12 January 2009 - Winning the peace, despite Ehud Olmert
Israel's apparent success in the Gaza War ought not distract from the abysmal performance of prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the last three years. Today, Olmert reminded the world why he is so unpopular when he risked harm to Israel's relationship with the United States by openly mocking outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. True, her performance at the UN Security Council was an embarrassment, and she probably deserved to be told so in public--but not by Olmert, who not only needs America's strong support but is something of an embarrassment himself.
Olmert's great contribution to Israel in the present military and diplomatic struggle has been his weakness. There are situations in which it is better to be perceived as weak--not necessarily as a victim, which is the standard Palestinian refrain in these conflicts, but as politically unable to do anything other than pursue the present option. In addition, the fact that Olmert faces indictment for corruption and is due to step down after the upcoming Israeli elections helped Israel create a false perception of military unreadiness that provoked Hamas into overplaying its hand.
Going into negotiations regarding a cease-fire, Olmert's weakness will again prove an asset, since he can plausibly use his own abysmal approval ratings as proof that Israelis will not accept anything less than a full cessation of terror attacks and weapons smuggling into Gaza. Olmert's political fragility is complemented by the overwhelming strength of the Israeli Defense Force, which has won the battles on the ground necessary to establish a commanding position at the negotiating table. Israel will likely achieve its current demands.
With today's announcement by Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh that he is willing to accept a cease-fire of sorts, but that he is determined to fight on regardless, Israel has a golden opportunity to get even more out of an eventual agreement. The unreasonable determination of the Hamas leadership to continue fighting a losing battle provides Israel with a valid reason to continue destroying the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, while the folly of Hamas's cries of victory from underground bunkers has started to undermine its political credibility in the Arab world.
(Here's my favorite example, from a Reuters report earlier today:
"Fear is the last thing we could be accused of," Hamas parliamentarian Mushir al-Masri said on Sunday. "Martyrdom is our dearest wish, but God has ordered us not to pose ourselves as easy prey for our enemies."
Offering innocent women and children, to these fanatics, is perfectly fine, but they can't be bothered to risk their own lives. The message is slowly getting through to ordinary Palestinians and the Arab "street.")
Meanwhile, Haniyeh is still demanding that Israel re-open border the Gaza crossings as a condition of a cease-fire. There is no way that Israel should agree to do so as a condition of peace. But Hamas's demand may give Israel a chance to ask for something important in return: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, an acceptance of all prior agreements with the Palestinian Authority, and a complete end to terror and incitement. These were the original demands of the international community when Hamas took power in 2006, and Israel can reissue them now.
Of course Hamas is unlikely to accept these terms, and its refusal would again allow Israel's military to continue destroying the terror organization. The question may then become whether Israel is prepared to aim for completely eliminating Hamas in Gaza--for "regime change" that might bring Fatah back to the territory, or perhaps an international trusteeship of some sort. Israel's track record in this regard is not good; a similar attempt to knock over the Lebanese government and sign a peace deal with its replacement fared badly after Israel's initial victories in the 1982 Lebanon War.
Haniyeh may well be gambling that Israel does not have the will to go that far again. And there are definite risks in doing so--not least of which is that regime change alone will not solve the problem. The fact that Hamas was democratically elected is not an argument for its legitimacy: any election where the respective political parties are committed to armed conflict is a sham, and Hamas destroyed any claim to legitimacy anyway when it launched a coup against Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah-led executive in 2007. But its popular support is a reminder that the constituency Hamas represents, not Hamas itself, is the enduring and perhaps irresolvable problem.
The hatred for Israel among many Arabs and especially Muslims is deep--so deep that there may be no way to overcome it through negotiation. The Durban racism conference of 2001 is being re-enacted on a global scale on city streets around the world, with Arab and Muslim demonstrators dressing up in Hamas outfits and shouting "Death to the Jews" and worse (while clueless leftists march alongside them). Fundamentalist religion does not admit compromises--and if it is forced to compromise for pragmatic reasons, it certainly sees no value in compromise itself.
Israel hopes for peace, but the most it may be able to achieve in the medium term is an end to war, until the region becomes safe for democracy and human rights, in which case governments will have less need for external enemies and less support for warlike behavior. That, in turn, may depend on a fundamental reformation of Islam, which is an even more uncertain prospect. The most important factor will continue to be Israel's deterrent capability, which thus far this war has help re-establish (though the threat of a nuclear Iran looms larger than ever and is undiminished by Israel's efforts in Gaza).
Perhaps Israel's best option in the days ahead is to fight until Hamas exhausts its ammunition and withdraw to the international boundary without any agreement at all. That way Hamas will get nothing out of this conflict--not even indirect recognition from Israel--except the severest indication of what will happen to it if it tries to attack Israel again. Then again, that may not be good enough. Fanatical enemies tend to treat every outcome short of total destruction as an absolute victory. Allowing Hamas to remain in control of Gaza may not be worth the risk. Let us hope Israel's leaders are up to the challenge, this time.