17 January 2009

17 January 2009 - The cease-fire that isn't--and its consequences

Israel has declared a unilateral cease-fire that will take effect in 45 minutes. Prime minister Ehud Olmert has warned Hamas that Israel will retaliate against any further rocket attacks: "If [Hamas] return to their unruly attacks they will be surprised again by the hand of Israel - I don't advise them to try it," he said.

Meanwhile, Hamas has continued to fire rockets at Israeli civilians. And Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak announced that Egypt will not be bound by the agreement Israel signed with the United States to increase efforts to stop weapons smuggling on the border between Gaza and Egypt.

So: as the rickets continue to fly, Israel is putting down its weapons, satisfied by declarations from discredited politicians that Hamas has learned its lesson. Well, perhaps it has--the same lesson it has always learned: if you kill Jews for long enough, eventually the world will come around, and the Jews themselves will give up and give you whatever you want, even their lives, in the hope that you'll leave them alone.

Why did this happen?

It is simple: Barack Hussein Obama is going to be inaugurated on Tuesday as the 44th president of the United States. And Israel's leaders decided they did not want to rain on his parade. They know he is not favorably inclined towards Israel's position. They made the calculation that preserving the U.S.-Israel relationship is more important than preserving the security of Israel itself.

It is a calculation that is doomed to fail, because the people backing Obama most vigorously have a fundamentally different idea about what the U.S.-Israel relationship must be. For them, it must be one in which the U.S. presses Israel to make concessions, regardless of Israel's legitimate interests, and regardless of the immediate dangers at hand. This is almost certainly going to lead to tensions.

Israel's leaders have made that even more likely with this cease-fire, because in leaving the field of battle without a definitive victory over Hamas and without any real international agreement to shape the future of the Gaza Strip, they have left Israeli citizens vulnerable to the whim of terrorists once again--and thus they have ensured that the next Israeli prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last April I cited a report by Ha'aretz's panel of experts that predicted that the worst possible political alignment for Israel was if Netanyahu was prime minister and Obama (or Hillary Clinton) was president of the United States. (Given the fact of Obama's presidency, the best Israeli leader would be Tzipi Livni, but that is just not going to happen--not now, not in the future.)

The reason this alignment is bad is that American Democrats and the Israeli Likud have--generally speaking--fundamentally different ideas about how to fight terrorists. Left-wing Democrats approach terror the same way they approach crime: by addressing its "root causes." (There are some who recognize the importance of "law and order" approaches but they have been sidelined by the party.)

The Likud believes that you fight terror through strength. This philosophy has taken a variety of different approaches, from harsh military responses to actively encouraging settlements in occupied territory. At its best the Likud has included someone like Natan Sharansky, for whom "strength" means a commitment to human rights. At its worst it has included various religious-nationalist demagogues who have thrown reality out the window.

We're not sure which Likud will show up in office after Israel's elections in February (just as Obama has left his exact intentions rather vague). And it's quite likely that no matter what the outcome of the Gaza War would have been, we would have seen both Netanyahu and Obama in office. The difference now is that Israel has failed--prior to this political change--to fully assert its right to defend itself against terror, to balance security and diplomacy the way Kadima had promised to do when elected in 2006.

Israel may never get the chance again.


At 1:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may be true that Israel stopped its offensive as a nod to Obama, but your post makes it sound like 1) any pressure from the US on Israel to change its policies would be a bad thing, and 2) that stopping the offensive puts Israel at the mercy of terrorists. I can't agree with either of these points.

There are a number of areas where additional pressure on Israel could do some good, for example, in the settlement policy. Israeli policy is inordinately influenced by religious extremists who seek to claim more and more territory without regard to the consequences in terms of security for the other residents of their country. Pressure from the rest of the world probably makes it easier for moderate Israeli politicians to compromise with the Palestinians.

As for whether stopping the offensive will put Israel at the mercy of the terrorists, a large portion of Israel's objectives were accomplished in the first 4 minutes of the offensive via airstrikes. The agreement with the US to help prevent tunnelling will help satisfy another major objective. So it is not like stopping now will make the whole thing useless. Plus, it isn't like there is really any hope of stomping out Hamas for good with this kind of an offensive (unless they are willing to take measures so draconian as to push away even their most loyal allies). Anyway, the point is, only limited progress is realistic and limited progress has been made.

At 1:45 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Hi Mike -

Perhaps I spoke too hastily and emotionally when I drew conclusions about Israel's reasons for choosing a cease-fire now.

However, I still don't think it was a good idea, and I disagree with you about Israel's capabilities. This operation proved Israel capable of taking out Hamas's military capacity with none of the draconian measures you are hinting at. I think Israel is taking a huge risk by leaving things where they stand.

The settlement policy is largely "settled"--as far as I am aware, settlement expansion is not happening at anything like the pace it once was, certainly not on the eastern side of the security barrier. I don't think this is what it holding up peace negotiations, either.

I do think US pressure on Israel can be useful--when it is based on the shared values and goals of the two countries: democracy, human rights, the peace process and the war against terror. Getting Israel to stop building settlements has been useful. Pressing Israel to accept a cease-fire on the unequal terms of UN SC Res. 1860 is not useful for either side.

I do think that this cease-fire makes Israel vulnerable again. It has given Hamas the chance to regroup, as well as the opportunity to renew hostilities at a moment of its choosing.

At 1:46 AM, Blogger Joel said...

I should add: to stop building new settlements. There is still construction in some existing ones.


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