Washington Watch: Gaza, the once and future war

Israelis are no doubt feeling bolstered by the strong support coming from Washington.

Palestinian gunmen motorbikes GRAPHIC 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
Palestinian gunmen motorbikes GRAPHIC 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
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 days.
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 community.
A major obstacle is Hamas’ commitment in word and deed to the destruction of Israel. That is not a sound basis for negotiating peace.
“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.
Little thought seems to be given to how Israel’s intense response could actually leave Hamas more entrenched and stronger, particularly in the new regional environment.
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 year.
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 attacks.
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 2008-09 war.
• 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 America.
The American election may have been a factor on both sides.
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 Netanyahu.
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.
But don’t 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