the forever war

israeltroops_gazaIf there’s any doubt remaining among global power-brokers that short-term foreign policy objectives are fundamentally flawed, recent events in the Levant have provided ample evidence. Such tribal conflict has played out in the Garden of Eden since northern Neanderthals and southern proto-human colonies first crossed paths during the last major Ice Age. Since that time, control over the region has changed hands a number of times, from Semetic tribes to Egyptian pharaohs to Roman Catholics to Muslim traders to Christian crusaders to Muslim Turks, and so forth. For every fence that was built and every line that was drawn, rivals always built a bigger ladder or dug a deeper tunnel. And so the feud was passed from generation to generation, weaving itself into the very fabric of the region’s fraternal cultures.

As war in the Promised Land erupts yet again, one can only hope that a definitive 21st century loss on all sides will be enough to drive the hard-liners from each camp toward a soft power compromise. But as history suggests, persistent tribal war simply galvanizes the next generation of fundamentalists. That’s precisely why a lasting peace has never materialized in a land where history is counted not in centuries but in millennia, and success not in compromise but in the other clan’s blood…

Beyond Gaza
January 5, 2009 by Michael Moraz
Israeli infantry soldiers enter the Gaza Strip on January 4. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israel’s attacks into the Hamas-led Gaza Strip press into their second week with Israeli troops in possession of the northeastern reaches of the territory and diplomacy, to date, making very little impression. Early French efforts to head off a ground invasion failed, though President Nicolas Sarkozy appears determined to keep trying (CSMonitor). UN Security Council deliberations, tempered by knowledge that Washington will veto anything too critical of Israel, have led to stalemate (NYT). Egypt, a target of wrath from around the Arab world for maintaining its tight grip on the southern Gaza border crossing at Rafah (LAT), may have most at stake, and continues to press for a truce that would allow humanitarian aid into the battered enclave and possibly offer a foundation for wider talks. But Israel, so far, has proven unreceptive. Driving home Israel’s intention to continue with military operations, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected a Russian mediation offer (Haaretz), telling Moscow “we have no intention to … legitimize them and pass messages on to them.”

While Israel pursues its tactical aims in Gaza (FT), the rising toll of the dead and maimed–difficult to determine with any precision–appears to have topped five hundred. Israel has targeted Hamas infrastructure, but no attack on an area as densely populated as the Gaza Strip can fail to kill innocents. Palestinian civilian deaths have spawned protests around the world (VOA), including large gatherings in the United States, Britain, Turkey, Australia, and across the Middle East. Indeed, signs of the pressure on U.S. allies in the region abounded as Cairo’s streets filled with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jordan’s prime minister announced his country’s ties with Israel, based on a 1994 peace treaty, would be “reconsidered” (al-Jazeera). As foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid notes in the Washington Post, the attacks have underscored “a yawning divide between the policies of rulers and the sentiments of those they rule” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere.

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-PalestinianAs the crisis has unfolded, the United States has allowed the European Union and Egypt to take the diplomatic point position. President Bush said January 5 he understood Israel’s desire to protect itself (MSNBC). The Bush administration, in its final days, generally accepts Israel’s argument that it had no alternative but to attack in the face of years of rocket strikes launched from Gaza since Israel withdrew from the coastal territory in 2005. The Washington Times, often a good reflection of Bush administration thinking, opines that U.S. diplomats should concentrate not on a cease-fire, but on giving Israel time to “permanently cripple Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure.” Analysts generally agreed that Israel’s timing reflects a desire to deal with Hamas before the departure of the Bush administration, which in the midst of the “war on terror” has been loath to criticize Israel (NYT).

President-elect Barack Obama, meanwhile, has abided by his promise not to interfere with U.S. policy until his inauguration on January 20. This has brought criticism from some quarters (al- Jazeera). Yet, in spite of the continued bloodshed, the upcoming change of the guard in Washington has brought a new focus on long-term issues: the lack of anything resembling a “peace process” between the Israelis and Palestinians at the moment; the absence of a unified Palestinian voice; the conundrum of Hamas’ legitimacy; and the wider question of Iran’s influence in the region and its quest for a nuclear weapon.

While neither the United States nor the European Union recognizes Hamas, a variety of voices have criticized the idea that the group could somehow be frozen out of Mideast diplomacy. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Cook says Washington instead should support conciliation between the two Palestinian factions, the more secular Fatah on the West Bank, and the Gaza-based Islamists of Hamas. “Without a clear military solution to the conflict, Israel will ultimately end up, one way or another, having to negotiate with one of its most bitter enemies,” Cook wrote recently in U.S. News & World Report. Writ large, the same argument applies regionally, according to the authors of a new CFR-Brookings book, Restoring the Balance. Dialogues with currently shunned actors like Syria and Iran will make a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace more likely and will encourage regional stability, say the book’s two primary coauthors, CFR President Richard N. Haass, and Martin S. Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. The Obama administration, Haass writes, should apply its mantra of change to Mideast policy (FT). The New York Review of Books, meanwhile, looks at recent books by U.S. diplomats who previously tried and failed to seize such opportunities.

Opinion on Israel’s decision to take on Hamas, meanwhile, is as divided as ever. New York Times columnist Bill Kristol supports the war and argues that withdrawing now “would be a triumph for Iran” and allow Hamas to claim a victory by survival similar that claimed by Hezbollah in 2006.  The Jerusalem Post applauds the move, too.  CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot argues the move was justified but lacked achievable goals. Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, and Hassan Bin Talal write in Lebanon’s Daily Star: “Israelis and Palestinians must understand that the mere application of force will never be enough to achieve their long-term ends.” And an editorial in the Saudi-based Arab News says Israel’s violent method of seeking improvements to its security will ensure the opposite happens.

Still, Israel’s prospects for a clean victory must be looked upon skeptically. Beyond the public relations arena, where Israelis have learned to expect little, each of the wars Israel has fought since 1982 in Lebanon have invariably ended with a withdrawal, affording its foe the ability to claim victory merely by dint of having survived. Just like Hezbollah in 2006, notes historian Juan Cole, Hamas is good at small wars.