Michael Abramowitz has come out with a hands-wringing “policy discussion” that personifies what’s wrong about Western thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Comments interspersed.
Israeli Airstrikes on Gaza Strip Imperil Obama’s Peace Chances
Hamas Likely to Respond to Attacks That Seem to Stun West
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2008; Page A20
Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza yesterday, in retaliation for a nonstop barrage of rocket attacks from Hamas fighters, raised the prospect of an escalation of violence that could scuttle any hopes the incoming Obama administration harbored of forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
We’ll see Abramowitz’s logic in a moment. But before that, let me note that this is actually a golden opportunity for Obama to peel some Arab “moderates” away from Hamas (and by implication Hizbullah and its patron Iran), but making it clear that Israel has every right to defend itself. In particular, this makes the possibility of a peace that stands a remote chance of actually succeeding possible, since anything that included Hamas was, pace Jimmy Carter, a catastrophe in the making.
“If the casualty reports are accurate, Hamas is going to respond. And this isn’t a two- or three-day deal in which the genie is put back in the bottle,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The Much Too Promised Land.” “This takes the already slim chance of an early, active and successful Obama engagement on Israel-Palestinian peace and lowers it to about zero.”
The idea that a) the casualty reports are accurate, and b) that only if they’re accurate would Hamas respond are both absurd contingencies. You know you’re dealing with someone in the thrall of “liberal cognitive egocentrism” when you see remarks like that. If we pass from PCP1 to PCP2, we have an interesting conflation of the casualty figures with civilian casualty figures. For the Peter Beaumont of the Guardian (who agrees with Abramowitz’s analysis), this attack should be compared with Deir Yassin and Sabra and Shatilla.
That’s doubly wrong: the Israelis killed no one at Sabra and Shatilla; and both those examples are massacres of civilians. What’s especially striking about this operation is the extraordinarily high rate of military targets and accordingly low rate of civilian, possiby under 10%. As the NYT reported about the first strikes:
The vast majority of those killed were Hamas police officers and security men, including two senior commanders, but the dead included several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.
Overnight, the passage in bold was scrubbed clean.
This kind of toilette of course, works nicely to reinforce people like Beaumont, for whom this operation is something to be ranked with Deir Yassin. With the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Something, at last, that Israel’s foes can say looks like an atrocity.
As for taking the “already slim chance of an early, active and successful Obama engagement… to about zero,” that’s probably wrong on two counts. 1) It gives Obama a new angle with which to engage various key players (as noted above), and 2) the chances of an early Obama engagement’s success were already below zero. If anything this situation, properly handled, could actually increase the odds significantly.
Israel has been warning for weeks that it would not tolerate regular rocket attacks launched from Hamas-controlled territory in the Gaza Strip, and it has been laying the groundwork for a new offensive with the collapse this month of a shaky six-month cease-fire. Still, the ferocity and scope of yesterday’s Israeli attacks, which killed at least 225, appeared to stun Western governments and analysts. Arab countries condemned Israel, and Saudi Arabia urged the United States to intervene to stop the attacks.
Note that, unlike Miller, Abramowitz doesn’t even preface his acceptance of Hamas-provided statistics on the dead with an “If they are accurate…” For the sake of his argument, he needs those numbers high so he can speak convincingly of Western governments and analysts being “stunned.” Hopefully they are not as gullible as he is. On the other hand, many MSM outlets, like here Reuters (in an article written by Nidal Mughrabi), cites these figures as if they were confirmed, not as “According to Palestinian Sources….”
But even if there were 250 dead, even if there were 500 dead, what’s so shocking? Has not Hamas, which regularly boasts that it wants to massacre every last Jew on the planet, and to destroy Israel, earned this? In what universe can a government behave like this and not get smashed? And what Arab or Muslim leadership who has even an inkling of what these fanatics have in mind for their own people not secretly rejoice at their pounding?
Of course, with pictures of the casualties beamed all over the Arab world, even as the leaders remain tepid in their denunciations at best, the Arab street, including in Israel and the West, is in an uproar, an uproar people like Beaumont would apparently delight in seeing get much worse.
But in official statements, the Bush administration blamed Hamas, which it classifies as a terrorist group, and cautioned Israel only to avoid hurting innocent civilians.
“We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and hold Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence there,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. “The cease-fire must be restored immediately and fully respected. The United States calls on all concerned to protect innocent lives and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.”
President-elect Barack Obama has voiced sympathy for Israel’s predicament. During his visit to Israel last summer, he held a news conference in Sderot, the southern town that has borne the brunt of the Gaza rocket attacks, saying he does not “think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.”
“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” Obama said at the time. “And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
Yesterday, Obama’s transition team was more cautious, adhering to its policy of not commenting on foreign developments because there should be “one president at a time.” Brooke Anderson, Obama’s national security spokeswoman, said only that Obama “is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza.”
Rice also briefed the president-elect by phone yesterday.
There is little doubt, however, that if the situation escalates, it could hand yet another crisis to Obama, who will already be inheriting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an unstable situation in Pakistan. If the past is any guidance, the United States will probably come under great pressure to restrain Israel if the tit-for-tat violence grows.
One senior Bush administration official said he thinks the Israelis acted in Gaza “because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in.” Although Bush has largely been supportive of almost any Israeli action taken in the name of self-defense, the official pointed out: “They can’t predict how the next administration will handle it. And this is not the way they want to start with the new administration.”
This official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the Israelis are being vague about how long the offensive will last but have hinted it could continue well into the week. “I think the Israeli goal now is to damage Hamas enough so that Hamas will accept a real truce,” this official said. “I think it’s a plausible goal. They are not trying to overthrow Hamas. They are not trying to take over the Gaza Strip.”
Probably worth noting here that there is a difference between toppling Hamas and taking over the Gaza Strip. There are surely many clans and parties that hate Hamas in Gaza, and striking a sharp blow at them — in particular at their police force — can bring out that opposition. Indeed, even behind the seeming unity of voices supporting Hamas among residents of Gaza — I’m thinking of a BBC report I heard about a week ago — one can hear the unhappiness, the war-weariness of the population.
But other U.S. analysts were skeptical the Israeli offensive would succeed in intimidating Hamas. “By now Israel should have realized that [this kind of attack] rarely has any decisive effect,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “At best you get another faltering cease-fire, and then the whole thing begins again. Both sides have been escalating to nowhere.”
This is an interesting remark, particularly since “this kind of attack” has yet to happen in Gaza. Cordesman views this in terms of an “escalation to nowhere.” But that only holds as long as Israel stays within a rather narrow range of responses, which is precisely what has not happened. Indeed, observers have noted that there are more casualties in a day since 1948. It would seem appropriate for strategic thinkers to hold off on their judgments. It might be more appropriate for a strategic analyst at this point to discuss what Israel’s trying to do, put it in past context, and then say, “We’ll see what happens.” Instead, he’s already predicting failure.
Cordesman agreed with Miller that the prospects of a larger peace deal have probably been set back. Bush-brokered peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis have made some progress, but the two sides remain apart on key issues, and it is unclear what approach Obama will take to try to bridge the divide. Bush has focused on helping build up the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, but it is unclear how any peace deal would address the situation in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas.
More neutral and neutered thinking on the peace process, as if there were ever any serious hope of a breakthrough either under Bush, or at the beginning of an Obama administration… Cordesman articulates the kind of thinking that gave us Oslo and still thinks, despite the catastrophes wrought by that experiment, that it’s the way to go. From that perspective, any hostilities are bad, and since stopping the Israelis from hitting Hamas is easier than stopping Hamas from hitting Israel, obviously when Israel hits back, that creates the real problems.
His final throw-away line about how to include Hamas in a peace deal reveals just how superficial his thinking. There is no way to include Hamas, since it views Israel as an existential threat to Islam, something I doubt Cordesman’s training in strategic analysis included. The implication of his comment is, “if only Israel didn’t hit back, then maybe we could include Hamas.” Instead, might one not put some LCE eggs in an alternative basket? — as the Palestinians on the West Bank experience economic growth, the Palestinians in Gaza begin to realize what a catastrophe their political choices have been. Of course to imagine that means granting the Palestinian people the ability to learn from past mistakes rather than follow blindly the hatreds of their religious insecurities and their need for tribal vengeance.
“Now I think what the Obama administration faces is at least two years or more before they can really think of having any serious movement” on the peace process, Cordesman said. “Every time this kind of violence breaks out, it becomes harder to move forward. It just creates more of a climate of hostility and anger.”
The climate of hostility and anger derives far more from the constant drum of genocidal hatred that the Palestinians — Hamas and Fatah — beat regularly in their media. That’s the source of the insane bombing of Israeli civilians by Hamas, even as it costs their own people any chance at a decent life. What if Cordesman had said “As long as Hamas continues to beat the drum of war, randomly bomb Israeli civilians, and sacrifice the well-being of their own people in the inacceptable effort to destroy a sovereign state, no peace plan will work”?
But then, were he to say that, it wouldn’t work for Abramowitz’s thesis, and he’d probably not get quoted. After all, there’s not a dissident voice in this article.
The real problem with this kind of “strategic” thinking, however, lies in its role in encouraging Hamas’ belligerence. The idea that Israel should not respond violently to Hamas violence is itself an invitation to further Hamas violence. In the minds of people like Abramowitz, Cordesman and Miller, Israel’s retaliation is excessive in response to what remains a relatively low-key attack on Israel. And the kind of moral indignation that wringing hands over casualties encourages, only supply Hamas with more fuel for their suicidal journey. Perhaps that’s why Hamas is not allowing wounded to be treated in Egypt — they need the dead.
But two elements need consideration here. First, the toll on a civilian population from the kind of assault Hamas has rained down on Sderot for years — since the evacuation of Gaza — is terrible, and no population should have to endure that. Second, non-response means escalation. Hamas has already acquired the technology and shown the desire to hit farther targets. Not responding is not a recipe for peace but for war. Of course, in order to understand that, it our Western analysts would have to understand the real source of war in this region… and that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen soon.
And this passes for analytic journalism.