Who Wins This No-Win Situation?
Since the beginning of Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza, “Pillar of Defense,” my Twitter and Facebook feeds have raged with rhetorical questions. ‘Friends’ on both sides, supporters and opponents, have apparently assumed that their positions are so self-evidently correct that these questions are totally unanswerable. How could anyone defend Israel’s murder of civilians? What would the U.S. do if rockets were falling on New York? Et cetera. As one who has spoken out many times on behalf of ambivalence and nuance regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict, perhaps it is no surprise that I find such certainties dismaying. But as the "Pillar of Defense" appears on the verge of toppling into another ground offensive in Gaza, I find myself uniquely unwilling to take a position on the ultimate value of Israel’s actions, because I do not know what this Israeli government actually wants.
On the surface, obviously, it wants an end to the rockets. And in this regard, I am unambivalently supportive. True, there were skirmishes back and forth before Hamas unleashed this latest barrage, but there is no equivalence between a low-level war of attrition among militaries and the deliberate targeting of civilians (some of whom, by way of full disclosure, are my friends and relatives) with rocket fire. Propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding, Israel has never deliberately targeted civilians in this way, and so I absolutely support some campaign—maybe not this one, but who am I to judge—to end the rocket fire.
The trouble is beneath the surface. As countless of pundits have already observed, there’s no clear endgame here. Israel invades, civilians die, the usual voices shout in outrage… and what happens in six months? Hamas cannot be destroyed in this way, and Israel’s military and political leaders know it. So, then, what would be the objective of either a ground offensive or a protracted aerial bombardment? Here, there is no correct answer, because different people in power want different things, and say different things to different audiences.
The most likely desired outcome, I think, is to bolster Israel’s right-wing narrative that the Palestinians are not ready for peace and a tough line is necessary. One hears this narrative all the time—indeed, just last week, I was on a panel with the pundit Daniel Gordis, who stated it as fact, not opinion. This conflict will continue for a century, says the narrative, and what Israel must do is not reach for peace but manage the conflict as best it can. That means extending the status quo (i.e., occupation) indefinitely, taking a hard line in any negotiations, and settling in for the long haul.
As Ariel Sharon most memorably recognized, the primary obstacle to this policy is that the rest of the world doesn’t share this narrative. Thus, what is needed, per Sharon, is to show the world what right-wing Israelis already know. In this light,Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount, which set off the Second Intifada, was a brilliant tactic: it led to riots, and ultimately to Sharon’s election. Some believe (and I tend to agree) that the Gaza Disengagement was the same kind of policy; Sharon knew that Hamas would take power, and now the world would see how incorrigible the Palestinians are.
Of course, Sharon exited the stage before this strategy was completed, but it has already borne fruit. Every rocket Hamas fires is a direct hit on the peace process, and the notion of a two-state solution. Liberals in Israel and the United States appear naïve, as if we are unaware that rockets fired from Kalkilya and Tulkarm would devastate all of Israel. We have no partners on the other side, as Palestinian moderates are forced to stand in solidarity with their countrymen under attack. We have almost no way to make our case. In the short term, this means Netanyahu wins reelection. When you’re huddling in a bomb shelter, you’re more likely to vote your fears than your hopes. But in the long term, it’s an even deeper victory, for an ideological narrative that believes peace to be unattainable, and takes steps to ensure it is correct. The right’s narrative is the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecy: say there can be no peace, and there can be no peace.
On the other hand, the troops massed on Gaza’s border may well be there to force Hamas to accept a real ceasefire – and that would be a victory for everyone. So far, Hamas has been quite bold in setting conditions, specifically that Israel’s “siege” on Gaza be lifted. From where I stand, this is outrageous. Remember, Hamas is launching rockets at civilian targets. If that’s not terrorism, I don’t know what is. And surely it would be wrong to allow anyone to use terrorism as a means to win a political victory.
Indeed, just as critics question the endgame of an Israeli incursion, we should also ponder the consequences of an Israeli acquiescence. Suppose Hamas maintains its hard line, and Egypt does not or cannot pressure it to do otherwise. No amount of Israeli airpower can take out every shoulder-mounted rocket battery, so the rockets continue to rain on Beersheva and Ashkelon. What then? If there is no truce, how can Israel claim any kind of victory—or at least prevent Hamas from claiming the same?
By this logic, an invasion is the only way for an already miserable situation to not get any worse. If Hamas will not accept a truce, then anything other than a massive Israeli military campaign is tantamount to acquiescing to terrorist tactics. Not only conservative reasoning but basic military strategy suggests that such a step would be a tremendous victory for Hamas and proof that the Arab Spring has emboldened Islamists everywhere. The balance of power would shift.
I don't know which theory is right: the cynical-about-Netanyahu reading, or the realpolitik-about-Hamas one. But I have noticed one thing they have in common: the first theory of this conflict is that it is good for Israel’s right, and the second theory is that it’s good for Hamas. This is no coincidence. Whoever comes out most ahead, the real winners in this conflict have already been declared: rejectionists on both sides. Their reasoning has already prevailed, and they are the perfect complements for one another. The Likud has no idea what to do with the P.A., but it knows exactly what to do with Hamas. And likewise in reverse.
And the losers? The peace camps in Israel and Palestine, the idea of a peace process, the two-state solution, and, at last count, 73 dead and 679 wounded on both sides.