Monday, November 19, 2012

Playing With Fire: A Dispatch From The Front -- Of The Television

The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

The Gaza war, if that's the word for it, has reduced Israelis living more than 40 kilometers from the Gaza border to spectators of a kind of reality TV show: familiar contestants but no clear plot; the definition-of-victory provided by IDF generals, or pundits who were IDF generals, speaking earnestly about "degrading" the enemy's "capabilities" and "motivation"; the reality provided by videos of corpses swaddled for burial (ours), or carried by chanting crowds (theirs), and periodic interruptions announcing "code red," that is, "run for cover," in Beer Sheva or Ashkelon. More and more, this seems a competition for blood--not too much blood for CNN, God forbid--but just enough to tip some vague, fugitive strategic balance.

Each side, after all, has no espoused goal other than to retaliate against the other side yet again, only this time more shockingly, hence, instructively. Hamas's Haniya says that killing al-Jabari would "open the gates of hell" for Israel. Shas's Eli Yishai says that Gaza should be bombed back to the Middle Ages (presumably, an era Shas knows well). Israeli government leaders, meanwhile, tell us they aim to "reestablish deterrence" and go after "terrorist infrastructure." The former goal never quite passes the test of common sense, a point we'll return to. But the latter goal translates, plausibly, and with almost universal approval, into the Israeli air force pulverizing Hamas commanders and missile batteries--especially the longer range Grad and M75 types, capable of reaching heavily populated cities--as well as the tunnels through which weapons parts are spirited (and from which Hamas has been more generally profiting).

The key here, as it always is at first with air power: find "quality targets" while minimizing civilian casualties. And in the opening hours of the operation IAF commanders operated as if Judge Goldstone were looking over their shoulders, releasing videos of pinpoint strikes against missile installations and cruising Jeeps, with no damage caused to nearby homes or mosques. Yesterday, however, there were the predictable "errors," along with the usual recriminations about Hamas using Gazans as "human shields," and, horribly, the corpses of small children being dragged from rubble.

To be clear, Hamas is using human shields. Even the most ardent peace advocate does not doubt that--whatever the grievances of the Naqba and occupation--Hamas has been engaging in terrorism of the most brazen sort, which must be stopped. This brazenness is earning Israel something unusual: the near universal, if provisional, sympathy of Western nations. There can be no excuse, none, for firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli cities, aiming to kill Israelis at random, betraying a totalitarian political imagination in which the people here become mere categories ("Zionists," "occupiers"), and categories have become candidates for elimination.

In this context, the only unambiguously positive feeling about this war comes from Israel's "Iron Dome" technology, which seems to be knocking missiles out of the air almost as routinely as Larry Bird hitting free throws. (A sad irony: one of the three people killed in Kiryat Malachi reportedly did not take shelter because he wanted to record an Iron Dome hit with his smart phone--only the battery did not deploy this time.)

But back to "reestablishing deterrence," which seems an unintelligible scatter of facts and claims,  amounting, increasingly, to skepticism if not despair. Aerial bombardment, cruelly consoling as this was for Israelis at the start, has limits that quickly became all too obvious. Hamas thrives on such attacks: the more Palestinians rage, not only in Gaza, but across the West Bank and the Galilee, the more they turn to the custodians of apocalyptic steadfastness. (The person after whom the M75 missile is named, Ibrahim Al-Makadma, was a Hamas strategist, killed in 2003, who famously prophesied that every time Hamas attacked, Israel would retaliate against the Palestine Authority, and civilians in general, which would ultimately bring Hamas to power.)

So the question on every mind, and every headline, is whether Israel should forget deterrence and invade Gaza with ground forces--as Prime Minister Netanyahu is threatening, and for which the IDF is manifestly preparing. The chances for it, Israeli leaders say, are 50-50. But while 90 percent of Israelis support the operation, 70 percent oppose invasion, and not just because they fear the losses. In a way, they are intuitively more afraid of the losses they will inflict--and for good reason.

Sure, Israel has the moral authority to "defend its citizens," as President Obama automatically (and quite properly) put it. The thing is, no Israeli offensive on the ground can reimpose occupation without using what even Americans will see as disproportionate force. The thing Goldstone could never quite grasp was that no Israeli officer will fail to use tank shells against a sniper in an apartment window if this means minimizing the risk to his troops--and damn the children in the adjacent apartment.

This was the real lesson of Cast Lead in 2009, and the second Lebanon war in 2006, too. It has sunk in. The most disquieting feeling Israelis have comes from listening to generals and Likud cheerleaders repeating threats that have come to seem not wrong, exactly, but unimaginative, even tedious. If the game is chess, can you respond like checkers? What happens after you move?

So imagine an invasion, which cannot but evolve into a bloodbath like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Mubarak is gone. Morsi will not tolerate the slaughter of civilians projected all over YouTube and from there to Al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, the Jordanian throne could fall. Assad could try to save his skin by entering the war; Syria might prod Hezbollah to launch missiles of its own. An Intifadah could then take hold in the West Bank. Israeli Arab citizens would begin mass demonstrations. What chance will there be for turning back from a fight to the finish? What general has a PowerPoint slide with an answer?

Deep down, you see, Israelis know that their leaders are playing with fire. It is hard to believe that Obama has not been reinforcing the point, as Morsi (desperate for financial help from the US and the IMF) has been pressuring Hamas in Cairo. Yes, there are large numbers of people on both sides who would welcome bringing things to a head: a Bosnian-style chaos that would, presumably, replay the war of 1948 and "settle things once and for all."

But most Israelis, I think, are slowly coming to see that leaders stepping back from the brink, as after 1973, will itself be what ushers in a new strategic balance. People are saying things on television that would have been "outside the consensus" only last week. For it is also clear what the terms of a cease-fire will look like: formal guarantees by Egypt, the US, and possibly Turkey, the opening of the Rafa border crossing to Egypt, in effect, the recognition of Hamas as a political actor, if not a government--perhaps international monitors on the ground--something that looks like Kissinger's "disengagement of forces" agreement with Syria in 1974. In the wake of such a cease-fire, President Abbas would make one last push at the UN to gain recognition for a process leading to a Palestinian state, and who other than Israel and the US would oppose him?

And what beyond this? A former American diplomat reminded me at lunch on Saturday that there is still an American law on the books requiring the US government to defund any UN agency the PLO is admitted to. But let's dream we can step back from the brink one more step and, with Hamas and Israel in a formal cease-fire, the US government finally gives Abbas a victory, too. Let's dream, that is, that a missile does not finally fall on an Israeli kindergarten, or that a bomb does not kill Haniya. That, suddenly, we have nowhere to go but down into the fog of war.   


Dan Kelso said...

Right now Bernard is in total panic.
Hamas is being routed by Israel.
Jihadists leaders are being killed by Israel.
We all see how Hamas leaders are hiding behind babies for Pallywood purposes.
Bernard knows when Hamas loses this war, this will be devastating for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Moslem Brotherhood, Hizbollah and the Taliban.
The victory by Israel could lead to the return of Mubarak's sons back in power in Egypt. You might see the Sha's son taking power in Iran.
Bernard is desperate to make this a victory for the Jihadists that why he wants a total surrender by Israel.

Dan Kelso said...

Here's the actual transcript from the first meeting between Israeli Leftists and Hamas. Unfortunately, it didn't go too well but we will keep trying!

Amos Oz: "Hi everyone and welcome to the very First Hamas-Israel Conference for Peace and Understanding. My name is Amos Oz and it's a pleasure to be here today to meet all of you face to face. Some of you may know me. I'm a well known writer who has made a fortune writing about how Israel is really the crux of the problem in the Middle East. My books sell especially really well in countries where there were lots of Nazis. They tell me my writings help alleviate their conscience. So without further ado, let's go around the table and introduce ourselves. Why don't we start with you, sir?"

Ismail: "You Jew?"

Oz: "Well, yes, but only technically. Actually, I consider myself somewhere between a Nihilist and and atheist. My favorite newspaper is Haaretz and I love reading Thomas Friedman, Amira Hass and Gideon Levy! My parents were personal friends of Abu Allah and staunch socialists. My Kibbutz..."

Ismail: "Shut the f#$k up. I've heard enough".

Oz: "I beg your pardon, please Ismail, there really is no reason for any belligerent tone. I like you and I want to be your friend. I know deep in your heart you don't really mean..."

Ismail: (Gets up and storms out of the room shouting orders to his armed bodyguards) "Itbach el-Yehud!" (Slaughter the Jew)

Oz: "But, but, I'm your Habibi... hey that hurts, please don't touch me like that, I have friends in... ahhhhh"

Potter said...

The above is exhibit A.

I did not buy your NYRB 1979 article but it is summarized as:

The question of the availability of alternatives to terrorism is related to the problem of discrimination in the selection of victims. Where victims are clearly responsible for a regime's denial of opportunity, terrorism is more justifiable than where they are

Hamas is not western or democratic so I don't think about them in those terms. Maybe they will learn or evolve. But we are not exactly good examples either.

They have said that they consider all Israeli's their enemy, guilty of supporting their oppression. And so they justify, at least to themselves not the targeting ( because they are not aiming effectively and they know it) but the terrorizing of Israel's citizens. Truth is Israeli's are not rallying or demanding a peace process. This has been war all along. For Hamas, it's by their means. They are not even recognized formally as a legitimate party to reckon with-- although maybe now they will gain that status.

But also on the other side-when you have those who want to bomb ALL Palestinians in Gaza back to the stone age ( or the middle ages-- whatever) and as YOU say yourself, ultimately to kick the rest out to Jordan- which side is the more civilized? Which side is more moral?

Both sides have a right to defend their citizens and both are using their own as human shields it seems to me. And if you don't agree with that- this this the way Israel should "defend it's citizens"?

I am very interested in the moral questions, maybe above all, but am losing my ability to make the distinctions you make.

David Stolow said...

Mr. Kelso just doesn't get it, Mr. Avishai does. The definition of insanity is the repetition of the same actions, over an over again, with the same results but the actor nevertheless keeps repeating the actions in the hope that the result will change. Hamas and the Israel right wing nut government are all simply insane to think that this will end any differently or that the next cease fire will be nothing but a prelude to the next war. Someone needs to be the grown up and break the cycle. The tragedy for civilians on both sides is that none of their leaders appear capable of such an act of courage.

Anonymous said...

Well well, look at that. Apparently, this blog is capable of bringing in top rate comedy acts like Dan Kelso. This guy must have taken off time on his busy tour of a geriatric ward to post here. Give him a hand folks.

In all seriousness, I'm not sure why these events aren't being fit into the recent "what the Israeli right wants post". If the conditions that lead up to this point fall in line with particular explanations, then why shouldn't those events themselves? There almost seems to be an inevitability to these firework shows and the Israeli leadership calculating how they can disproportionately respond while still looking good on their twitter feed.

Potter said...

Nor is it going to be the same 'ol same 'ol though it never was. Nor the "status quo". Over here (USA) my sense is that the Right side is the one in total panic while many others are simply tuning out. Wake me when there's a resolution. For me, after voting for him, this is my first disappointment in the hoped for new Obama, the one that has no re-election to worry about.

Ethan Bronner has had a couple of good reports in the NYTimes. This last one warns from the West Bank that Abbas is fast becoming irrelevant and with him too the opportunity that that moderation presented goes. Hamas gains. Israel's fortress will need higher walls, better iron domes ( in the works).

Israel made this situation, or made it worse by relying on military might and propaganda.

Is this the way Israel wants to protect itself, it's future?

Hamas Strenghtens

Daniel Levy too:

Living By the Sword

Y. Ben-David said...

Israel's actions are not "insantiy" as you define it. The problem is that the Arab world REFUSES to make peace with Israel on any terms Israel could live with. Thus, Israel is forced to resort to arms from time to time to ensure security. I must point out that the all the and violence the Arabs (both that of the Palestinians and those of the surrounding Arab states) has ended up boomeranging back against them making them fall farther and farther behind Israel socially, poltically and economically. Each round of violence by the Arabs in the last 100 years was accompanied by the declaration "that last attack against Israel failed for X reason, but this time the situation has changed and this time we will get it right and we will finally bring Israel down" and thus leading their peopel to yet another disaster for themselves, while Israel continues growing and prospering in spite of the difficulties. This unfortunate cycle will end when the Arab side finally realizes the futility of what they are doing and the finally conclude it is time to develop their poverty-stricken societies instead of wasting resources on making themselves "feel good" for a few mintues when they strike out at Israel before sinking back into their normal, frustrated state.
It is not 'lack of courage' to make peace on Israel's side. Rabin, Peres, Barak and Olmert all offered the Palestinians an independent state and massive amounts of financial aid, with almost all their territorial demands met, including division of Jerusalem and handing over the Jewish holy places like the Western Wall, to Palestinian control in the guise of "international supervision". They refused to take it. This is the bottom line.

Anonymous said...

Y. Ben David you are not only a troll of the worst kind but also apparently quite a racist.You can not speak of "Arabs“ as a single group, just like you would never accept the term "Jew" being used in such a manner. Your simplified world view combined with your oblivous sense of entitlement (here to mitiltary superiority) indicates the level of pathology that borders on childishness. It's too bad that there is no one to take away the weapons from you kiddies on both sides of the wall.

john james said...

Here is a clip from the NYT article linked to by Potter:
'Israel is also threatening Mr. Abbas, even hinting that it may give up on him, as he prepares to go to the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 29 to try to upgrade the Palestinian status to that of a nonmember state. The Israelis consider this step an act of aggression, and even some Palestinians say it is somewhat beside the point at this stage.'
Followed by this gem of a quote:
'“His (Abbas') people are being killed in Gaza, and he is sitting on his comfortable chair in Ramallah,” lamented Firas Katash, 20, a student who took part in the Ramallah demonstration. '

What Firas seems to be missing is that this is likely what Hamas wants - not justice, nor even any kind of victory over Israel, but merely to marginalize Abbas right before he goes to New York and wins a substantial political victory for the Palestinian Authority AND the Palestinian people. So Hamas is killing Israelis and Palestinians both (and a lot more Palestinians than Israelis) just so they can score a point in their puerile struggle with Abbas? That's incredible! Well no, actually it's pretty credible, why should anyone expect sanity or decency from a midevil group like Hamas? What's astounding to me is that fools in Ramallah seem to be buying it - getting all excited about barbarian behavior from Hamas when all Abbas was offering was a measly step towards statehood. What a chump - who would want statehood, when you can have pointless bloodshed, death, loss, and suffering instead?

The question then, as some have pointed out, is did Netanyahu have any role in starting these hostilities? In other words, did he figure out some way to goad Hamas into starting their missle barrage against Israel, as a way of undermining Abbas and his push towards statehood? This seems unlikely, but on the other hand... it definitely DOESN't seem like the sort of thing that Netanyahu would be above. Barbarians on one side, barbarians on the other...