14 January 2009

14 January 2009 - Solving the cease-fire puzzle

Now that Hamas has agreed to a cease-fire "in principle," let's evaluate the different negotiating positions of the various parties to the conflict. The key question for each is: what is each party's best alternative to a negotiated agreement? That will define the least each side can accept. We also need to consider the risks of an agreement to each side, as well as what each side would like to achieve in the long term and in the current conflict.

Hamas
Long-term goal: Destroy Israel, create Islamic state of Palestine
Goals in current conflict: End to Israeli operation; open borders & continue smuggling
Best alternative to negotiated agreement: Israeli withdrawal after heavy IDF casualties
Risk of agreement: Loss of legitimacy, funding, weapons

Israel
Long-term goal: Peace with neighboring states
Goals in current conflict: Restore deterrent force, end to rocket fire, smuggling
Best alternative to negotiated agreement: Continue destroying Hamas military capability
Risk of agreement: Legitimizing Hamas rule; probability that Hamas will renege

Egypt
Long-term goal: Control over Egypt
Goals in current conflict: Keep Gaza from collapsing; deny Hamas propaganda victory
Best alternative to negotiated agreement: Israeli withdrawal without IDF casualties
Risk of agreement: Confronting Hamas at border strengthens internal Islamist opposition

Iran
Long-term goal: Regional hegemony
Goals in current conflict: Prevent Israel from destroying Hamas
Best alternative to negotiated agreement: Israeli withdrawal after threat of 2nd front
Risk of agreement: Diminished ability to threaten Israel through Gaza

United States
Long-term goal: Stability
Goals in current conflict: Rescue peace process; ease transition for new administration
Best alternative to negotiated agreement: Israeli withdrawal without IDF casualties
Risk of agreement: Poor relations with new Israeli right-wing government

There are also various views-within-views. In the U.S., the Pentagon might like to see Israel keep fighting, while the State Department would prefer an immediate cease-fire. The Gaza wing of Hamas is open to a cease-fire under ambitious conditions, while the Damascus wing wants to keep fighting. In Israel, Olmert wants to keep fighting, Barak wants a cease-fire agreement, and Livni wants withdrawal without a deal; even the IDF is split between those who want to make do with having restored Israel's deterrent force and those who want to guarantee that Hamas can never threaten the south again.

There are also political considerations in the U.S. and Israel to watch. These did not determine the start of the conflict, but they may have something to do with its end. Israel would prefer not to test the commitment of the Obama administration to its security; it believes--as is clear on the face of the evidence--that Obama is far less sympathetic to it than Bush and it would rather endure a few more years of empty rhetoric and "tough diplomacy" than an a substantive confrontation in the midst of a war (the present spat over Condoleezza Rice is superficial, but bad enough). Livni and Barak are also positioning themselves for the elections against an opposition that will invariably charge them with failing to do all they could to destroy Hamas. They need a sound alternative they can sell to Israeli voters, and they are starting to develop clear positions and extensive justifications thereof. The public disagreements on all sides--inside Israel, between the U.S. and Israel. etc.--are really shameful and if it were not for the evident progress of the IDF one would think Israel was actually losing the war. Hamas may even hope to get a better deal from an Obama administration and meanwhile must certainly be grateful for the Israeli infighting.

Having considered all of that, here is my analysis:

Hamas is not ready for a cease-fire. A truce is still worse than its best alternative to a negotiated agreement--namely, continuing to fight in the hope of inflicting some sort of graphic harm on Israel that it can turn into a propaganda victory. Israel has denied Hamas the opportunity thus far, largely through the excellent performance of the IDF and by keeping its own aims rather vague, which has denied Hamas the chance to "win" by simply banking on Israeli failure. Regardless, Hamas probably still wants to take the chance--the more civilian lives at risk, the better for propaganda purposes.

Israel is ready for a cease-fire, but what it absolutely cannot do is accept one that allows the border crossings to open, unless such a deal is sweetened by formal recognition from Hamas and/or the freedom of Gilad Shalit. It will continue to fight as long as Hamas does--but not only for that reason: fighting is still better than a negotiated agreement that does not end rocket attacks and smuggling. Without achieving that basic aim, Israel will have to slowly step up its operation, taking greater risks (for potentially greater gains), waiting for the politicians to sort themselves out.

In short: despite what has been agreed "in principle," the fighting will continue for several more days at least, at least until Obama's inauguration. This round of fighting will in many ways be "diplomacy by other means," especially since Israel and Hamas are both reluctant to talk directly to one another. Hamas will use desperate tactics to cause at least some sort of harm to Israel; it may even directly target its own civilians in a massive way not seen before. Israel will proceed carefully, hoping to strike valuable Hamas targets without getting too bogged down in battles--but without giving Hamas the chance to claim Israel was scared of a real engagement.

It's a precarious situation. Israel has won the Gaza War until this point, but the closing days of the war are going to be the most important in determining what follows.

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