The rules of the Middle East didn’t suddenly turn upside-down to favor Israel, which is worth remembering even as Israel faces an increasingly complicated and costly campaign in Gaza.
1. KERRY. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has come to define the image of a flat-footed diplomat: From the past year’s insistence on pushing Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward a comprehensive peace agreement neither of them seemed to want and for which neither population seemed prepared; to the latest swing between anti-Hamas ceasefire proposals by Egypt’s “Son of Mubarak” regime and the Hamas-friendly truce being peddled by Turkey and Qatar.
Kerry’s latest push for a temporary truce was mishandled, but was not a capitulation of Israel’s central goals in the current conflict. It would have been an opportunity to negotiate some reciprocal measures to meet both Israeli and Hamas demands, or see the fighting resume after a week. Involving Turkey and Qatar was crucial, given Egypt’s previous Hamas-free consultations which ended up expediting the need for Israel’s ground operation. But excluding Israel, Egypt and the PA from the final round was at best a blunder — without Egypt and Israel solidly on board, there’s nothing to share, and if Abbas isn’t involved, the PA is rendered a bystander to the Palestinian future. That said, Kerry and the Obama administration — and Iron Dome — remain Israel’s most effective champions. That’s right: Effective. If this is about results, then a deep breath — and not leaking of draft documents — seems in order.
2. HAMAS. Hamas didn’t invest millions tunneling into Israel just as a contingency. The tunnels led directly into Israeli residential buildings; rather than being used for smuggling people, goods and weapons in and out of Israel, these tunnels were intended to facilitate a massive, coordinated terrorist massacre across southern Israel. These weren’t constructed as a mere fallback in case Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian talks ended up humiliating Palestinian Authority (PA) President (and Fatah leader) Mahmoud Abbas, which they did. These were designed to capitalize on the expected failure of those talks or to sabotage any unlikely breakthrough toward a lasting peace.
3. ISRAEL. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to make a very costly — and, it seems, justifiable — decision to deploy ground troops into Gaza, but having made that choice the costs will not miraculously disappear. These include, most obviously, the loss and wounding of Israeli soldiers; the diplomatic and media firestorm, which remains subdued relative to Israel’s 1982 Lebanon invasion, especially when over 1,000 Palestinians — mostly civilians — have been killed (even The Washington Post has backed Israel this time); the reality that every Hamas rocket and every Israeli smart bomb is worth ten or 100 votes for Hamas in any Palestinian election. If Netanyahu’s strategy is to avoid having a reliable and legitimate partner for peace in Mahmoud Abbas, then this last consequence might be a deliverable rather than a loss. Yes, Hamas is a cynical, murderous terror movement, bent on Israel’s destruction — but Israel claims and benefits from a higher standard than the Russian Federation or the Syrian Arab Republic, and that doesn’t come without consequences. Most costly, for a new generation of Palestinians and Israelis, the clock on reliving past trauma and avenging fresh grievances has just been reset.
4. ABBAS. One of the implications of the Palestinian unity government, which Abbas formed with Hamas support just weeks ago, was that he could now speak for all Palestinians — something Netanyahu had previously claimed was missing. It also strengthened Abbas’ brand heading into Palestinian elections originally projected for January 2015. Given the way events of the past month have sidelined Abbas and revived the waning fortunes of Hamas, any elections will likely be confined to the West Bank if they take place at all; recalling the premature 2006 elections which swept Hamas into legitimate control, Abbas cannot risk a come-from-behind victory by the terrorist, rejectionist camp. Also, there should be no mistake about Abbas and his PA government: The security cooperation with Israel has been so effective, and the PA’s continued presence so indispensable, that earlier this month the PA received $136 million from Israel, from tax revenues collected on its behalf — despite the unity government, and with the start-up of new hostilities. (I’ve confirmed this with Israeli officials, but as yet no media outlet seems to have noticed.)
5. ANTI-SEMITISM. Attacks on Jews around the world are unacceptable under any circumstances, and certainly not under the guise of events in the Middle East. But it’s also clear that Israeli leaders don’t factor Diaspora Jewry into their decisions, which by itself would be understandable. What’s a little over the top, however, is when Israeli officials use these riots and attacks against Diaspora Jews and institutions to support their refrain, that only in Israel can Jews truly feel safe. Regardless of who is at fault, were it not for Israel’s actions, the violence in Europe and elsewhere would not be taking place at this time, and that’s no reason for anyone to gloat.
6. BEREISHIT. In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth. More recently, however, the cause-and-effect cycle definitely includes actions that Prime Minister Netanyahu could have undertaken, before getting to the point where the only responsible decision was to launch a Gaza offensive. Holding off announcements of new settlement construction every time Israel released Palestinian prisoners might have enhanced rather then undermined Abbas’ capacity to make difficult concessions from his side — at least, Netanyahu could have credibly said he tried his best and it’s not Israel’s fault the talks failed. Blaming the coalition partners he chose for this government, or Abbas, or Kerry…is going to be less impressive, and no amount of hasbara hashtags is going to change that.
7. PEACE. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and the subsequent and premature Palestinian election, were not a chance for Palestinian statehood, nor an example of what happens when Israel negotiates a peace agreement. Israel decided on its own to leave Gaza because the half-hearted Bush diplomacy was a disaster, not because it hoped to give Palestinians a realistic chance at self-rule; Israel effectively handed over the keys of Gaza to Hamas. It may be that withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza was the least harmful of all other options, but it’s hardly a case against a negotiated settlement — because that’s not what it was.
8. SHARK-JUMPING. If Netanyahu is really so frustrated with President Obama and his Secretary of State, he should consider inviting the Arab League to organize a ceasefire, as an opening to a comprehensive agreement leading to a Palestinian state. This doesn’t mean excluding the United States, but it does provide a way to include Qatar and Egypt at the same large table, with Hamas and Abbas, and at some point even Israel. The prime movers of the Arab League like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are itching to obliterate Hamas and all other Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, and will not easily consent to terms that allow Hamas to benefit from any agreement. And it will fit nicely into the more extremist rhetoric from coalition partners like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who use the “Arab context” as a riposte to calls for direct talks with the Palestinians. Risky? Sure. But no more than every alternative.