Israel’s Dangerous Gamble

Hamas is a brutal, radical terrorist organization whose ideals are contrary to both mainstream Islam and almost all rational conceptions of human rights.  That Israel (as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) wants to elminate Hamas is understandable.  A Palestine without Hamas would have a better chance at peace and the risk of a Mideast war spiraling out of control would decrease dramatically.

However, massive attacks that kill over 300 so far, including at least 51 civilians according to the UN, is a very dangerous gamble, likely to  fail.  Whether it’s more like the long term failure following the Lebanon invasion of 1982, which led to the rise of Hezbollah, or the catastrophe of the summer of 2006, when Israel was humiliated in its failure to destroy Hezbollah or get kidnapped troops back, is still unclear.

It is important to understand why Israel unleashed such an assault, with a ground invasion likely soon.  Hamas has proven unwilling to moderate its demands or retreat from its threat to try to destroy Israel.  Hamas controls the Gaza strip, and has routinely fired rockets into Israeli territory, killing and wounding some Israeli citizens (though nothing of the magnitude of Palestinians killed in these current attacks).   Israel recognizes that it’s long term security requires a Palestinian state that can be dealt with, and which recognizes Israel’s right to exist.  Israeli officials know that Fatah moderates in the West Bank are willing to try to make that happen.   Moreover, Israel’s experience in the battle against Hezbollah was sobering.  It created existential concerns about the future of the Israeli state, especially with Iran moving forward on trying to produce nuclear weapons.

It boils down to this: long term Israeli security requires building a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.   Palestinian leaders outside Hamas want this too, aPalestinian-Israeli peace is not as unthinkable as it might seem.   If they could reach an agreement, they could undercut Hezbollah threats (the Palestinians are not Shi’ites, nor are they religious extremists), and give Arab governments a chance to prop up and help sustain the new Palestinian state.  It can be done, and could even happen quickly.

The one thing standing in the way: Hamas.    With Hamas controlling Gaza, nothing can move forward.  The Israelis are forced to watch Hezbollah strengthen, Iran move forward, and Hamas arm itself, feeling as if the clock is ticking against them.   Moreover, Israelis now feel a certain lack of self-confidence since the 2006 war; they know they are indeed vulnerable.

This could not have been an easy decision for Prime Minister Olmert, whose days as leader of Israel are numbered (he resigned due to a scandal, but stays on because no other coalition could be formed, and elections aren’t due until February).   It’s a gamble likely to have two parts: a) attempt to crush Hamas and destroy its leadership and organizational core; and b) aggressively promote Palestinian statehood through negotiation with moderate Palestinians.

It won’t work.  First of all, the emotion caused on each side by the violence will only embolden the extremists, and Hamas is adept at adapting and surviving.   They’ll lose hundreds, maybe thousands of fighters, but the pool of willing and angry young Palestinians will grow, and anger will increase in the West Bank as well.   Palestinians can count.  They know that the Israeli military is killing far more innocents than Hamas kills, and even if Palestinians don’t like Hamas, their rage will directed at Israel.

One reason this is the case is that these kinds of wars are not traditional military confrontations, or even basic asymmetrical warfare.  It’s also a media event, with the Arab world as the primary audience.  Arab governments relatively friendly to Israel (many unofficially) have breathed a sigh of relief as the Americans gave up their effort to control Iraq.   The pressure on them from below was finally starting to let up.  This new round of violence is certain to bring about anger in the Arab worlds, forcing Arab governments like Egypt’s to become more hostile to Israel, and could increase internal instability in states across the regoin.

Israelis (and Americans) often don’t comprehend how profound and counter productive the killing of large numbers of civilians can be.  Their logic is that Hamas started the attack, Israel must defend its citizens, and the Israeli military is (unlike Hamas) trying to avoid civilian casualties.   But Gaza is densely populated, and people die in war.  Since they started the attacks, Hamas is responsible for those deaths.    That logic is, however, irrelevant.   Whether or not Israel’s response is justified in philosophical or legal terms is also irrelevant.   The emotional response of Palestinians (and many Israelis, to be sure) is one of outrage over the killing of innocents.   Images of bloody and dead children and civilians will be beamed around the world and throughout the Arab world, creating a powerful backlash.  The likely result will be that Hamas will survive, Israel’s internal divisions will increase, and the country will be in a more precarious situation than before.

Obviously, that likelihood must be painfully clear to the Israeli military and Prime Minister Olmert — they aren’t dummies.   No doubt they decided that there is no alternative.  They won’t speak with Hamas until Hamas moderates its demands, and Hamas says it will meet no preconditions before talking with Israel.  And, though Egypt is renewing efforts to try to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, there is no love lost between the two Palestinian organizations either.   The only alternative left seemed to be to use the awesome power of the Israeli military to eliminate the main obstacle to stability in the Mideast.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be exacerbated by continuing the cycle of violence.  Hamas will survive and strike back, peace negotiations with Fatah will be jeopardized, and as the cycle continues, Israel’s very existence could be in question.  Ultimately, Israel needs to find a political way out of this, attacking Gaza plays into the hands of the extremists who find the idea of peace with the other side abhorrent.    Direct or indirect talks with Hamas, starting with a cease fire are necessary.   Hamas can’t be wished away, nor can it simply be crushed.  The PLO and Egypt went from wanting Israel’s destruction to accepting its existence;  Hamas either has to be brought to that same place, or be gradually weakened by waning support.

Many don’t like that kind of approach.   It sounds more concrete to say “destroy Hamas and the main obstacle to peace is gone.”  But while one likes to imagine problems can simply be destroyed with violence, it rarely works that way.   And given the nature of this battle — a powerful military machine fighting an adaptable popular militia in a media age where photos are as powerful as bullets — Israel is likely to end up in a worse situation than before.   True, there is a possibility the gamble will pay off.  But there is the possibility that it will start a spiral into all out, devastating, Mideast war.

  1. #1 by annikasmom on December 30, 2008 - 03:11

    What do you think about the timing of these attacks? Do you think Israel rushed to get it in on Bush’s clock? Do you think that anything will change once Obama gets in? While he is obviously supportive of Israel, he’s got to be troubled by this turn. It can’t be in Israel’s best interest to put Obama in an impossibly difficult position early in his term. Or do you think the damage is done? Is he already stuck in an impossible position?

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on December 30, 2008 - 05:06

    Israel may have decided it was best to do this before Obama came to office, in part to avoid giving a new President a major crisis. But this changes things for Obama, he can’t focus solely on the economy right away. This and the horrors increasing in Zimbabwe make this a really depressing end of 2008.

  3. #3 by Mike Lovell on December 30, 2008 - 15:47

    Your very right about the complicated nature of the situation. The first step Israel needs to make, is to put down in writing, with full intent to carry out a referendum like constitution regarding their defense. It shall be submitted to the UN, neighbors, and the world alike. Esentially it will state that all governmental forces will be used only as a defense mechanism for the state, with no initiatory force of aggression. All violators within their services will be, upon being found guilty, executed by the state, without exclusion. All acts of initiatory force by outside forces against Israel will be subject to immediate, strong and specifically well targeted military response. While the Mossad is one of the most formidable covert operations in the world,t ehy ned to restore the old order to their organization, which can more quickly and efficiently eliminate important personnel guiding forces against them (i.e.- Hamas officials, and military leaders). Instead of weeks long offensives of wide scale, they wil be able to better target, in a short period of time, more effective strikes with smaller arms. All the while they work politically thru the official channels, as well as working within the Palestinian populace to encourage a sway of opinion over the Hamas influence. With waning support, and lesser numbers of effective militants, Hamas may gradually subside into irrelevancy.
    Granted my thoughts come from a much more deep military ingrainment, than your average reader, so I would entertain your thoughts on this one, from the more intellectual and politically knowledgeable side of things.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on December 31, 2008 - 05:18

    Intriguing idea, Mike. If it wasn’t past midnight already, I’d think about it more and respond…hopefully tomorrow I’ll have time!

  5. #5 by Mike Lovell on December 31, 2008 - 17:06

    cant wait!

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on December 31, 2008 - 18:33

    I like your ideas in principle Mike. I think Israel would be very unlikely to embrace this approach. First, they believe it important to take pre-emptive action in case of an imminent threat (which is also allowed by international law). That doesn’t mean something like our invasion of Iraq, but in both the 1956 and 1967 wars they struck first. At least in 1967 they had strong cause to believe they needed to in order to avoid attack. They also hit Iraq in 1981 to stop its nuclear weapons program, and have stated they reserve the right to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Also, Mossad targeted covert operations might also require acting some time after the use of force. So I’m not sure if ‘immediate’ responses will always be possible.

    All that said, I think a public statement of principle (not sure about a referendum) that clarifies their action, alongside discussion with other countries, at the UN, etc., could be very useful. At the very least Israel won’t be seen as dismissing international opinion in a way they did in the past. Given the dangers of Hezbollah and Hamas, which are potentially far more of a threat than the Arab coalitions against them in earlier Arab-Israeli wars, Israel needs to regain the kind of international support they had before 1967. They can only do this if they demonstrate real concern for Palestinian civilians.

    I agree completely that they need to somehow more effectively sway Palestinian opinion. Fatah recognized Israel’s right to exist, but Arafat and Fatah had led corruption eat away their credibility — Hamas is strong not because the Palestinians hate Israel, but because they became disgusted by Fatah’s intense corruption. Israel, perhaps working behind the scenes with other Arab states, needs to find an alternative way to reach out to the Palestinians than just going through Fatah (though Fatah may be reforming and could emerge more effective). What a world.

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