Israel: Living by the sword

What was the assessment that prompted Israel's operation in Gaza and what might that tell us about its intended outcome and trajectory? Of course the timing can be explained with the approaching elections in Israel. But that is only part of the story.   

“In all my years in office I haven't declared a war”

With those words (and others) Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched his re-election campaign in an October speech to the Knesset. Well, at least that part of the election message box might now have to change. In launching Operation Pillar of Defence Netanyahu is taking an uncharacteristic gamble – albeit a calculated risk. The decision was very likely made with the prompting of his Defence Minister Ehud Barak (who unlike the Prime Minister has little to lose politically, with Barak’s Independence party barely scraping the threshold to enter the Knesset, and is predicated on a number of circumstances having aligned. To be clear, this was an escalation of choice by Israel’s leadership (and it could become yet another war of choice). As the timeline of events over the last week makes clear, the killing of a Palestinian minor on November 8th during an IDF incursion into Gaza initiated a round of escalation which was already drawing to a close on November 11th and 12th, leading to formal reports from a number of Israeli, Palestinian and international sources that a new truce was in place on November 13th. Israel then assassinated Hamas’ military chief Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14th.

Of course, Israel’s leaders have been under pressure for months and even years since the last attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008 and January 2009) to ratchet up Israel’s response to the intermittent rocket fire on Israeli civilians, in violation of international law. But that pressure was not significantly greater this time around nor why a tipping point was now reached. Hamas has also been under pressure to do more to alleviate the closure still largely imposed on Gaza and to demonstrate that it has not adopted a Fatah-like acquiescence to the overall occupation. Too often there is a failure to contextualise any escalation beyond the tit-for-tat of the current news cycle – in the past almost four years since Cast Lead 271 Palestinians and 3 Israelis have lost their lives in exchanges of hostilities (according to B’Tselem). And there is the bigger picture. Palestinians remain stateless, denied basic rights and under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and in many respects Gaza too.  

One does not have to be a card-carrying member of Cynics Anonymous to suggest that the timing of the Israeli escalation has rather a lot to do with the approaching elections in Israel. It would also though be mistaken to view events exclusively through that lens. So what was the Israeli leadership’s assessment which prompted the launching of Operation Pillar of Defence and what might that tell us about its intended outcome and trajectory?

While Netanyahu was going into this election campaign from a position of strength, his standing became vulnerable in ways not fatal, but no doubt a cause for concern. Polls suggested that the alliance between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu  was adding up to less than the sum of its parts – seeping rather than bleeding votes to a somewhat resurgent Shas party (reinvigorated by the return of former minister and convict Aryeh Deri and benefitting from the political retirement of popular Sephardi Likud minister Moshe Kahlon), to a born-again Labour party (itself attracting new faces including leaders of last year’s social protest movement and repositioned as a party with only a socio-economic agenda, intentionally avoiding the Palestinian issue). And that was before any decision by Olmert and Livni regarding the formation of a new centrist block.

Netanyahu is much happier fighting this election on the terrain of national security than on issues of social justice, inequality, and being in bed with “swinish capitalism” as his critics are prone to brand him. Netanyahu can rely on his election rivals all lining up to support his military surge against Gaza, which has indeed been the case in the past 48 hours. Shelly Yachimovich (Labour leader) and Yair Lapid (leader of new YeshAtid party) have looked like they were auditioning for cabinet seats in Netanyahu’s next government, which is very possibly what the future has in store for them. Netanyahu has been noticeably cautious and limited in the goals he has set for this military action, in contrast to the grandiose ambitions that his predecessor Olmert claimed at the launching of operation Cast Lead in 2008. It is not unreasonable to assume that a preferred scenario for the Israeli Prime Minster has him giving some variation of the following speech, ideally within a relatively short time (in 48 to 96 hours perhaps):

“As Prime Minister of Israel I set out realistic goals for this operation, unlike my irresponsible predecessor. We have achieved in Operation Pillar of Defence six important goals in preserving Israel’s national security.  First, while Gilad Shalit is back at home with his family, his captor, the arch terrorist al-Jabari, has met the same fate as Osama Bin Laden. Second, our deterrence has been restored. Every Hamas leader and terrorist in Gaza knows that they are within reach of the long arm of the IDF and that rocket fire on Israelis will not go unpunished. Third, while rocket fire against any Israeli target and certainly Tel Aviv is unacceptable, it is also something we knew was possible, but the threat has now been significantly diminished by our success in hitting the stockpiles of weapons accumulated in Gaza. That particular mission will continue. Fourth, and contrary to the childish scare-mongering in some of our media suggesting that Israel is now more isolated internationally, we have conducted this operation with firm Western backing. I have personally spoken to President Obama and Western leaders and appreciate their recognition of Israel’s right to self-defence. And this time there will be no internal committees of enquiry or scurrilous UN Goldstone commissions. Fifth, we have proven we can navigate the choppy waters of a newly destabilised Middle East while retaining our freedom of military action. And finally, and perhaps most important, we have maintained national unity at home and I thank the leaders of the other responsible Zionist parties for standing together as one.”

There are some additional wins Netanyahu would like to secure without necessarily including them in his victory speech. For instance, this operation will possibly postpone or at least reduce the significance of any vote on upgrading Palestine’s status at the UNGA. Even if  the vote happens, and even if Abbas secures a few more ‘yeses’  against the backdrop of operation Pillar of Defence, Netanyahu can reassure the Israeli public that what matters is that the Western powers stood by Israel during this military operation. Netanyahu could be sending a signal to Iran that his own track record of being circumspect regarding major military strikes cannot be counted on. And finally, he may have shrunk the space for Olmert, Livni and others to enter the election race, especially if he can show that his operation achieved better results than their Operation Cast Lead. 

But all of the above is predicated on Netanyahu being able to extract himself from this round of fighting with that narrative intact – which in turn suggests that he wants this over sooner rather than later and would not favour the quagmire-inducing potential of a ground invasion deep into Gaza. Two major challenges confront the Israel leader in achieving the above. First, once you are in an escalatory cycle and have chosen “war, war” over “jaw, jaw” events take on a dynamic of their own and can be unpredictable. In launching this escalation Netanyahu has bought himself a lottery ticket – the longer it goes on, the riskier it gets for him. And the difference can end up being all about a rocket or missile on either side falling one hundred meters in the direction of an empty field or one hundred meters in the direction of a populated building.

Second challenge, is that Hamas might just manage to curb its enthusiasm at being part of the spectators’ gallery for that Netanyahu victory speech. Hamas will need to have its own narrative, to offer its own claim of victory. That in turn might read something like the following:

“The Islamic resistance has warned the occupier that Tel Aviv would be within its reach. It has now proven that Tel Aviv is within its reach. Israelis now know that if Gaza is threatened, then Tel Aviv is threatened. We have received the support of our brothers – the great Arab people of Egypt, and their leadership and from other brotherly Arab leaders. After the Arab uprisings we are no longer alone and we shall never face the occupying power alone again. We have demonstrated that the Islamic resistance continues to stand at the forefront of the struggle to unite Palestine and to liberate Palestine. We challenge the occupier here in Palestine, not in New York, and we are the ones who pay for the liberation of Palestine with the blood of our martyrs.”

The two victory speeches might be almost ready but getting from the situation we are in now to the cessation of hostiles which allows for those speeches to be given and to avoid a much greater cost in blood spilled and spill-over across the region is a path fraught with danger. There are factors working in favour of the ceasefire outcome, not least that both sides can indeed already claim to have achieved something.

Hamas’ supporters in the Arab world will be keen for a rapid de-escalation. Egyptian President Mursi is already being criticised for not taking a harsher stand against Israel by the secular-liberal-left Tahririst opposition as well as within his own Muslim Brotherhood movement and from the more conservative Salafists. His priority is advancing a constitution and political process inside Egypt and getting the economy in order, not least by hanging out the sign to the world that Egypt is open for business. He does not want to be dragged into an on-going Gaza crisis. However, Palestine matters; he has re-called Egypt’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv and sent Prime Minster Hisham Qandil to Gaza for a three hour visit. In so doing, President Mursi is also taking a risk – any post-Qandil visit escalation will place increased pressure on Egypt. So, Egypt’s priority for now is a ceasefire. Other Arab and regional states in good standing with Hamas, notably Qatar (whose Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani recently visited Gaza with promises of financial assistance and investment) and Turkey (Hamas leader Khaled Mashal gave the key note address at the AK party conference of Prime Minister Erdoğan) will themselves be keen for this crisis to be over asap. Their priority right now is Syria. And this Gazan escalation will already be taking the gloss off their apparent success in re-launching a unified Syrian opposition grouping in Doha last week. They are now in the uncomfortable position of having worked closely on Syria with the same Western powers (notably the US, Britain, France, and the EU) who have been rushing to accord legitimacy to Israel’s so-called “self-defence” action against Gaza. They know that this is music to the ears of the Assad regime and that it will be used against them, especially if more Gazan blood is spilled. If this becomes Cast Lead II, then they will be in no position to promote the intervention they desire in Syria while Gaza is burning.

We may now witness a kind of relay race of visiting Arab dignitaries to Gaza, the Egyptian Prime Minister perhaps handing over the baton to Tunisians and later to others. That is also likely to have some restraining effect on Israel and to increase the urgency of efforts to facilitate a de-escalation. It will also strengthen the politico-diplomatic standing of Hamas at the expense of the Fatah-West Bank Palestinian Authority. Israel has form when it comes to playing Palestinian divide and rule and enhancing the popularity of Hamas.

In other words, a de-escalatory push is being put into place. To a significant degree Hamas is being relied upon to be the more rational, responsible and long-term strategic thinking actor.

However, it takes two to de-escalate and if Netanyahu, as senior Israeli officials have suggested, insists on bringing Hamas to its knees to beg for a ceasefire, then all bets are off. This means that any ceasefire also requires pressure on Israel – a commodity which tends to be in preciously short supply. Mursi and others can only do so much vis-à-vis Hamas. Arab states, notably in the Gulf, would have to do their part in leaning on the US to bring Israel into line. Both they and the US (and Israel for that matter) will be spooked by the events in Jordan, with the developments in Gaza feeding an already combustible environment following the removal of fuel subsidies. Even were all these pieces to fall into place, a cessation of hostilities will likely be made more difficult by the absence of al-Jabari himself (previously a key player in bringing other Gazan factions into line) and by the competing agendas of those Gazan factions (Iran for instance may encourage its Islamic Jihad ally to keep this going).  And again there is the luck factor and the longer this goes on the more likely another missile is to hit rather than miss.

Netanyahu might well get his victory speech, but it is hard to see how Israel can come out of this strengthened in the long term. While there is an internal logic to current Israeli policy, it is hard to see how this can work out well for Israel over time. That internal logic has Israel as a permanent occupier of the Palestinians, therefore placing acceptance and normalisation with its surrounding region off the agenda and in turn determining that Israel will live indefinitely by the sword, including unleashing occasional violent outbursts such as this one. It is a conflict management strategy that relies on Western and notably US support (and that of enough of the Jewish diaspora), Arab weakness and internal strife, and an Israeli military edge and ability to insulate its economy.

All of those factors are brittle and fraying to various degrees, especially in the face of developments in the Arab world in the past two years. To take two examples: a more democratic region, more responsive to public demands and dignity (and whether Islamist or not) will be less quietist on the Palestinian issue. Look at the trajectory Turkey has taken for instance. If the price for pragmatic ties with Israel is acceptance of Palestinian humiliation à la Mubarak then Israel will have few takers in a transforming Middle East. And in particular over time one can expect a Palestinian leadership that will adopt more effective and challenging strategies to secure their own freedom.

To take another example, on the military front, qualitative technological gaps are narrowing over time between Israel and the region (including possibly in the field of WMD), the Gulf States are acquiring increasingly sophisticated western weaponry (ironically in part facilitated by Israel’s campaign against Iran), and the Palestinian armed factions in Gaza have just been induced by Israeli strikes to prove something previously suspected but unconfirmed, namely that they can strike Tel Aviv. In other words, every time Israel prioritises military solutions over political solutions, views the Palestinians through the framework of occupation rather than human dignity, and strengthens an ethnocratic Israel over a democratic Israel, it is generating greater problems for its own future. By continuing to shut its eyes in the face of this reality the West is certainly doing neither Israelis nor Palestinians any favours. It is also fatally undermining its own ability to successfully navigate, build relationships and promote its own interests in a rapidly changing Middle East by ignoring Gaza and Palestinian disenfranchisement.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


President, US/Middle East Project

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