: The Lebanese historian Mr Kemal Salibi once observed that “it is Christian Arabs who keep the Arab world ‘Arab’ rather than ‘Muslim’” and “have played a vital role in defining a secular Arab cultural identity”. Now, she said, “the region seems to be going back to tribalism, as if a century of intellectual awakening and secular ideas are being erased and our identities are evaporating”.

Here is where Israel does have a choice. Its reckless Jewish settlement project in the West Bank led it into a strategy of trying to keep the moderate Palestinian Authority there weak and Hamas in Gaza even weaker.

The only way Israel can hope to stabilise Gaza is if it empowers the Palestinian Authority to take over border control in Gaza, but that will eventually require making territorial concessions in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, because it will not act as Israel’s policeman for free.

This is crunch time. Either Arab and Israeli moderates collaborate and fight together or the zealots really are going to take over this neighbourhood. Please do not return to your routines.



Thomas L Friedman is a Pulitzer prize winning columnist at the New York Times.

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