Monday, December 29, 2008
You're an Idea Man Not a Yes Man
(1) Never forget the basics - the core issue is still an unresolved conflict about ending an occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state - everything has to start from here to be serious (this is true also for Hamas who continue to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders).
(2) The immediate backdrop begins with the Israeli disengagement from Gaza of summer 2005, ostensibly a good move, except one that left more issues open than it resolved. It was a unilateral initiative, so there was no coordinating the 'what happens next' with the Palestinians. Gaza was closed off to the world, the West Bank remained under occupation and what had the potential to be a constructive move towards peace became a source of new tensions - something many of us pointed out at the time (supporting withdrawal from Gaza, opposing how it was done).
(3) U.S., Israeli and international policy towards Hamas has greatly exacerbated the situation. Hamas participated in and won democratic elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006. Rather than test the Hamas capacity to govern responsibly and nurture Hamas further into the political arena and away from armed struggle, the U.S.-led international response was to hermetically seal-off Hamas, besiege Gaza, work to undemocratically overthrow the Hamas government and thereby allow Hamas to credibly claim that a hypocritical standard was being applied to the American democracy agenda.
American, Israeli and Quartet policy towards Hamas has been a litany of largely unforced errors and missed opportunities. Hamas poses a serious policy challenge and direct early U.S. or Israeli engagement let alone financial support was certainly not the way forward, but in testing Hamas, a division of labor within the Quartet would have made sense (European and U.N. engagement, for instance, should have been encouraged, not the opposite).
Every wrong turn was taken - Hamas were seen through the GWOT prism not as a liberation struggle, when the Saudi's delivered a Palestinian National Unity Government in March 2007 the U.S. worked to unravel it, Palestinian reconciliation is still vetoed which encourages the least credible trends within Fatah, and unbelievably Egypt is given an exclusive mediation role with Hamas (Egypt naturally sees the Hamas issue first through its own domestic prism of concern at the growth of the Muslim Brothers, progress is often held hostage to ongoing Hamas-Egypt squabbles).
(4) Failure to build on the ceasefire. Israel is of course duty bound to defend and protect its citizens, so as the intensity of rocket fire in 2007-8 increased, Israel stepped up its actions against Gaza. But there was never much Israeli military or government enthusiasm for a full-scale conflict or ground invasion and eventually a practical working solution was found when both sides agreed to a six-month ceasefire on June 19th 2008. Neither side loved it. Both drew just enough benefit to keep going. That equation though was always delicately balanced.
For the communities of southern Israel which bore the brunt of the rocket attacks, notably Sderot, the ceasefire led to a dramatic improvement in daily life, and there were no Israeli fatalities during the entire period (only today, following the IDF strikes did a rocket hit the town of Netivot and kill one Israeli). Israel was though concerned about a Hamas arms build up and the entrenching of Hamas rule (which its policies have actually encouraged). For Gaza the calm meant less of an ongoing military threat but supplies of basic necessities into Gaza were kept to a minimum - just above starvation and humanitarian crisis levels - an ongoing provocation to Hamas and collective punishment for Gazans. The ceasefire needed to be solidified, nurtured, taken to the next level. None of this was done - the Quartet was busy with the deeply flawed Annapolis effort.
(5) A disaster was waiting to happen, and no-one was doing much about it. There was of course a date for the end of the ceasefire - December 19th. As that date approached both sides sought to improve their relative positions, to test some new rules of the game. Israel conducted a military operation on November 4th (yes, you had other things on your mind that day), apparently to destroy a tunnel from which an attack on Israel could be launched, Hamas responded with rocket-fire on southern Israeli towns.
That initiated a period of intense Israeli-Hamas dialogue, albeit an untraditional one, largely conducted via mutual military jabs, occasional public messaging and back-channels. Again though the main reliance was on Egypt - by now in an intense struggle of its own with Hamas. When Hamas pushed the envelop with over 60 rockets on a single day (December 24th), albeit causing no serious injuries and mostly landing in open fields (probably by design), Israel decided that it was time for an escalation. That happened today - on a massive scale - with an unprecedented death toll.
Levy has some useful suggestions as well. First and foremost, we must engage the situation and the actors, and not make the same mistakes in terms of green-lighting further Israeli escalation as we did with Israel's 2006 Lebanon incursion:
Useful lessons can be drawn from some very recent, and ugly, Middle East history - though it seems that to its dying day the Bush Administration is refusing to learn (today the White House called on Israel only to avoid civilian casualties as it attacks Hamas - not to cease the strikes, Secretary Rice was more measured).
In the summer of 2006 an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah led to a Lebanon war whose echoes still reverberate around the region. There were well over one thousand civilian casualties (1,035 Lebanese according to AP, 43 Israelis), thousands more injured, and other fatalities including the Israeli government which never recovered its poise, what little American credibility remained in the region (Secretary Rice was literally forced to return to Foggy Bottom as allied Arab capitals were too embarrassed to receive her) and much Lebanese infrastructure. That time it took 33 days for diplomacy to move and for a U.N. Security Council Resolution (1701) to deliver an end to fighting. The U.S. actively blocked diplomacy, Rice famously called this conflict "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" - it was no such thing, and the Middle East itself did not know whether to laugh or cry (the latter prevailed).
Just as in 2006, Israel needs the international community to be its exit strategy - and there is no time to waste. Even what appears as a short-term Israeli success is likely to prove self-defeating over a longer time horizon and that effect will intensify as the fighting continues. Over time, immense pressure will also grow on the PA in Ramallah, on Jordan, Egypt and others to act and their governments will be increasingly uneasy.
Neglect is not an option:
But there is a bigger picture - and it is staring at the incoming Obama administration. Today's events should be 'exhibit A' in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to 'manage' it - as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda.
That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts. A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved - evidenced in the findings of a recent Brookings/Council of Foreign Relations Report or the powerful statements coming from elder statesmen like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, themselves building on the findings of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.
Speaking of the Brookings/CFR Report, Levy had some thoughts on the content of that piece a few weeks back that are also worth checking out. Levy was writing in the wake of the anti-Palestinian pogrom committed by settlers in the West Bank. First, a recap since it received little to no coverage in US media:
...journalists have described how their presence saved Palestinian residents of a home near Kiryat Arba from a lynching, and IDF sources described how the right wing activists "want to spark a religious war that would inflame the entire region." [...]
...On the walls of home and in mosques in the West Bank villages of Yatma, Sanjil, Turmus Ayya, and Isawiyya, graffiti has been scrawled reading "Mohammed the pig" and "Death to the Arabs", elsewhere cemeteries have been desecrated, Palestinian homes set on fire, olive trees uprooted, tires punctured, and yesterday two Palestinians were shot and seriously wounded by settler fire. Israeli security forces overseeing the evacuation of the Hebron house and sometimes trying to bring order were stoned and assaulted by settlers, along with the customary hurling of choice abuse, notably the word "Nazi". According to the Israeli Yedioth Ahronot newspaper, Ethiopian IDF soldiers "enjoyed" their own variation on the abuse theme, being told "niggers don't expel Jews".
Indeed. That would be progress.
This week, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Saban Center at Brookings released a report in the form of a book, entitled "Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President", including a chapter addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. One of its five key recommendations was for the U.S. to "press Israel to freeze settlement construction" (they also recommended bringing Hamas into the fold, but that's another story). The Report went on to suggest how this might be done: "Both public criticism of Israeli settlement policy as well as conditioning portions of aid to a settlement freeze can be effective in eliciting Israeli compliance." So that's Brookings and CFR--and it doesn't get much more establishment than them--linking U.S. aid to Israel to a settlement freeze. Interesting, methinks.