One of the cardinal lessons of international conflict resolution is that two warring parties will not be interested in a peaceful settlement if they believe continuing to fight is worth more than negotiating. John Kerry faced this truth as he struggled to broker something more meaningful in Gaza than a few hours or a few days of so-called peace. Unfortunately to him, both the Israeli and the Hamas leaderships came to believe that peacemaking on their terms would yield few gains, whereas fighting might achieve gains that had been unachievable before. Now it appears that Israel won’t even bother to meet with Hamas on a truce, having announced it would wind down its assault in Gaza on its own terms—which allowed for more indiscriminate bombing that yesterday claimed a UN school-turned-shelter, an attack that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “a moral outrage and a criminal act.”
Many reports from Israel pointed to an increasing conviction among its leaders that now was the time to eliminate Hamas once and for all. The tunnels had to be entirely wiped out and the rockets silenced; Hamas’ leadership had to be discredited; Gaza had to have a permanent Israeli military presence. For Hamas, continued fighting justified its existence and established its legitimacy as a negotiating partner. It was also the only way Hamas leaders saw, apparently, to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza, open border crossings with Egypt, and thus free Gazans from the economic squeeze that has dramatically reduced their quality of life. At this moment the Israeli approach seems to have succeeded.
For both sides, and especially for the innocent people who are paying the highest costs for more fighting, this war is particularly anguishing because it was avoidable, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group recently argued (www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/opinion/gaza-and-israel-the-road-to-war-paved-by-the-west.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss). Thrall’s article points the finger at Israel, with US support, for obstructing the reconciliation agreement reached by the PLO and Hamas last April, which might have laid the groundwork for a new peace accord with Israel. Hamas was in a weakened condition then, and the “national consensus” that it agreed to put the Palestinian Authority in the driver’s seat in Gaza as it is in the West Bank. A few generous acts by Israel and the US at that time, in particular enabling Gaza’s civil servants to be paid, might well have produced entirely different reactions when the kidnappings and murders occurred earlier this month.
That failure to seize the moment is merely the latest in a long string of missed opportunities for peace in the Middle East. Recall the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Authority legislative council, elections that President George W. Bush strongly urged. The result was a Hamas victory that took Washington completely by surprise. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis could stomach such a turn of events. Back then Israeli artillery and air strikes in Gaza, met by Hamas rockets, ended a brief post-election truce. Thus began the latest round of the war on Gaza. In 2007 Israel imposed an economic blockade on Gaza, and in 2008 set restrictions for security reasons on substantial portions of Gaza’s agricultural and fishing areas. These restrictions, according to a United Nations report in August 2010—“Between the Fence and a Hard Place,” (www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_special_focus_2010_08_19_english.pdf) —had “devastating” consequences for people’s livelihoods in Gaza. They also enhanced Hamas’ standing there as an alternative to Israel’s continuing assault on living standards and personal security.
David Grossman, Israeli author of The Yellow Wind and other outstanding books on Israeli-Palestinian differences, has written an impassioned op-ed that deserves wide attention (www.nytimes.com/2014/07/28/opinion/david-grossman-end-the-grindstone-of-israeli-palestinian-violence.html). He believes it may finally be dawning on Israelis of diverse political persuasions that there are no winners in war, and that Israel must negotiate with Hamas. He writes in the name of a common humanity as well as a deep conviction that Israel’s leadership has failed its people by rejecting a peace that has long been within reach. But nobody in Tel Aviv is listening. Benjamin Netanyahu seems to believe that war is the answer—that somehow, contrary to all the historical evidence about resistance movements, the civilian and military survivors of Israel’s attacks will accept their fate and allow the occupying power to do what it wants. Netanyahu and his supporters will be proven wrong, but before that happens, the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike will continue.
And what of the US role? The Israeli air attacks have been met with “understanding” by the President, the Secretary of State, and other high US officials. Yes, they have expressed “concern” about the “heartbreaking” toll on the Palestinians these attacks have caused—over 1,800 dead and 8,000 wounded last I looked. (Israel has lost 63 soldiers and 3 civilians.) Far be it from US leaders to criticize Israel’s conduct, however. To the contrary, President Obama told Netanyahu in a telephone call July 24 that he “underscored the United States’ strong condemnation of Hamas’ rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself,” said the White House statement. Evidently, the Palestinians have no such right. And whereas Obama demanded the unconditional release of an Israeli soldier wrongly believed to have been captured by Hamas, calling it a “barbaric” act, no Israeli action has been so characterized. Public and Congressional opinion in the US seems to support the official view that Hamas is to blame for this latest round of conflict, so Obama is just where he wants to be—on politically safe terrain.
Kerry said the US goal in Gaza was “an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.” Though a cease-fire of any sort seems dead in the water now, we might still raise questions about it. What humanitarian objectives would it have achieved? Would it have ended Israel’s economic stranglehold on Gaza’s people, replaced their bombed-out homes and hospitals, or compensated the families of innocent victims of military assault? Would it have demilitarized Gaza in ways applicable to Israel as well as to Hamas?
It now appears that the Israelis were never really interested in Kerry’s cease-fire efforts, minimal though they were. As was reported the other day, Netanyahu upbraided the US ambassador to Israel by saying the Obama administration should never “second guess me again” on dealing with Hamas. You have to hand it to Netanyahu; he knows how to manipulate the Israel-US relationship to his advantage. He knows how rarely Washington follows up its “concern” about Israeli military and political actions with any withdrawal or reduction of support. Thus, he lets the US leadership fret (or pretend to fret) for awhile, and engage in endless shuttle diplomacy, while he goes about his business. This time around, Netanyahu has had a bonus: For their own reasons of state, the Egyptians—meaning the military junta that seized power last July and has been busy suppressing human rights ever since, with barely a murmur from Washington—are perfectly content to watch the demise of Hamas. The junta is earning its reward in June: resumption of US military aid ($575 million for starters, and assurances that Apache attack helicopters will be shipped). We sure know how to keep our friends happy.
As I argued in a previous post (#13), the US approach to a Middle East peace is one-sided and doesn’t effectively address the core obstacles that have bedeviled diplomacy for decades. A just peace would mean Israeli-Palestinian sharing of authority over Jerusalem, with assured access to all religions; mutual recognition by Israel and the new Palestinian state of each other’s sovereignty and right to exist; compensation to Palestinian refugees; and a land-for-peace formula that would swap arable land annexed by Israel for an equal amount of land Israelis have settled, allowing for creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. Jimmy Carter’s Geneva Initiative (see www.cartercenter.org/news/documents/doc1556.html) and Tikkun magazine’s Geneva Accord (www.tikkun.org/article.php/JanFeb2004TOC) are among the sources that demonstrate that a just peace can be constructed if only the various parties have the will to do so. What is lacking to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not so much a fair and viable plan as the political will to carry it out. “Political leaders are the obstacles to peace,” Carter has said.