Listen Up

11.21.12

Lessons From the Second Gaza War

Military action against Hamas can work. Netanyahu is no Dr. Strangelove. Peter Beinart on what doves and hawks should take away from the conflict in Gaza.

For doves

Military action against Hamas can work.

Yes, I know—and have written—that military action is no substitute for a political strategy to weaken Hamas and restore democracy to Palestinian political life. Yes, in the longer term, this military campaign may even backfire by making Hamas appear to be leading the Palestinian national struggle (however unwisely) while Abbas sits mute in the sideline. But in the short-term, destroying Hamas missiles and killing some of its leaders, can win Israelis some respite from rocket fire. It did for a time after Cast-Lead. And any government—most certainly including our own—would be hard-pressed to ignore that benefit.

Indeed, many mainstream American liberals are at least ambivalent about American military strikes on Al Qaeda targets even those strikes that also kill innocent people and bring short-term rewards and long-term problems. Goodness knows I’m not arguing that liberals should avoid criticizing the Israeli government for the policies that are destroying the two-state solution and strengthening the most militant elements in Palestinian society. But when liberals ignore the short-term benefit military action can bring to a beleaguered population, they’re imposing a standard on Israel that most would not impose on the United States.

Netanyahu is not Dr. Strangelove.

Compared to Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu’s military strategy was (assuming the ceasefire holds) relatively cautious. And that fits the longstanding interpretation among close Israeli observers. Olmert was a risk-taker on both war and peace. Netanyahu is cautious on both. He’s not bold enough to truly break from the Israeli right and push for a Palestinian state within the Clinton parameters, which is a tragedy of historic proportions, in my view.

But he’s also not bold enough—thank goodness—to invade Gaza on the ground, especially after watching the damage that Operation Cast Lead did to Israel’s international image and the lack of impact it had on Hamas’ hold on Gaza. All this offers a clue, I think, about Netanyahu’s likely behavior toward Iran. For all his self-depiction as Winston Churchill, there’s little in his actual record in two terms as prime minister to suggest he’d take military action without solid American support.

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For hawks

You’re digging Abbas’ grave.

Tough-minded realists on the Israeli and American right like to opine that Mahmoud Abbas is yesterday’s man, nice enough perhaps, but far too weak to cut a deal. All of which evokes that great line in Cold Mountain: “They made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!'”

In a war in which vast numbers of missiles were fired from Gaza, many Israelis are alive because of Iron Dome.

Yes, Abbas is partly weak for his own reasons: Because he lacks revolutionary credentials, because he permits too much corruption, because Islamism is on the rise regionally. But it’s also indisputably clear that this Israeli government has made him weaker by refusing to commit to the kind of negotiations that Olmert was conducting in 2008. Abbas has bet everything on the idea that security cooperation with Israel can bring Palestinians a state. He’s delivered on that security cooperation, saving many Israeli lives in the process, and exposing himself politically among his own people. Essentially, he’s put his fate—and the fate of two-state Palestinian moderates more generally—in Netanyahu’s hands. And Netanyahu has told him to drop dead, which politically, he may soon do.

You got Obama wrong.

Remember all the warnings from the Israeli and American Jewish right about how we’d see the “real” Obama after he was reelected. It was nonsense then, and it’s been proven to be nonsense now. Obama’s general orientation in this crisis—support Israel’s right to attack, protect it from United Nations reprimand and then negotiate a ceasefire—was essentially the same one Mitt Romney would have pursued.

The difference is that Obama did it carefully and skillfully, with maximum effect and minimum bluster. Throughout the presidential campaign, Republicans discounted Obama’s material support for Israel—as embodied by the American funding for Iron Dome—and focused on what he supposedly didn’t feel in his kishkes. Now in a war in which vast numbers of missiles were fired from Gaza, many Israelis are alive because of Iron Dome. Which puts the importance of kishke-love in perspective.

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For Democratic foreign policy types

You can’t leave.

I totally get the Asia pivot thing. You’re sick of cleaning up George W. Bush’s messes in the greater Middle East. You want to start fresh in a region which holds much of the world’s power, where the stakes for America’s superpower status are high, and where American policy needs strategic direction.

But the nasty truth is that if you take a reactive attitude toward Israel-Palestine, you’re still going to end up expending a huge amount of energy on it. It’s just that that energy will be spent trying to keep bad things from becoming calamities. You’re better off taking your time and political capital and getting ahead of the problem by making one last-ditch effort to get the kind of deal Olmert and Abbas almost reached in 2008. If you fail, all hell may break loose. But look at what happened over the last week. If you do nothing, it will likely break loose sooner or later anyway.