If the history of national, ethnic and religious conflict teaches one anything, it is that battles for perceived national rights, security and identity are dynamic rather than frozen in time. They are an ever shifting combustible product of history, clashing perceptions of political, security, legal and moral rights, balances of power and domestic and geo politics mixed with humankind's most irrational emotions: fear, despair, the desire for revenge and a determination to achieve minimally accepted goals at whatever price. Nowhere is that explosive mix more evident than in the long-standing Israeli Arab and particularly the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Ironically, amid apparently hardening positions of both Palestinians and Israelis as Israeli troops pour into Gaza in the second phase of Israel's offensive against Hamas, reading the tea leaves of statements by leaders on both sides of the divide shows that Israelis and Palestinians have moved not only a long way from the zero sum game they have been locked into for much of their intertwined history but they are also shifting positions , even if only in barely noticeable nuances, almost daily as they fight what they perceive to be an existential battle in Gaza.
In a broad stroke, if the Israeli Palestinian struggle from the establishment of Israel in 1948 till the late 1970s, if not the 1980s, was about who Palestine belonged to, today it's a battle on whose terms the land will be divided. Israelis have become more determined than ever to shape the body politic of Palestine and ensure that their Palestinian counterpart is one that is weak and unable to challenge Israeli territorial demands often veiled under the cloak of security. Palestinians seek to end Israeli occupation and create a viable, independent and truly sovereign state in a part of historic Palestine.
These Israeli and Palestinian goals are a far cry from declared positions of right-wing nationalists on both sides of the divide: Yehuda and Shomron, the Biblical names of the West Bank, as part of the historic Jewish homeland and Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement by an Islamic Arab Palestine. An Israeli hawk-turned-dove, Ezer Weizman, served as commander of the Israeli air force, defense minister and finally president, recognized the irrelevance of declared positions and a nation's need to maintain a dream even if that dream is an illusionist fata morgana. Standing in the early 1980s in front of Likud's emblem incorporating a map showing Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, Weizman said: "Everyone has the right to dream, I have the right to dream, they have the right to dream."
Gaza is for Israelis and Palestinians alike not about dreams but about who is a party to a solution and on what terms. Israel has come a long way from the late Gold Meir's denial of the very existence of Palestinians with its acceptance of the principle of a territorial compromise leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and its engagement with Palestinian nationalists. Hamas has deviated from its charter by calling for a 10-year truce with Israel. That may be a far cry from Israel's desire for a full peace with open borders and far-reaching cultural and economic interaction. Nevertheless, despite the fog of military struggle, it constitutes the willingness to engage in a process that would more likely than not give all parties a stake in the status quo and diminish chances for renewed violent conflict. A process in which tactical aims necessarily become strategic goals and past more far-reaching targets become little more than unrealistic dreams. That in and of itself offers prospects, all the more so given that Hamas is likely to emerge as a party that no longer can be excluded. On what terms is likely to be determined on the Gaza battlefield as well as at the Israeli, and possibly, the Palestinian ballot box.
As Israeli troops move forward in Gaza, Israeli leaders are grappling with that very issue. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been careful to limit the goal of Israel's offensive to eliminating Islamist capability to fire rockets at Israel. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni like Vice Premier Haim Ramon have gone a step further saying that Hamas will remain a problem as long as it remains in control of Gaza. Reflecting Livni and Ramon's concern, Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn warned in Haaretz that "if the war ends in a draw, as expected, and Israel refrains from re-occupying Gaza, Hamas will gain diplomatic recognition. No matter what you call it, Hamas will obtain legitimacy." The opposite outcome, the destruction of Hamas, risks an equally dangerous outcome from an Israeli perspective: complete chaos that would pose as big a threat to security in southern Israel. "Hamas assumes (probably correctly) that its Palestinian opponents fed Israel with much of the intelligence it needed to wage precision warfare against Hamas. There is likely to be a vicious settling of scores as soon as a cease-fire is in place, if not before, and which could approximate a civil war. This could open space for small groups like Islamic Jihad and other gangs, which could shoot off rockets at their own initiative (or that of Iran). If something can go wrong in Gaza, there is a good chance it will. Much of the aftermath will have to be improvised, and much will depend on how thoroughly Israel has degraded the capabilities of Hamas, says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Amid the contradicting statements on the extent of Israeli ambition in Gaza, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Major Avital. Leibovich appeared to lower Israel's sights below even the initial Israel goal of destroying Hamas' ability to fire rockets at Israel to simply reducing its capability. If Israel's offensive achieves no more than Leibovich's very limited goal, a probable reflection of what Israel's military brass truly considers realistic, that will no doubt raise serious political and moral questions about the government's apparently callous cost-benefit analysis. "The objective at this stage is to destroy. The terrorist infrastructure of Hamas in ... order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel," The Sunday Times quoted Leibovich as saying. Backtracking on what Israel may achieve may well also reflect Israeli concerns that Israel has a limited period of time until international pressure, so far hindered by US support for Israel and divisions in the Arab world, will gather steam and will force it to halt operations in Gaza.
Similarly, Hamas too appears to be lowering its sights. "You will only have security when we have security," said a Hamas spokesman, addressing Israelis directly during a news conference. Hamas has repeatedly said it would agree to a ceasefire in exchange for a lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza. Israeli military commanders and intelligence officials are advising the Israeli government that Hamas is moderating its positions. "There are first signs that Hamas is toning down its views in regards to a possible ceasefire. Hamas is willing to reach an agreement," Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahranot quoted Avi Diskin, head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, as telling members of the Israeli cabinet. At the same time, Diskin warned that Palestinian rocket fire was likely to continue. Yediot quoted Diskin as going on to say that "the Hamas leadership abroad is stressed, working to obtain a ceasefire and disappointed by failure of Arab countries failing to stand by it. The situation of the leadership in Gaza is similar. A real threat exists today to the Hamas enterprise in the Gaza Strip. The leadership in Gaza and abroad feels an existential threat." IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Cabinet members that "not much is left of the Hamas government. Military Intelligence chief Major-General Amos Yadlin suggested that "Hamas understands that violating the truce was a strategic mistake. It suffered a great blow." The assessment of military commanders and intelligence chiefs notwithstanding, Yediot quoted Defense Minister Barak as saying that Israel had "yet to reach a situation of changing the reality in the southern part of the country," a reference to Israel's goal to destroy Hamas' military capability. And while the Israeli offensive may well destroy the Hamas leadership in Gaza, it leaves intact the leadership abroad led by Hamas Political Bureau chief Khaled Mashaal. In addition, Hamas has demonstrated its ability of maintaining a leadership in Gaza for much of its more than 25-year history despite Israeli targeted killings since Israeli withdrawal in 2005 and intrusive house searches, mass arrests, torture, intimidation, and extensive systems of movement control during the Israeli occupation.
Israel's assessment of how long it has until international pressure restricts its freedom of movement is likely to influence Israel's further conduct of its military campaign. Israeli troops in the first 24 hours of the ground offensive have advanced cautiously into Gaza rather than re-conquering it in a blitz. Israeli officials have stressed they have no interest in reoccupying the strip. Israeli ground troops may well be limiting their ground operations to curtailing Hamas' ability to fire rockets from specific sectors closest to the Israeli border rather than throughout Gaza. In a limited scenario, Israel would also be seeking to significantly complicate Hamas' efforts to replenish its military stock through underground tunnels along Gaza's border with Egypt. Some Israeli hardliners advocate a limited reoccupation involving only areas bordering on Israel. "I believe that Israel is right to go ahead: to deliver ground incursions, in various sectors, to bleed Hamas and ultimately to destroy its will and ability to rocket Israel by occupying the border area permanently," writes Benny Morris, a lecturer on Middle East history at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion University, in The Sunday Times.
Irrespective of what Israel's military tactics are, the key word in the parameters set out by Morris is Hamas' will to maintain its resistance. Whether Israel can break Hamas' will is what will determine ultimate success of the Israeli offensive. Reflecting a dawning realization in Israel, Morris notes: "... the problem is that Hamas, like Hezbollah, will remain -- and at some point down the road it can be expected to harass or assault Israel, independently or in collaboration with Hezbollah or Iran." That is if Israel continues to lack the kind of bold leadership that politically would lock Hamas and other Palestinian groups into a peaceful process which instead of seeking to impose terms gives Palestinians a vested interest in its success. Some Israeli leaders appear to acknowledge this privately even though their actions in office call their sincerity into question. That is certainly true for outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on whose watch the Gaza campaign was launched weeks after telling The New York Review of Books that Israel cannot achieve peace without a return of "all, or nearly all," of the territories occupied in 1967, agreement that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state and a commitment conveyed to its Arab counterparts that negotiations would focus on implementation of these principles. Olmert conceded that Israel has so far refused to give such a commitment to the Palestinians, adding that is why all previous negotiations have failed.
In many ways, the analysis of Benny Morris and hardliners of his ilk threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Morris notes that Hizbollah has built an armory of up to 40,000 rockets, some of which can reach Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear facility in Dimona, in less than three years since the Lebanon war in which Israel sought to destroy the Islamist movement. "Only a change of mindset among the Palestinians and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds, could allow for peace. And that's not going to happen as long as the Arab world is..... governed by a mentality of grievance and victimhood," Morris concludes. Once a pioneer of the movement of New Historians in Israel that helped shatter the Israeli myth that Palestinians at the time of the creation of Israel voluntarily left territory being taken over by Jews instead of being expelled by Israeli forces, Morris has since shed his dovish conclusions for a more hard line analysis.
Ironically, his conclusion that for progress to be achieved, the Arab world must first rid itself of its colonial-era mentality is shared by some of the Arab world's most enlightened thinkers. "We remain deeply mired in a colonial-era mentality in many respects. The massive attention paid to awaiting the new Middle East policies of the Obama administration in the United States is the most dramatic manifestation of trend," writes journalist Rami G. Khouri in the International Herald Tribune decrying the fact that many in the Arab world "look abroad for protection or salvation, in the form of countries, ethnic groups or political movements that rely on foreign patronage for their survival more than they do on their own people." Where Morris and Khouri differ is the impact that Israeli and US policies have on the Arab world's ability to shake off its colonial-era mentality. "Political liberalization and democratization are dormant for the time being. These remain buried beneath the stultifying weight of corruption-riddled Arab security states, emotion- and fear-driven mass movements, and the debilitating impact of Israeli, American, and other foreign interventions," Khouri says.
That mentality expresses itself in the Arab world's lack of bold leadership. For a brief moment in 2002 and again in 2008, the Arab world led by Saudi King Abdullah appeared to be breaking the mold. Abdullah crafted a comprehensive peace plan that recognized Israel, acknowledged its security needs and promised full diplomatic relations in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The plan was twice approved by Arab summits in 2002 and again in 2008. At a UN-hosted interfaith conference in late 2008 initiated by Abdullah, Israeli President Shimon Peres praised Abdullah's plan and said it constituted a basis for discussion.
Yet, like almost always in Arab Middle East diplomacy -- with the exceptions of Jordan and Egypt --, Arab leaders lack the courage or boldness to follow through on an initiative of their own with steps that would force Israel to respond with more than words. Israel and conservative states share common concerns with regard to Iran, Islamist movements and perceptions of Hamas and Hizbollah, yet Arab leaders fearful of public opinion in their own countries are incapable of taking concrete steps on the basis of their peace plan, waiting instead for a tangible Israeli response. They fear too that making further steps towards Israel without tangible Israeli concessions will deprive them of assets in future negotiations. Taking such steps in today's environment has become virtually impossible, rendering Arab states even more impotent.