Israel and the Palestinians are, for the third time in less than six years, embroiled in a Gaza-centered operation which is wreaking havoc on the lives of millions of civilians on both sides. There is a very high likelihood that this curiously-named operation (“Preventive Edge” in English; “Firm Cliff” in the Hebrew original) may indeed end up like its predecessors in 2008-2009 and 2012 with a tenuous ceasefire that serves as yet another hiatus between senseless bouts. But it could also become a precursor to a different, more secure, future in the region.
This round is not an exact copy of its predecessors and should not be treated as such. It definitely does not have to be handled in a similar manner — as doing the same once again merely invites another encore. Just as this time the iron dome is providing much-needed relief for many Israelis, so too can a more holistic approach to ending the present violence construct a more lasting diplomatic umbrella that will avert further futile engagements of this sort in the future.
Israel’s objectives in this operation are pointedly ambiguous, focusing, in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, on “bringing calm to the people of Israel.” On the surface, the emphasis placed as a result on attacking the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza is reminiscent of goals articulated in past operations. But the times have changed: it is not clear that Israel today is as bent on breaking the Hamas (fearing that its alternatives in the form of the Islamic Jihad and its corollaries might be even worse) as on taming its more violent propensities. Nor is it apparent how exactly it might be possible to restore a semblance of normality: can yet another tenuous lull in the next few days do the trick? Or is it time to link the end of this phase of violence to a broader diplomatic offensive? The answer depends, to a large extent, on how Israel’s leadership defines and acts upon its own (purposefully blurred?) mandate.
As the situation escalates, the government is under severe pressure both from within and from portions of the public to step up its military action and to launch a ground war. Tempting as such a move might be tactically, in strategic terms it surely no longer makes much sense. A drawn-out operation on the ground cannot but exact an even greater human price; past experience indicates that it will not assure any lasting relief in the long run. Under the circumstances, given the limits on the use of force both operationally and internationally, the time is ripe to pursue other avenues — especially those that tie the cessation of military action to progress on the diplomatic front.
In this context, it is important to note that discussion of such options is much more open today than it was in the past. During “Operation Cast Lead” and its much shorter successor, “Pillar of Defense” any questioning of government policy was considered heresy, any dissent a sign of betrayal. But now, it is widely understood that expressing support for besieged civilians and evincing empathy for victims on all sides in no way obviates the right (some might say the obligation) to offer alternatives. And that is precisely what is happening — vigorously and even aggressively — on the social networks and in the print and electronic media.
The official, Gaza-based and Hamas-directed narrative, which attempts to define the current operation in narrow, military, terms, is being challenged by another perspective that places the current engagement in the broader framework of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Its proponents highlight the linkage between the present round in Gaza and the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations several months ago, the creation of the Fatah-Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority, the horrific murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gil-Ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah and then of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir and the simultaneous round-up of Hamas activists in the West Bank. The inability to address this dynamic through the artificial detachment of the Gaza conundrum from the Israeli-Palestinian issue in its entirety is, in this view, not only doomed to failure, but fraught with danger.
Indeed, 2014 is not 2008 nor, for that matter, 2012. The regional landscape is more volatile than ever before; so, too, is the radicalization of actors closer to home. Not only on the Palestinian side, but also in Israel, in the absence of any diplomatic horizon, extremists continue to gain traction. At the same time, the prospects for rapid international mediation — either by the United States, Egypt, Turkey or any other party — appear to be dimmer. Stopping the rocket attacks and the bombings won’t, in and of itself, put an end to the mounting human suffering nor provide any real stability. That requires a much bolder and embracing move.
The successful completion of the present Gaza campaign must therefore link the cessation of fire to a defined diplomatic action. Three (not mutually exclusive) options are evident at this time. The first — the most preferable but hardly the most probable — involves the launching, for the first time, of an Israeli peace initiative which would contain a commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict, lay down the parameters of an agreement and establish a timetable for its realization. The second, more regionally-oriented, would tie any halt in the violence to the active pursuit of the Arab Peace Initiative, thus connecting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to a wider reconfiguration in the Middle East. The third, and most obvious, possibility entails the resumption of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (including those members of the political branch of the Hamas willing to publicly shun the use of force), with the expectation that some accommodation can be reached expeditiously.
These possible scenarios are neither naïve pipedreams nor thoroughly impracticable. In many ways, they reflect the mood of many Israelis who, while exhibiting great fortitude in the face of the present uncertainty, would dearly like to know that every effort is being made that they not sink into the Gaza quagmire yet again in the near future. The majority of their counterparts on the Palestinian side, protestations aside, seem to share these aspirations.
The burden for deciding Israel’s course at this juncture lies primarily on the shoulders of Benjamin Netanyahu. On the one hand, the Prime Minister is not prone to military escapades and may be seeking, even as these words are being written, a way out of the spiral of violence. On the other hand, he has never been inclined to attempt to mold the large picture, making it eminently clear as recently as Friday that he does not envisage a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel and has no intention of promoting this option.
Israelis, therefore, may find themselves picking up the material and emotional pieces following a ceasefire in the next few days. They will, however, have to facilitate a change in leadership through the ballot box (not uncommon after previous Gaza incursions) in order to attach the end of this round of violence to a workable trajectory for peace.