|Photo by: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem|
Washington Watch: Gaza, the once and future war
By DOUGLAS M. BLOOMFIELD
Israelis are no doubt feeling bolstered by the strong support coming from Washington.
The latest round in the Gaza-Israeli war, with or without a ground assault, will
end in another extended lull, and the two sides will be no closer to peace than
they were in the previous war four years ago, because no one is really looking
for a solution to the conflict.
Hamas falsely claimed the latest round
began with last Wednesday’s Israeli assassination of its top military commander,
Ahmed Jabari, in a missile attack that was filmed and broadcast worldwide. No
one should have been surprised by the Israeli response since by the time it
came, Hamas and its allies had already launched more than 1,000 rockets and
missiles into Israel this year, and over 120 in the preceding five
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had been warning that the
stepped-up strikes would bring a tough response, and by the time it came he had
the strong backing not only of 90 percent of the Israeli public but also many
world leaders, most notably President Barack Obama, who blamed Hamas for
“precipitating” the crisis and insisted it must stop the rocket attacks before
there can be a cease-fire.
There is no serious expectation that the end
of this crisis could lead to the peace table. It is easier all around to contain
the conflict than solve it since that would require too many difficult decisions
and compromises for the current leadership and the international
A major obstacle is Hamas’ commitment in word and deed to the
destruction of Israel. That is not a sound basis for negotiating
“There is no long-term solution in sight because for the Gazans
destroying Israel is more important than protecting their children,” said Prof.
Dan Schueftan of the University of Haifa and a visiting professor at Georgetown
University. He cited as evidence that Hamas and Islamic Jihad place their
launching pads and weapons facilities in residential neighborhoods, near
mosques, schools and shops.
Israel’s goal is containment and deterrence –
stop the attacks on its towns and cities – for an extended period.
thought seems to be given to how Israel’s intense response could actually leave
Hamas more entrenched and stronger, particularly in the new regional
Netanyahu has reportedly demanded a 15-year cease-fire, an
immediate halt to all smuggling and transfer of arms into Gaza and Egyptian
enforcement of the agreement.
That puts Egypt’s new president, Mohamed
Mursi, in the hot seat, but he may not be totally uncomfortable there. Hamas is
an offshoot of his Muslim Brotherhood and he has strongly condemned the Israeli
retaliation, but he also knows Hamas is trying to force him into a confrontation
with Israel, which he needs to avoid if he is to protect his relationship with
the United States and the billions in aid and weapons that brings him every
Mursi wants to be the one to make the deal, get the credit and be
recognized as the next leader of the Arab world, and Jerusalem and Washington
are willing if he can effectively crack down on the smuggling and rocket
We may never know exactly why Hamas leaders decided to start
this war now. Here are some possible factors: • Hamas and Islamic Jihad are
rivals for leadership of the anti-Israel resistance; Islamic Jihad accuses Hamas
of going soft by observing a loose cease-fire since the pummeling it took in the
• Islamic Jihad and Hamas may be rivals but they’re both
Iranian clients and Tehran pushed them to increase the pressure on Israel. One
theory is Iran wanted to test Israeli anti-missile systems.
• The Israeli
blockade may have been loosened since 2009, but it still takes a toll on Gaza
life and feeds anger and frustration, and Hamas wants to use a cease-fire as a
negotiating chip to end the blockade.
• Throughout the Arab world the
Islamists are on the ascendancy and are more sympathetic to Hamas than Fatah.
Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was replaced by a pro- Hamas president and party, and the
group hopes to drive a wedge between the new Islamist Egypt and Israel and
The American election may have been a factor on both
Hamas probably waited until after the US election to step up its
strikes in expectation that Republicans were right that Obama sympathized with
the Palestinians and, once free of the campaign, would not be anxious to help
For his part, Netanyahu may have waited also to avoid being
accused of trying (again) to meddle in the election.
In light of his
strained relations with Obama and the attacks on the president by Netanyahu’s
friends and supporters as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, no one may have been
more surprised than the prime minister himself by how forcefully the president
sided with Israel.
This latest chapter in the ongoing war is likely to be
wrapped up before the Israeli election on January 22, and Netanyahu will go to
voters boasting of how he bloodied Hamas, stopped the missiles, defended the
homeland, gave up nothing and had full American support.
The man missing
at the Cairo negotiating table was Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
He is not a player in Gaza, where Hamas rejects his leadership.
count him out entirely. Next week he plans to ask – and probably get – the
United Nations to upgrade Palestinian status to non-member state, which will
give Palestine standing in the World Court, where it can be expected to debut by
accusing Israel of war crimes, citing civilian deaths this month in Gaza. And
that will further derail any chances for the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement
that Abbas – unlike Hamas – says he seeks.
Israelis are no doubt feeling
bolstered by the strong support coming from Washington, but that could prove a
liability if it prevents them from asking the key question about Operation
Pillar of Defense: will it improve the long-term prospects for peace or simply
strengthen Hamas and further radicalize the Palestinian population for the next
round? Answering that question is vital for Israel’s future, but with rockets
raining down on its cities and a prime minister anxious to avoid any new peace
process, few are even asking it.
©2012 Douglas M. Bloomfield