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The Gaza Trap

TEL AVIV – Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” against Hamas in Gaza is the kind of asymmetrical warfare that has characterized nearly all Middle East conflicts in recent years. Victories in such wars are always elusive.

Whatever the achievements of Israel’s superior army and its anti-missile systems, and however appalling the devastation of Gaza, Hamas will survive, if only because Israel wants it to. The alternative – jihadist anarchy that would turn Gaza into a Palestinian Somalia – is simply too unbearable to contemplate.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshal’s boastful rhetoric cannot hide the fact that Hamas’s military power has been dealt a devastating blow. But, unless Israel is ready to pay an exceptionally high price in terms of its international standing by occupying Gaza and destroying its entire military hierarchy and arsenal, Hamas can still claim victory, having survived yet another onslaught by Israel’s colossal military machine.

The superior power in an asymmetrical conflict always has a problem defining its objectives. In this case, Israel aspires to achieve “quiet” with few enough Palestinian civilian casualties to minimize international criticism. But the failure to achieve this goal is precisely where the superior power is defeated in asymmetrical conflicts. Moreover, “quiet” is not a strategic goal; nor is Israel’s way of pursuing it – a war every two or three years – particularly convincing.

The real question is this: Assuming that Israel gets the quiet that it wants, what does it intend to do with Gaza in the future? And what does it intend to do with the Palestinian problem of which Gaza is an integral part?

The question of Palestine is at the root of the asymmetrical wars that Israel has been facing in recent years, not only against Hamas, Qatar’s Palestinian client, but also against Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in the region. These wars are creating a new kind of threat to Israel, for they add to the conflicts’ strictly military dimension the domains of diplomacy, regional politics, legitimacy, and international law, in which Israel does not have the upper hand.

As a result, in asymmetrical conflicts, Israel finds its military superiority vitiated. These are political battles that cannot be won by military means. The asymmetry between the nature of the threats and Israel’s response ends up putting the superior military power in a position of strategic inferiority. The spread of violence to the West Bank – and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s support of Hamas’s objectives – means that Israel cannot avoid the conflict’s political consequences. Hamas, a neglected opponent of Abbas’s diplomatic strategy, is gradually becoming the avant-garde of Palestine’s struggle for liberation.

Contrary to what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu believes, the main existential threat facing the country is not a nuclear-armed Iran. The real peril is to be found at home: the corrosive effect of the Palestinian problem on Israel’s international standing. The devastation caused by Israel’s periodic asymmetrical confrontations, combined with the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and the ever-growing expansion of settlements, has fueled a growing campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy.

For example, the seemingly benign Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, viewed by many of its supporters as a legitimate form of non-violent resistance, has continued to gain ground. BDS’s opponents (including me) regard the movement as a political subterfuge intended to bring about the implosion of the Jewish state.

The Palestinian mainstream, represented by Abbas, made a strategic decision to opt for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Israel’s strategic response would normally be that it aspires to be a “Jewish democratic state,” which presupposes a Jewish majority. But if the never-ending peace process continues to fail to produce a two-state solution, how can Israel avoid the reality of a single state in a continuous state of civil war?

There is only one way out of the Gaza tragedy that can provide justice to its many victims: The parties to the conflict and the regional actors now vying to act as mediators must leverage the ongoing calamity into a grand peace agenda.

This would mean launching a Marshall Plan to upgrade Gaza’s infrastructure and improve social conditions. It would also entail lifting the blockade and opening Gaza to the world. The price Hamas would have to pay is complete disarmament and demilitarization of Gaza under international supervision, with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority controlling the border crossings into Israel and Egypt.

Simultaneously, negotiations for a two-state solution should resume, with an unequivocal commitment by the United States and the other members of the so-called Middle East Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia) to use all possible influence on the parties to prevent another failure.

Israel is devoid of a convincing strategy; what it has is a series of improvisations aimed at securing the nation’s physical survival on as much land as the international community might allow. But improvisation is simply unsustainable in the long run. For example, Israel has reached out to those Arab countries that are willing to subordinate the Palestinian problem to discreet bilateral relations, essentially on security matters. But any such “alliances” that Israel might be able to develop – say, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt – can only be circumstantial and ephemeral.

The challenge for Israel is to tie its military tactics and diplomacy to a clearly defined political goal. And a credible national strategy must recognize that as long as the Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, Israel’s moral foundations and international standing will be dangerously compromised.