Wanted: Israeli strategic long-term thinking

At the rate it’s going, Israel will eventually help Hamas become one of the most formidable political forces in the region.

Gaza Sunset 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Gaza Sunset 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel’s botched handling of the seizure of the Mavi Marmara seeking to break the Gaza blockade isn’t the first time a government in Israel has messed up. The Israelis actually have a long and consistent record of missing opportunities to avoid conflict.
Just look at the record of bad decisions.
In the 1970s, to avoid peace talks with the PLO and Yasser Arafat, Israel’s leaders developed a scheme to create an Islamic alternative. They provided support to the Islamic Association, headed by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whom the Israelis killed in a targeted assassination in 2004.
That scheme allowed Yassin and his Gaza-based organization to launch Hamas in 1989 at the start of the first intifada. Although Israel did not “create” Hamas as some claim, Israel’s mess ups helped midwife Hamas.
Big mistake.
When Yasser Arafat’s peace partner, Yitzhak Rabin, was murdered by an extremist Jew, instead of using the tragedy to undermine Israeli extremism, the government spiraled toward a policy of blaming the Palestinians for all peace failures. Voters responded by electing leaders who opposed Rabin’s peace vision, wrongly believing that a “tough” leader – I call it the Menachem Begin factor – would bring peace.
Instead of reinforcing peace, tough policies once again reinforced extremism and further weakened peace.
WHEN THE Israelis finally decided to consider returning lands seized in 1967, instead of making the right choice for peace, Israel’s “tough” leaders made the politically expedient choice, withdrawing their troops – and citizens – from Gaza in 2005 unilaterally.
Again, Israel’s policies strengthened Hamas and made it look like a hero to a people besieged by military occupation and frustrated by the start-and-stop failures of peace.
This was a mistake that crowned Hamas as the movement to defeat Israel’s 1967 occupation policies.
And just as these failed policies reinforced a slow and steady movement of Palestinians toward religious extremism and Hamas, it also created a growing intransigence among Israeli voters who, instead of voting for new, fresh or creative leadership, always voted instead to chose the “tough” leader. The one they hoped would beat down Palestinian nationalism and allow them to believe they could make peace with no substantive concessions on land.
When President Barack Obama spoke about the need to recognize the needs of “both sides” in a speech one year ago designed to reinforce moderation in the Arab and Muslim world, Israelis, seemingly unfamiliar with balanced arbiters, took the comments personally and did everything they could to undermine his policies using their political allies who control both houses of the US Congress.
And when Obama sought to kick-start the peace process by bringing Palestinians and Israelis from the battlefield to the negotiating table, Israel’s government (some of the same who were involved in the 1970s decision to support Yassin’s Islamic Association) couldn’t even stand up to the public pressure to freeze settlement expansion without damaging the “special relationship” with the US.
And now there is the disastrous naval response to the bunch of “activists” who might have sailed into distant memory but are now being hailed around the world as leaders of Middle East civil rights, deflecting attention from Hamas, highlighting the nature of Israel’s blockade against 1.5 million civilians and shattering the already precarious relations with its only real ally in the Middle East, Turkey.
If these policy decisions were intentionally designed to undermine peace and Israel’s standing in the world, I would call the tactics brilliant. But the truth is each and every failure is the result of government policy gone wrong, reinforced by an Israeli public that lives in denial.
At this rate, Israel will eventually help Hamas become one of the most dominant and formidable political forces in the region, the other being Hizbullah.
Of course, Israeli voters might wake up from their hallucinations about their future based on an iron-fist policy and withdraw completely from the West Bank to, for the first time, do something to support the only alternative to Hamas, the secular and anemic Palestinian Authority.
But then, that would require some strategic long-term thinking and that’s not something Israel has a good record of.
The writer is an award-winning Palestinian-American columnist