Thursday, January 15, 2009

Defining Victory

The history of Middle East wars is one in which military superiority or victory more often than not, does not translate into political success. The Israel Hamas war seems at this point of the fighting to be no different.

Despite Israel's overwhelming firepower, Israel and Hamas seem delicately balanced in the complex, multi-layered efforts to achieve a ceasefire. Both sides appear to be internally divided between those who see political and military mileage in continuing the fighting at the expense of ordinary Palestinians and those who feel the time has come for a silencing of the guns.

Hamas, riding on the waves of shock at the pictures of carnage dominating television around clock, is claiming its ability to survive the onslaught as a victory. Assuming Hamas continues to survive, both Israel and Hamas will have to justify their rival claims to victory with the terms of the ceasefire that ultimately will be agreed. Increasingly, the bare knuckles of an Israel Hamas agreement are clear: the opening of Gaza's border crossings in exchange for an end to rocket attacks on Israel. Packaging that so that both sides can claim victory and agreeing on the terms of that arrangement is what is prolonging the suffering in Gaza.

For Hamas, victory has to involve an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, full opening of the border crossings into the strip and the ability to maintain the mantle of resistance as long as some long-term arrangement in the form of a multi-year truce that allows for the emergence of a viable, sovereign, independent Palestinian state is not agreed. Israel needs the assurance that Hamas will no longer be able to smuggle military materiel into the strip through direct or indirect control of the Rafah border crossing, the one passage into Gaza that does not link the strip to Israel, and a halt to rocket attacks on southern Israel to argue that its offensive achieved its goal.

Ironically, the roles in demanding a long-term truce may have been reversed. Hamas has been calling for several years already for a 10-year truce; Israel consistently refused to negotiate with Hamas and kept pushing for a definitive Israeli Palestinian peace agreement negotiated with the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, with Israel so far unable to destroy Hamas' military capability and the pictures of the carnage in Gaza fueling pressure to end the fighting, Hamas is now seeking an immediate end to the violence on terms it can project as constituting a victory while Israel needs to ensure that Hamas rockets will no longer pose a threat to Israeli's in southern Israel. "Hamas retains most of its combatants and substantial reserves of rockets. While Israel seeks to compel Hamas to accept an end to violence for the long term, Hamas has yet to clearly accept that as necessary," says Jeffrey White, a Washington Institute for Near Policy fellow focusing on military and security affairs.

Hamas suffered Thursday a significant blow with Israel's killing of Saeed Siyam, the third most important Hamas leader in the strip. Known as a hardliner within the Islamist group, Siyam was Hamas' interior minister in charge of internal security. Hamas prided itself on its ability maintain security in Gaza since it took over power there in 2007. Siyam is second senior internal security to have been killed in the war. Hamas police chief Tawfiq Jaber was killed in the very first days of the Israeli offensive.

Egypt say it is making progress in attempting to secure an end to the fighting based on its proposal that calls for an immediate ceasefire followed by a long-term truce and the opening of all border crossings policed by an international force or monitors. Hamas negotiator in Cairo Salah Bardawil, asserting on Al Jazeera that his group was achieving its goals, said "the Egyptian initiative is the only initiative that has been put forward to us and we continue to coordinate with the Egyptians," the negotiator said. Hamas as of this writing is reported to be willing to accept a one-year ceasefire provided Israel withdraws from Gaza within a week. Speaking in Jerusalem, United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said it could take several days to finalize technical details of the ceasefire.

While foreign governments, parties to the conflict, journalists and pundits will pour over the fine print of any ceasefire agreement to determine who emerged from the Gaza war on top, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that the winner may only emerge over time. He advocates Israel following its strategy in the war with Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006 where it was seeking to "educate," a euphemism for pummeling the Shiite militia into submission, rather than eradicate the Shiite militia. "Israel's military was not focused on the morning after the war in Lebanon - when Hezbollah declared victory and the Israeli press declared defeat. It was focused on the morning after the morning after, when all the real business happens in the Middle East. That's when Lebanese civilians said to Hezbollah: "What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what?

"Here's what Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, said the morning after the morning after about his decision to start that war by abducting two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006: 'We did not think, even 1 percent, that the capture would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.' That was the education of Hezbollah. Has Israel seen its last conflict with Hezbollah? I doubt it. But Hezbollah, which has done nothing for Hamas (in Gaza), will think three times next time. That is probably all Israel can achieve with a non-state actor, … If (Israel) is out to destroy Hamas, casualties will be horrific and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. If it is out to educate Hamas, Israel may have achieved its aims" Friedman says.

Friedman analysis involving the need to establish a near monopoly on forces parallels that of Asher Susser, a director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies. "Israel cannot accept the rocketry of Iran's surrogates, which sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens scurrying for the shelters at any time of their choosing, as a way of life. All Israel's neighbors must be deterred from following Gaza's example by the recognition that the price to be paid for such provocation will be unbearable. If Israel demonstrates a lack of resolve and an unwillingness to fight it will prove itself to be incapable of delivering such a message to the neighborhood and its long term survival will be in serious doubt. … When Israel elected not to retaliate to the rocket attacks from Gaza it was understood by Hamas not as an act of restraint, but of weakness and lack of resolve. This produced the Hamas miscalculation of the Israeli response and the trigger for all out war…," Susser writes on the website of the Royal United Services Institute.

Among those who believe there is no peace negotiation possible with Hamas, Friedman is an optimist. Hizbollah's refusal to be drawn into renewed confrontation with Israel in support of Gaza bolsters Friedman's argument. Acceptance by Hamas of a long-term truce with Israel would further strengthen Friedman's perspective.

Pro-Israeli skeptics however doubt there is any prospect of achieving peace with Hamas. Basing himself on conversations in 2006 with Nizar Rayyan, the hard line Hamas leader favoring suicide bombings and father of Hamas' usage of civilians as human shields who was killed by Israel in the early days of the offensive together with his wives and children, Jeffrey Goldberg, an Israeli Army prison ward-turned reporter, argues that the approach represented by Friedman is at best a temporary fix. He refers to Rayyan's deep-seated, virulent anti-Semitism and his belief that Allah turned some of the ancestors of the Jews, a "cursed people," into pigs and apes. "There is a fixed idea among some Israeli leaders that Hamas can be bombed into moderation. This is a false and dangerous notion. Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply felt belief. The reverse is also true: Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation. Neither position credits Hamas with sincerity, or seriousness," Goldberg says.

Rather than focusing on Hamas, Goldberg suggests that preparing a Palestine Authority governed West Bank for "real freedom," a term he does not define in terms of the status of the West Bank and its territorial integrity, may over time lead Gazans to see the light and shove Hamas aside. Goldberg seems to disregard the further loss of credibility Abbas has suffered as a result of the Gaza carnage and the fact that he in the wake of the war will not be able to afford to move ahead with a settlement that does not include Gaza – a move that would paint him even more in the corner of being portrayed as an Israeli and American lackey. Almost half of Kuwait's parliament voted in favor of a resolution objection to Abbas' expected visit next week to the oil-rich emirate to attend an Arab economic summit because his opposition to the “Zionist aggression” was weak.

As the Arab world splinters, incapable 20 days into the war of even agreeing on a venue or in what constellation Arab leaders should meet, Friedman's argument that Hizbollah was successfully "educated" in 2006 and that Iran's other major non-state ally in the ally, Hamas, needs to go through the same learning process presupposes that the Iranian relationship with the Shiite Muslim group is comparable to its ties to the Palestinians. Beyond the fact that Iran and Hizbollah share common religious and cultural roots while Hamas comes from a Palestinian and Islamist tradition that has always had an uneasy relationship with Tehran, it also assumes that Iran can only benefit from deepening divisions among Arab governments and between governments and public sentiment in their countries. Until the moment that public opinion is no longer emotionally swayed by theatrics and rhetoric rather than deeds, Iran indeed can capitalize on Arab inaction and mounting public frustration and anger.

Those short term gains however may not justify the risk the Gaza war poses to the possibility of opening a new chapter in Iranian US relations as President-elect Barack Obama takes office. "This conflict is the last thing Tehran would have wished for in the last few weeks of the Bush administration. It increases the risk of a US-Iran confrontation now, and reduces the prospects for US-Iran diplomacy once President elect Obama takes over - neither of which is in Iran's national interest. Rather than benefiting from the instability following the slaughter in Gaza, Iran stands to lose much from the rise in tensions. … If the fighting in Gaza goes on for too long, the spillover effects will be felt in increased Arab-Iranian tensions at a time when Tehran is more interested in soothing ties with the Arabs in order to minimize Arab disruption to any potential US-Iran opening," says Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance - The Secret dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States and president of the National Iranian American Council in The Huffington Post.

In an interview published on the website of the Council for Foreign Relations, Martin Indyk, director of the Brooking Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, former US ambassador to Israel and a candidate for a senior position in Obama's Middle East team, said the new president to resolve the Gaza crisis would have to embed efforts to achieve a ceasefire in a broad brush approach that would also engage Iran and revive Israeli Syrian peace talks. Taken together, Indyk said, these initiatives would "generate some positive synergies."

Indyk, acknowledging that a ceasefire in Gaza might not be achieved in the five days before Obama takes office, suggested that one way to circumvent Egyptian sensitivities about the stationing of an international force to police the Egyptian Gaza border in a bid to prevent the smuggling of arms to Islamists in the strip, would be to involve the Multilateral Force of Observers (MFO) that has been stationed in the Sinai for the past 30 years to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. "The American-based force that exists in the Sinai could be augmented and some of its parts moved to the border without changing anything actually. So I'm hopeful that can be solved and serve as a lever for the Israelis to wind down the conflict," Indyk said.

In remarks that are likely to further fuel speculation that Obama may authorize some kind of US contact with Hamas, Indyk was careful not to rule out categorically talking to the Islamists. "Overall, there is a belief among Obama and his advisers that not talking to enemies is a mistake. And he's made it clear that he tends to try to talk to the Iranians about their nuclear program in particular. But in the case of Hamas, his focus has got to be a cease-fire first and then a new initiative to make peace. But Hamas is not interested in making peace. So, it's hard to see how you'd construct a peace process with Hamas. On the other hand, given the division in Palestinian politics for the moment--Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank--it's also difficult to see how you can achieve movement in this process without some closing of ranks on the Palestinian side. The way that he should approach it is to leave this task to the Arabs and the Turks--they also have influence with Hamas--who have intense interest in trying to promote unification amongst Palestinians. If they got to a situation where Hamas and Fatah reconcile, where Hamas observes a cease-fire, where Hamas agrees that the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas should negotiate with Israel, then I could imagine Obama allowing some low-level engagement with Hamas. … If Hamas gets the trophy of American recognition before anything is changed, especially in the context of the provocation of this crisis and the launching of these rockets onto Israeli civilians, then Obama will be starting off on the very wrong foot. Rather than the United States playing a positive role in terms of trying to end this conflict, he'll end up in a whole political conflict of his own," Indyk said.

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