When Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to secure a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine collapsed in May, the consequences were clear: Violence would follow. It is the price of failed politics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have never believed in—or sought to establish—a viable two-state solution. Their sole interest continues to be the consolidation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem while maintaining the siege on Gaza. Previous statements and smokescreens that suggested Netanyahu could support a two-state solution were proved profoundly disingenuous when the prime minister proudly and explicitly declared last week: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” In other words, there are now no circumstances under which Netanyahu would accept the Palestinians establishing sovereign control over the West Bank.
The ongoing game theory behind the Israeli air strikes and ground invasion is, in effect, “The Netanyahu Peace Plan.” It is just far easier to attack Gaza—in the name of fighting Hamas—than it is to sign a peace agreement with moderates such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. And the latter has never been Netanyahu’s goal. Quite the contrary: By bombarding Gaza, Netanyahu can dismiss all Palestinian claims to sovereignty and self-determination—in the name of security. In turn, a perverse and cyclical game has emerged in which Israeli occupation and “security campaigns” serve only to engender further retaliatory violence and at the same time further embolden Palestinian extremists.
The moderate Palestinian leadership had already accepted all the conditions Netanyahu demanded. They renounced violence, recognized the state of Israel, and embraced a demilitarized Palestinian state. But in response, the Israeli government made no concessions, the result of which was to effectively destroy the moderate leadership within Palestinian society. Conversely, when Israel negotiated with Hamas and released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Israel sent the perverse message that it only negotiates with those who engage in violence, while moderates such as Abbas, who attempt to negotiate in good faith, are humiliated and ignored. The recently reported “secret negotiations” between Hamas and Israel are in keeping with this policy.
At the same time, Abbas’s threat to join international bodies—especially the International Criminal Court—in an attempt to pressure Israel is, simply, desperate. Hamas is currently struggling for its survival. Without former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in power, Hamas has lost a crucial political and financial partner, as well as access to smuggling routes and constant cash flow from Qatar. The unity government agreement didn’t produce any gains. So Hamas returned to the old familiar terrain of launching missiles—a way to shake the ground, but metaphorically and physically. The popularity of Hamas will increase after this war in Gaza for a number of reasons: On the one hand it resisted Israel—even Israeli newspapers are admiring of Hamas: “The weakest army is challenging the strongest army in the Middle East, and they are holding their ground”—and on the other hand, Egypt will be forced to loosen its borders. And after the next inevitable horrific episode, when many civilians will be killed and it is all captured again on camera like the boys who were killed on the beach, the world will call on Israel to halt its operation. It will be then that the music will stop.
In the end, the important question will be, simply:
What did this war achieve? It will have been another useless war, one in which hundreds of innocent civilians lost their lives, one that serves only to exasperate and radicalize Gazans further.
Gaza has been bombarded six times in the last eight years. Throughout, Hamas not only has survived but—in some ways—thrived. Since the idea that bombarding Gaza so hard that the population will turn against Hamas has been proved wrong and the goal of this war is not to topple Hamas but severely cripple its military capabilities, Hamas simply will go back, more emboldened, to rebuild. Meanwhile, the siege in which 1.8 million Palestinians live in an open-air prison of wretched poverty is precisely engendering the conditions and circumstances under which extremism is bred.
Hamas has damaged the Palestinian cause more than anyone else, but Hamas exists as a byproduct of a military occupation, and it serves a clear purpose for Netanyahu’s Israel. Hamas represents the necessary excuse by which Israel can repeatedly avoid entertaining a Palestinian state—under the rubric of a national security threat.
But in the background, a separate time-bomb is ticking for Israel. The ultimate existential threat to Israel will come from the inevitable demographic realities—and Israel’s refusal to address the question of what it will do with the millions of Palestinians living under its control in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
Every day the answer to this question is delayed, extremism rises on both sides, escalating the bigotry, racism, and violence, all of which serve to undermine what Israel holds most dear: its “Jewish-democratic” identity. Having a democratic state for Jews and a nondemocratic occupied state for Palestinians is unsustainable.
While historically Palestinians were the most secular nation among Arabs, now both moderates and secularists are disappearing and are the main losers in these wars. Meanwhile, extremists and Israeli right-wingers will continue to write the political agenda. This war will be over in few weeks, the status quo will quickly return, and the most predictable outcome will be that another visionless and ineffective war will follow in the next year or two.