Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's remarks in Paris after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy were telling in terms of what the Gaza war is really about. Livni left no doubt that Israel's campaign against Hamas is not designed to destroy the organization but to cut it down to size. The Israel-Hamas fight seeks to determine the balance of power in future negotiations that would permanently end violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite Israeli rhetoric, Israeli officials across the political spectrum agree that Hamas cannot be defeated militarily, at least not at a price Israel would find acceptable or feasible. To totally destroy Hamas, Israel would have to re-occupy Gaza, a move it is unlikely to make, even as some form of ground offensive seems imminent. As a result, Israel realizes that Hamas is in Gaza to stay for the foreseeable future, and probably would re-win the West Bank in a free and fair election.
Indeed having learnt a lesson in Lebanon where Hizbollah prevented Israel from achieving its goal of destroying the Islamists, Israeli officials limit their announced goals for the military campaign against Gaza to 'creating calm in the country's south' and 'changing the security environment.' Livni made a point in Paris of saying that overthrowing Hamas was not an Israeli goal. "We affected most of the infrastructure of terrorism in the Gaza Strip and the question whether it's enough or not will be according to our assessment on a daily basis," the foreign minister said.
That assessment largely involves a judgment of whether Israel can pound Hamas into submission. That would likely involve Hamas accepting a ceasefire that guarantees a halt to future rocket attacks, in part by Hamas accepting that access to the strip will be controlled by Israel, Egypt and the Palestine Authority. That would be a far cry from Hamas' demand for unconditional opening of all border crossings which would grant it a significant say in what goes in and out of Gaza.
Ironically, Hamas, if it can be contained and subdued, serves Israeli strategy. The split between Fatah and Hamas has weakened the Palestinians and strengthen Israel. Fatah, which dominates the Palestine Authority on the West Bank, has lost credibility because of widespread corruption, it's siding with Israel and the United States in seeking to isolate Hamas and its inability to stop Israeli settlement activity and increasingly harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank as well as its failure to secure a settlement acceptable to Palestinians. Hamas, meanwhile, has inherited the mantle of Palestinian resistance from Fatah.
For Israel, the question is whether it can rob Hamas of that mantle and force it to accept realities on the ground. With other words, the current military campaign aims to tame rather than crush Hamas. Ultimately this would make Hamas a negotiating partner acceptable to Israel, one that would likely enjoy greater popular support and credibility than the Palestine Authority. Israel has long blamed lack of progress in peace talks on the absence of a credible and effective negotiating partner even if its policies contributed to preventing the emergence of such a partner. Israeli leaders moreover realize that destruction of Hamas would leave a power vacuum in Gaza with no credible force to fill it.
Israeli hopes that its blockade of Gaza that started shortly after Hamas took control of the strip in 2007 would spark a popular uprising against the Islamists were dashed, leaving Israel with the choice of engaging with a strong, defiant Hamas or seeking to cut it down to size. Israel's message now delivered through the barrel of a gun is simple: if you want to retain control, forget your popular mandate to resist occupation and hold on to power on our terms and with our consent.
As a result, Israel despite its rhetoric has so far largely refrained in the current campaign from killing senior Hamas leaders. Nizar Rayyan, the most senior leader killed so far, was a hard liner, who advocated the resumption of suicide bombings in Israel and sent his own 17-year-old son on a suicide mission; an act that made him a symbol of personal sacrifice among the Palestinians. A prayer leader, who frequently appeared armed in the company of members of Hamas' military wing, Rayyan, played a key role in coordinating between the group's political and military arms. Rayyan, according to Radio Netherlands, initiated Hamas' human shield tactic when Israel in 2005 began targeting the homes of Hamas activists. He would take women and children to the roofs of threatened buildings to prevent Israeli bombardments, a tactic that saved dozens of activists. The tactic failed today when Rayyan's four wives and nine of his 12 children died alongside him in the rubble of a four-story apartment building in the Gabalia refugee camp. He clearly was not a figure who would fit into Israeli plans for Hamas.
The possibly imminent ground battle is likely to determine the balance of power between Israel and Hamas. Hamas and other Islamist groups, including Islamic Jihad, believe a ground battle will give them a strategic edge despite Israeli military superiority. The ground battle and the struggle for whose terms will frame future negotiations involves a geo-politically equally important battle over the degree of Iranian influence in the region. Hamas and other Palestinian Islamists like Hizbollah, which made its military mark in 2006, enjoy varying degrees of Iranian support. Speaking in a rare interview to The National, Islamic Jihad commander Abu Bilal said Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel were designed to lure Israeli ground troops into Gaza. "We are praying for the tanks to come so we can show them new things. We have made many preparations for the coming battle and all of our fighters wait for the chance to kill them," Abu Bilal said. The National quoted sources close to Islamic Jihad as saying many of its fighters had in recent years been trained by Hizbollah, whose combatants surprised Israel with their ability to ambush Israeli tanks. Hizbollah fighters, however, enjoyed far easier access to advanced Iranian weaponry than do their counterparts in Gaza.
The outcome of the Israel-Hamas battle for determination of the terms of any future negotiation is certain to impact domestic politics in Arab countries. A tamed Hamas forced to tune down its rhetoric and accommodate realities on the ground would provide less of a boost to Islamists across the region than a Hamas that emerges as a perceived, defiant victor capable of withstanding the onslaught of Israeli military superiority.
A majority of Arab governments, fearful that a Hamas victory would strengthen Islamists in their own backyard, have allowed public protests in a bid to channel mounting domestic anger and frustration. Yet, cracks are appearing in that approach as the gulf widens between Arab official impotence and/or unwillingness to effectively on behalf of Gaza and public demands for a response. Egyptian police detained 20 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to security officials, as the group called for mass demonstrations against the Israeli offensive.The Brotherhood said police rounded up at least nine members in four provinces.
The Brotherhood like its counterparts in Jordan and Mauritania, together with Egypt, the only Arab countries to have diplomatic relations with Israel, is calling for a breaking off of ties with the Jewish states. Of the three, Mauritania is the weak link in the chain. Libya and several Gulf states have reportedly offered financial assistance if Mauretania were to cut its diplomatic relations with Israel. Mauritania is walking a tightrope. Breaking off relations would open the impoverished nation to enhanced financial support from its Arab brethren and strengthen its position in disputes with Algeria, but threaten its important security and economic ties to the United States and the European Union.
Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations are legally banned, has opted for a complete clampdown because it fears that anti-Israel protests would open a Pandora's Box that would lead to demonstrations on domestic Saudi issues and demands for greater freedom. A Saudi human rights group, Human Rights First Society, reports that two Saudi activists, Khaled al Omeir and Mohammed al Otaibi, were arrested this week as they arrived for a demonstration in predominantly Shiite Qatif and Safwa. Police dispersed hundreds of protesters with rubber bullets.
The Saudi human rights group also said that authorities had detained a prominent radical Saudi cleric, Sheikh Awad al Qarni, after he had issued a fatwa endorsing attacks against Israelis wherever they may be. "Their blood should be shed as the blood of our brothers in Palestine has been shed. They should feel pain more than our brothers," Al Qarni said. Al Qarni's fatwa came days after Damascus-based Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal called for suicide attacks on Israel.
In what must be a bid to further fuel fears of enhanced Iranian regional influence against the backdrop of the Gaza crisis, Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat reports in a story entitled "A Chilling Report From Paris" that Iran is a "short distance" from securing its needs to make a nuclear warhead. Amir Taheri, a prominent, conservative columnist, who left Iran with the fall of the Shah, quotes a report prepared for the French National Assembly and submitted to President Sarkozy as saying that Iran will join the nuclear club no later than the end of 2011. "…it makes it clear that 2009 may be the last year in which the major powers would be able to persuade the Islamic Republic not to cross the threshold of making the bomb... If it is decided that Tehran should be stopped before the threshold at all costs, bolder diplomatic initiatives and/or military action might be needed," Taheri writes.
Perhaps more immediately, the Israeli attack on Gaza highlights a potentially vexing challenge for the Obama administration: how to deal with Hamas if Israel fails to cut it down to size. Matthew Levitt, a counter-terrorism and intelligence analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warns that acceptance of Hamas despite its advocacy of violence because it controls Gaza would convince radical Islamists across the region that they need not moderate their tactics to gain international recognition. ” The message to violent Islamists throughout the region must be clear: Terrorism and politics cannot go hand in hand,” Levitt says.
Instead, he advocates encouraging political reform within the moderate Palestinian camp dominated by Fatah. Fatah pledged reform after its devastating electoral defeat to Hamas in 2006 but failed to follow through. He further suggests increased US, Israeli and European efforts to improve the day-to-day lives of West Bank residents through development and law-and-order and security assistance. Finally, Levitt advocates a strengthening of the siege of Gaza by pressing Egypt to effectively police its border with Gaza so that Hamas can no longer smuggle funds and supplies into the strip. Fact of the matter is, these policies have all been tried, and their failure is what led to the Israeli assault.
They failed because sanctions and boycotts seldom prove to be effective incentives for populations to revolt against an incumbent authority and perhaps more importantly because Palestinians will remain incapable of putting their own house in order as long as Israel does not demonstrate real commitment to the Palestinian right to a state that is viable and independent. “That such a clear commitment has not been made to this day is far more revealing of Israeli intentions and US/European indifference than any number of confidence-building measures that have left entirely unchanged the Palestinians' status as a people under the heel of a crushing and open-ended occupation,” says Henry Siegman, a visiting research professor at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, writing in The Nation.
Siegman’s argument was recently supported by none other than outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview with the New York Review of Books. A long time hawk and supporter of a Greater Israel that would incorporate the West Bank, Olmert,conceded that Israel cannot achieve peace without a return of "all, or nearly all," of the territories occupied in 1967 and agreement that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state. Omert’s statement contradict policies he adhered to while in government. Olmert said Israel had achieved peace with Egypt but not with Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Syria because it had advised Egypt in advance of negotiations that it would withdraw from all occupied Egyptian territory and that it was prepared to negotiate implementation of that goal. The Israeli position was conveyed to Egypt during secret talks in Morocco prior to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem between then Israeli Defense Minister and an Egyptian general.
That, Olmert said, is something Israel has refused to say to the Palestinians or the Syrians, and that is why all previous negotiations have gone nowhere. On the contrary, starting with Dayan, Israeli policies were always devised to retain as much of the occupied territories as possible even if that meant not resolving the Palestinian issue. Asked in the late 1970s about a solution to the occupation, Dayan responded: "The question is not 'What is the solution?' but 'How do we live without a solution?'" Geoffrey Aronson director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, and a veteran observer of Israeli settlement policy says that "living without a solution, then as now, was understood by Israel as the key to maximizing the benefits of conquest while minimizing the burdens and dangers of retreat or formal annexation."
Given its military, economic and diplomatic superiority, Israel had until now little real incentive to accommodate a weak, virtually impotent adversary. The Israel Hamas struggle to determine the balance of power coupled with the growing Israeli realization that continued occupation poses a demographic threat to the Jewish nature of the state of Israel could however turn solving the Palestinian issue an Israeli vested interest. And that may provide the Obama administration with the opportunity to succeed where past US governments have failed. To do so, the administration would have to help restore a balance between Israel and the Palestinians by leveraging its unquestioned support for Israel to ensure that Israel commits in advance of negotiations to implementation of the international consensus embodied in UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the 2003 road map and the 2007 Annapolis understandings involving an end to Israeli settlement policy and mutually agreed changes to the pre-1967 borders that would delineate Israel and Palestine. That is a tall order for any US President and certainly for one who comes to office with a multitude of domestic and international crises on his plate.