Israel and the U.S. Out of Options

He who fights terrorists for any period of time is likely to become one himself. -- Israeli historian Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, 1991
There is something qualitatively different about the latest cycle of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although I'm having trouble in my own mind hanging a label on it.

Maybe it's the fact that the Israelis have more or less abandoned the pretense that they're fighting specific "terrorist" groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and are openly waging war on the Palestinian people (and now the Lebanese people) as a whole.

Maybe it's because the proximate triggers for the current fighting -- the Palestinian raid on an Israeli outpost on the Gaza frontier and Hezbollah's ambush of an Israeli patrol just inside the Israeli border -- were both military attacks against legitimate military targets, instead of explicit acts of terrorism, like the 2000-2001 Palestinian suicide bomb offensive. This suggests a major change in both tactics and capabilities (although terrorism, in the form of rockets randomly shot into Israeli towns and cities, obviously remains a key part of the Hezbollah and Hamas arsenals)

Maybe it's simply the speed and scale of the escalation, which has progressed from a limited incursion in the Gaza Strip to the wholesale dismantling of the Hamas government to a full-scale blockade of Lebanon in just two weeks. If the Israeli expectation was that an initial display of overwhelming force would send a message to the other side that there are red lines that must not be crossed, then the operation has already failed. Indeed, the other side has sent some surprising messages of its own -- one of which landed in downtown Haifa.

If I had to pin it down, I would say the big difference between this crisis and similar past episodes is how completely off balance the Israelis seem to be -- lurching from reaction to reaction without any clear plan or strategy. The Gaza incursion was thrown together, more or less on the fly, which led to some embarrassing public squabbling within the Israeli cabinet. The attempt to decapitate Hamas's civilian leadership by arresting the entire Palestinian cabinet smacked of improvisation, and largely failed. Hezbollah's intervention clearly took Jerusalem by surprise, which is probably why the response has been so disproportionate: the Israelis are rather desperately trying to regain the initiative.

What's strange about this is that the Israelis started with the initiative, at least tactically. I'm told an incursion into Gaza was actually in the works before the Palestinian attack on the frontier post -- although the original plan has been for a smaller search-and-destroy operation aimed at suppressing, or at least harassing, the Hamas rocketeers. Whether the Palestinians knew this and managed to get a jump, or were just lucky with the timing of their cross-border raid, the result is that the Israelis were left scrambling to come up with a response, and it showed.

Strategically, the Israelis appear to be at an even bigger disadvantage. The big Gaza invasion, like the little one originally planned, looks suspiciously like a political operation, not an effective military measure. Its primary aim appears to be to reassure the Israeli public that the Palestinians will not be allowed to attack with impunity. In military terms, the rockets out of Gaza may have been just pinpricks, but symbolically they were extremely damaging, because they revealed the total failure of Sharon's grand strategy of unilateral disengagement. The skillful attack on the border post, and the successful capture of an Israeli soldier, only drove the point home.

The failure of Sharon's master plan -- which is also the raison d'etre for the current Israeli government -- is ultimately what this crisis is about, as Juan Cole correctly pointed out in a Salon article last week. Except where Cole sees a deliberate Israeli attempt to create a "failed state" in the Palestinian territories, I see only an increasingly frantic search for a way to avoid the consequences of one, a search which is leading the Israelis to lash out in ways the rest of the world (save for the United States, which will always see the conflict through Israeli eyes) views as increasingly cruel and vindictive.

I'm not passing moral judgments here. I've never been able to turn a blind eye to the war crimes of one side or the other -- rationalizing the suicide bomb that blows a bus full of Israeli civilians to bloody bits while crying tears of outrage over the destruction of a power plant that provides clean water to tens of thousands of Palestinian mothers and infants, or vice versa. To me, the conflict has long since come to resemble a war between lunatics, and one doesn't pass moral judgments on the behavior of the insane, not even the criminally insane.

But it is clear to me that the Israelis, through their own actions (plus some help from their clueless allies in the Cheney administration) have put themselves in a trap they can't escape. They've reached a strategic dead end, one that doesn't even leave them enough maneuvering room to turn and go back. A return to the pre-Oslo status quo -- full military reoccupation of the territories -- is out of the question. The peace process (a pointless squirrel wheel, but one that at least kept the squirrels, both Palestinian and Israeli, busy going through their paces) is dead. The Palestinian Authority is shattered; Fatah's legitimacy and President Abbas's credibility flushed down the toilet. And Hamas -- the only viable alternative -- has been officially defined as Public Enemy Number One by the Israelis, the Americans and the Europeans.

In an earlier era, pre-9/11, pre-Iraq invasion, widening the war to Lebanon might have provided some breathing room, or at least a temporary distraction. But now it's only added another horn to the dilemma, and created risks that no one -- the Israelis least of all -- can fully foresee.

In a sense, the crisis has been coming down the pike since last year's Palestinian elections unexpectedly put Hamas in charge of the PA. The Israelis never wanted the election, and only agreed to it because the Americans insisted. The Americans, in turn, relied on assurances from Abbas (underwritten by the Egyptians and the Jordanians) that the results were in the bag -- or could be put there, if need be. Democracy boy, in other words, only embraced democracy for the Palestinians because he was sure the "right" guys would win, and I know what a shock that must be to the reader. But Fatah, being Fatah, couldn't stop its candidates from running against each other and splitting the non-Hamas vote, while Hamas smartly ran on a platform of honest government instead of endless holy war. In the end, the fix could only deprive Hamas of the even bigger majority it was probably entitled to.

If the Israelis had fully thought things through, I have to believe they would have defied democracy boy and vetoed the election. Why didn't they? In addition to the traditional desire to stay on the hegemon's good side, my guess is the Israelis in general and Prime Minister Olmert in particular were still too captivated by the dream of unilateralism. The whole point of disengagement was that it was supposed to make the other side irrelevant. Israel would decide what land and settlements it wanted to keep, build fences around the rest and let the Palestinians stew in their own poverty and rage. With that as the plan, the risk of a Hamas victory, while undesirable, may not have seemed catastrophic.

The reality, however, is that the Palestinians will always matter, at least as long as more than 2 million of them are living in close proximity to Israel proper. Unilateral withdrawal was, in the end, a dangerous fantasy. The reality is that Israel can only disengage from its Palestinian Bantustans if there is a PA willing and able to play the role of puppet government -- providing some minimal level of public services and guaranteeing some minimal level of security, which in this context means keeping the militiamen and the rocketeers under control.

Whether Hamas could eventually have been prodded and/or blackmailed into playing that same Quisling role is a hypothetical question I guess will never be answered. But the Israelis should have recognized from the first day after the election that simply pulling the PA's financial feeding tubes out and allowing it to die was going to be a non starter.

Even now, allowing the West Bank and Gaza to starve is simply not acceptable, either to world opinion or to the Americans -- even though it wouldn't be all that much different from what we did to the Iraqis under sanctions. Unlike Saddam's Iraq, there are too many cameras, too many people watching. (Which is why the Israelis have suddenly discovered the virtues of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, after 30 years of denouncing it as a front for terrorism. Somebody has to feed the Palestinians, and better the U.N. than Hamas.)

Now a similar dynamic is also at work in Southern Lebanon. Israel's 2000 withdrawal wasn't really unilateral -- it only worked as long as Hezbollah was willing to give its silent acquiesce, and that's now been withdrawn. Military reoccupation is out of the question, but so is absorbing scores of rocket strikes a day in Haifa and points north. What's the "exit strategy"?

There isn't one, can't be one, which seems to be why Israel has fully embraced the logic of collective punishment. The Palestinians and the Lebanese are to be battered and harassed until they turn on the fighters in their midst. I don't know why the Israelis think this strategy will work for them when it has failed virtually every other place it has been tried. If the French, the Poles, the Norwegians and the Serbs could take the worst the Nazis could do, and still support their resistance movements, I don't think the Palestinians and the Lebanese are going to throw in the towel just because their airport runways have been put out of commission or their electricity service has been cut to 10 hours a day. Beating them into submission would require far more force than I think the Israelis are willing or able to apply, if only for the reason already stated: too many eyes are watching.

At the same time, though, the Israelis are already suffering the internal and external damage any powerful state incurs when it wages -- and is seen by the world to wage -- war on the weak. As Martin van Creveld puts it:
Whatever the goals for which it is fought, and whatever the methods it employs, no war can be just that does not rest on a rough balance of forces between the belligerents . . . Failing this, the longer the struggle the more doubtful its morality and the greater the problems it causes.
One response, of course, is to try to shift the blame to "outside agitators" -- Iran and Syria, in this case. The usual sources are spinning the usual conspiracy theories, and even journalists who should know better are seeing the Iranian devil lurking behind every fresh disaster. It's not impossible, of course, that the Revolutionary Guards really are giving the Cheneyites a taste of what could be in store if the showdown over Iran's nuclear program is pursued to the bitter end. Somebody certainly seems to have enhanced Hezbollah's ballistic capabilities anyway. But imagining that the entire downward spiral of events (many of them initiated by the Americans or the Israelis) is the product of some secret plot by Damascus or Tehran is either the ultimate neocon job or an outbreak in Washington of the kind of hyperactive paranoia the Middle East is justly famous for.

Even if it were true, what, exactly, would Washington and Jerusalem be prepared to do about it -- that wouldn't make things infinitely worse? If oil prices continue to spiral higher and stock prices lower, how long will it be before an election-conscious U.S. administration steps up the pressure on Jerusalem to cool it?

Is there a way out for the Israelis? None that I can see. Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again. Fatah and Abbas can't be restored to their pre-election positions -- not without looking like complete Israeli stooges. Hamas (or at least its moderate wing) can't be brought back in from the cold, not without a loss of Israeli face and credibility so enormous it would probably cause the Olmert government to fall and bring the Likud back to power. The Israelis can't afford to negotiate for the return of their captured soldiers and they can't afford to forsake them. They can't stay in Gaza and they can't leave Gaza. They can't invade Lebanon and they can't not invade Lebanon.

In the past, no matter how bad things got in territories, Israeli governments always have had the option of backing off and leaving bad enough alone -- relying on the Army or, post-Oslo, the PA to keep a lid on the situation. That was fine as long as the objective was to grow the settlements and quietly tighten Israel's control over the land and all its resources. But now that the goal is essentially a second partition, Israeli politicians are finding out the hard way that they no longer have the luxury of malign neglect. After six years of pretending they don't need a Palestinian negotiating partner, they've suddenly discovered, much to their horror, that they need one desperately -- but have managed to eliminate all the possible candidates.

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