Israel And The Gaza Strip

A Strategy Of Procrastination

Nathan J. Brown argues that deciding not to decide about Gaza is a dangerous strategy for Israel.

The many Israelis already prone to swings between despair and complacency regarding Palestinians will likely have been particularly confused by events of the past two weeks. A rich Arab ruler turned up in Gaza bestowing cash gifts and breaking the diplomatic blockade on Hamas; rocket fire from the narrow strip resumed; and Israel’s nominal diplomatic partner, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, sank deeper into insolvency and aimlessness.

But then Giora Eiland, Israel’s former Israeli National Security Advisor, forcefully argued that it was in his country’s interests to treat the Gaza leadership as a state and encourage Gaza’s border with Egypt to open. Those not willing to go that far could console themselves with the assurances that the new Egyptian regime was rushing to negotiate an end to rocket fire. Israel’s vice premier, Silvan Shalom, boasted that the country’s eastern neighbors were now tougher on Hamas than than they had been under Hosni Mubarak.

Which of the two views holds the truth? Do Israelis have Palestinians right where they want them? Or is this the calm before the storm? The answer is: yes.

For now, Israel finds the status quo acceptable and thinks it can be maintained. But over the long term, Israel could pay a high price for having done so. In the meantime, though, Israel will likely escape diplomatic pressure and serious security threats.

The hapless Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority leadership has no cards left to play with its own people or with the international community. It will continue to limp along while it has some money left to pay salaries, U.N. meetings to attend, and schools to run, but it now stands naked as precisely the misshapen instrument of limited autonomy its critics charged the PA would be at its birth.

For its part, the Gaza leadership is still bottled up, despite the Qatari amir’s visit. Hamas members who hoped the rising tide of Islamists in the region would lift their boats have been thus far disappointed. Earlier this year, the leader of a think-tank sympathetic to Islamists in the region publicly voiced his frustration that they were too busy “reassuring the West more than they should have.”

Nor are things likely to change soon. The new Egyptian regime is turning its attention inward; it has other concerns for now: domestic power struggles, a deteriorating security situation in Sinai, and a need to maintain correct relations with the West. The Ramallah leadership probably can't resuscitate itself. And the Gaza leadership’s short-term frustrations are largely producing a long-term sense of patience. Hamas is convinced, perhaps, that if the blockade will not tumble, it can be chipped slowly away, leaving them in a far stronger position.

But this leaves Israel’s best hope an indefinite maintenance of the status quo—and most of its leaders seem to have reacted as if it is time for crisis management rather than conflict resolution. From time to time, a few lonely Israeli voices come up with a clever tactical response or trot out an old one: perhaps Israel should agree to renegotiate the peace treaty with Egypt in order to get President Mohammed Morsi’s signature on a document. Or maybe the country could unilaterally determine its borders, reverting to the strategy of the Sharon government when it withdrew from Gaza.

It seems unlikely that absent strong pressures that any post-election Israeli government will even reshuffle its tactics in any of these ways, however. Neither the center’s and the left’s solutions of yesteryear nor the right’s lack of solutions offer Israel’s citizens any real alternatives. Those Israelis who lost faith in the “peace process” have seen their disillusionment go global; those who wished to dodge the two-state solution are now seeing their dreams fulfilled.

When the long-term trends now at work in the region finally wreak their effects on the conflict between Arabs and Israelis, the strategy of procrastination may seem in retrospect to have been a short-sighted approach indeed.