The outcome of Israel’s extensive air, artillery, and ground assault on the Gaza strip from December 27 — January 17 illustrates Israel’s wrong-headed approach to Hamas, the religiously grounded organization that has controlled the territory since it ousted the rival Fatah faction in June 2007. It exposes the bankruptcy of the theory of reprisals and the flawed notion that inflicting hardship on the Palestinian people will lead them to choose more “moderate” leaders. And it highlights the urgency of the resolution of Israel’s longstanding conflict with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. How Israel proceeds from this point will reveal whether it has learned from the results of its assault. How the United States addresses the underlying conflict will determine whether it will be resolved.

The stated objective of Israel’s assault was to bring an end to Hamas’ firing of rockets and mortars at civilian targets in Israel. However, when it proclaimed victory and declared a unilateral ceasefire late on January 17, after 22 days of pounding Gaza’s population and infrastructure, Israel hadn’t achieved this objective.

The number of rockets/mortars Hamas fired had been reduced from scores at the beginning of the Israeli assault to about 20 a day. But it should be kept in mind that in the first 4 1/2 months of the six-month Hamas-Israeli ceasefire that began June 19, the number of rockets and mortars coming into Israel from Gaza had declined to about eight a month — about one shell every four days. This represented a 98% decline in rocket/mortar fire from the 4 1/2 months preceding the ceasefire when Hamas was firing hundreds of rockets and mortars into Israel. Furthermore, during the first 4 1/2 months of the ceasefire, while Israeli fire resulted in the death of 21 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, not a single Israeli was killed by Hamas missiles. The situation changed dramatically after a November 4 Israeli raid in which six Hamas members were killed. Almost immediately, rocket/mortar attacks against Israeli targets increased to the pre-ceasefire levels.

No official text of the ceasefire agreement has been released. However, two key elements were a cessation of the firing of rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel and the reopening of the border crossings into Gaza to permit a normal flow of food and other goods into the strip. Yet, Israel never permitted as much as 30% of the pre-blockade number of trucks with supplies through the crossings into Gaza.

Mission Accomplished?

Having declared its mission accomplished, Israel quickly began withdrawing its forces from the strip. The next day, Hamas also declared a ceasefire, conditioned on a speedy total Israeli withdrawal, which was accomplished by January 21. It too declared victory. The dual declarations do not fully answer the question of who actually came out ahead. An Israeli military “victory” against a largely defenseless foe was a foregone conclusion. But what did Israel’s victory actually mean?

Israel gained at best a Pyrrhic victory from its military operation. In fact, Israel lost many things as a result of its punishing attack, which killed 1,300 Gazans and wounded over 5,000, perhaps as many as half women, children and other non-combatants, while Israel losses amounted to three civilians and 11 soldiers killed, and hundreds wounded, most in the ground offensive.

World reaction to the one-sided nature of the violence has been very negative for Israel. Its relations with Turkey have been severely strained, and Turkey has launched a diplomatic campaign to seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a Palestinian national unity government that would include Hamas, something which Israel has steadfastly opposed. Syria suspended the peace talks with Israel in which the Turks were intermediaries. Qatar and Mauritania severed ties. A Vatican spokesman compared the situation in Gaza to that of a concentration camp; and the European Union suspended moves to improve Israel’s status as a trading partner.

There also have been calls for war crimes investigations by representatives of international organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as by Israeli human rights groups and prosecutors in Spain and Turkey. Separately, the International Criminal Court at The Hague launched a preliminary inquiry to establish whether Israel committed war crimes in its offensive against Gaza. In addition, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, former ambassador to the United States and Britain, warned in a Financial Times op-ed that the Middle East peace process, stability in the region, and U.S.-Saudi ties are at risk unless the U.S. “takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians.”

For its part, Hamas quickly showed that it remained in charge of Gaza; and its standing in the West Bank, the region and beyond has been enhanced.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose negotiations with the Israelis preceding and after the November 2007 Annapolis peace conference have produced very little in practical terms for the Palestinians, has been portrayed as tacitly supporting the Israel assault on Gaza. His credibility as a leader able to successfully negotiate with the Israelis on a Palestinian state has been diminished. He has responded by strongly condemning the Israelis for their actions in Gaza — arguing that they constitute Israel’s most recent effort to sabotage the peace process, and calling for a unity government.

Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khalid Mishal was invited to Qatar, where he declared the need for a new Palestinian leadership before a cheering crowd on January 28; and Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair has said that Hamas should be part of the Middle East peace process.

Stuck in Neutral

Statements by Israeli representatives to the effect that Hamas has been taught a lesson and that Israel has restored its deterrence come across as callous and oblivious to the wildly disproportionate character of the human and infrastructure damage wreaked by the Israeli armed forces. They underscore the cruel, vindictive nature of the Israeli attack and suggest intentional collective punishment.

Violence didn’t succeed in stopping the rocket fire. But was there an alternative to the Israeli air and sea strikes and ground invasion? The answer is yes: negotiation. But why was it not employed? One suspects the Israeli government simply judged that President Abbas and his Fatah faction would be more pliable than Hamas and that Israel could draw out its negotiations with Abbas while continuing to pressure the Palestinians until they stopped resisting and accepted a settlement on terms favorable to Israel.

The Israelis still haven’t accepted that they will in all probability have to give up nearly all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to achieve a stable peace with the Palestinians. Instead, they retain the hope that they will be able to keep significant portions of the West Bank, including all of Jerusalem as defined by Israel. In essence, Israel seeks a Palestinian leadership that it believes will serve Israel’s security interests while allowing continued colonization of the West Bank. This explains the Israeli policies towards Hamas which culminated in the assault on Gaza. Unfortunately for Israel, these two goals are incompatible. Hamas’ persistence and the resilience of the Palestinians despite the hardships they’re undergoing make palpable this incompatibility.

What Next?

If Israel wants to stabilize the situation it must stop its incursions into the West Bank and Gaza in search of Hamas militants. It should cease the targeted assassinations of Hamas personnel. And it should open up the border crossings, ending its siege of Gaza. In return, Hamas must stop the rocket and mortar fire. Agreement on these measures should be codified in a document which commits both sides to specific actions on a clear timetable, with deadlines which would be monitored closely by a neutral third party that would judge whether the agreed provisions are being implemented by both sides.

Tying opening of the crossings to allow travel and a normal passage of needed goods to the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit held by Hamas is delaying both objectives and steering the focus from the central objective of stopping the rocket fire from Gaza in exchange for a lifting of the blockade on the flow of goods into Gaza and travel by Gazans in and out of the strip. Shalit’s release should be negotiated separately as part of a deal that would address the release of Palestinians, including Hamas legislators, held by Israel.

Israeli representatives also would do well to eschew overheated rhetoric such as characterizing Hamas as a “genocidal terrorist organization.” Arguing that Hamas is out to destroy Israel without some assessment of the likelihood of that happening merely inflames Israeli public opinion. This kind of language does not take into consideration anti-Arab sentiment among Israelis as exemplified by anti-Palestinian chants at soccer matches, calls for expulsion of Israel’s Arab population, and settler violence against West Bank Palestinians. It also ignores that Hamas is a multifaceted nationalist movement, deeply embedded in Palestinian society both in Gaza and the West Bank, and that its rejectionist position has evolved. Hamas is interested in governing and can be nudged further along a more pragmatic trajectory if its real objectives are given due consideration. Hamas, in fact, has communicated to visitors such as former president JImmy Carter that it would accept a final status agreement approved in a referendum — meaning that it would accept Israel.

The Longer Term

Some analysts are arguing that present conditions are not conducive to the success of an all-out effort towards a final status agreement which would resolve the conflict. They recommend that the United States and others go slow, developing confidence between the sides, essentially using the recycled argument that efforts be made to improve the “quality of life” of the Palestinians. Yes, the daily lives of the Palestinians should be improved. But this approach alone hasn’t worked and won’t work.

Certainly, a lot has changed with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past eight years. The violence by both sides during a good part of that period has embittered both populations. And the number of settlers in the West Bank has increased from about 188,000 in 2000 to 290,000. So the situation is more complicated than it was at the end of the Clinton administration.

But the fundamentals remain the same, while negotiating a solution acceptable to both sides will only become more difficult if decisive action is not taken now. Those who argue for a slow, cautious approach centered only on confidence-building measures and quality of life issues are dead wrong. The longer a comprehensive settlement is put off the more difficult it will be to achieve.

Whether the U.S. now seeks a temporary autonomy agreement or a final status solution based on resolution of the key issues on borders, refugees, security and Jerusalem, a Palestinian unity government will be essential if either is to succeed. Hamas must be brought into the political process in some way if there is to be an enduring settlement; and, unlike the Bush administration, the Obama administration shouldn’t discourage the formation of such a government.

A serious negotiation will require U.S. political courage and leadership. The new administration is off to a good start, both in tone and substance. President Barack Obama’s expression of sympathy for Palestinian suffering, his phone calls to president Abbas and other Arab leaders, and his January 26 Al-Arabiya interview have set the right tone. The appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as the lead individual in seeking a settlement is a good signal, as is the decision to have Secretary of State Clinton attend the Gaza relief Summit in Egypt at which she pledged a large sum for reconstruction aid and said the United States would vigorously pursue a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s time for both sides in the conflict to focus on the realities. A larger Israel which also is democratic simply isn’t sustainable over the long term, whereas an Israel that’s based on the pre-1967 Six Day War borders and is perceived as a good neighbor both by a viable Palestinian state and the other states in the region can be both democratic and Jewish. For negotiations to have any chance of success, it’s essential that there be a total cessation of settlement construction.

Israel and Hamas are negotiating through Egyptian intermediaries on the cessation of hostilities, a possible role for international forces, the release of prisoners, the flow of funds and supplies, the patrolling of borders, and the supply of weapons. So Israel’s absolutist rhetoric regarding Hamas comes down to posturing in the absence of real negotiations towards a resolution of the underlying conflict. By acknowledging that Hamas is part of the political process, Israel will help wean it away from its violent tendencies.

For its part, as the broader Palestinian-Israeli negotiations proceed and progress is achieved, Hamas should seek ways to make more explicit that it is prepared to live at peace with the state of Israel based on the June 4, 1967 borders. It also will have to convey a willingness to adjust its 1988 charter to remove a passage from the Prophet Mohammed regarding Muslims killing Jews and language to the effect that there is no solution to the Palestinian question except through jihad.

Meanwhile, there’s concern that the strengthening of the right in the recent Israeli parliamentary elections and the likelihood that Israel’s next government will be headed by Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu will derail any prospects for successful negotiations towards a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has called for tough action against Hamas and for expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank while focusing on economic development there rather than on negotiations on a two-state solution. However, he also will be loath to jeopardize U.S. support by seeking to delay or undermine Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

In fact, a right-of-center government headed by Netanyahu might be best positioned to make the difficult compromises and decisions regarding first the reality of Hamas as a force in Palestinian political life and then on the settlements and Jerusalem. These actions might well lead his country to a truly historic move towards peace with its neighbors. In this, Netanyahu would be following on the example set by the Likud’s Menachem Begin with respect to Egypt.

Benjamin Tua, a retired Foreign Service Officer, served in Israel from 1982-1985. He currently is an independent analyst and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor.

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