Orlando's picture

    What is Israel Doing?

    I used to watch The West Wing. In one of the very first episodes, the fictional president gets a briefing from the fictional Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in which the term “proportional response” is explained. The president is angry because terrorists shot down a military transport plane carrying someone with whom he had a personal relationship and he is ready to unleash the power of the United States military in retribution. The Chairman patiently explains that when they shoot down one of our planes, we take out a target that would be considered equitable. We don’t, for example, destroy an entire city. We might instead choose to bomb an armory wherein a few guards might die.

    The fictional president is at first a little bit mortified at the idea that we could quantify and assign value to destruction of lives and property. But then he comes around and orders an attack that fits into the “proportional response” paradigm.

    I sort of wish that every person currently serving or working in the Israeli government would have to sit through a seminar on proportional response. I get that Hamas is a terrorist organization. I get that they’re shooting rockets into Israel and that sometimes those rockets find a human target. I understand that the people living in those areas feel terrorized. I realize that the actions of Hamas are unconscionable.

    But there are people living in Gaza too. There are over 300 less people living there today than last week.

    I wish somebody would explain to me how Israel is solving the problem by dropping hundreds of bombs in response to Hamas. All they are doing is unleashing their military power (paid for by us) to get retribution. It’s not deterrence. It only continues the cycle of terrorism by providing a whole new generation of children who remember what it was like when the bombs killed their mother or father or sister. These kids grow up convinced that they need to kill Israelis to get justice.

    I am certain that the leaders of Israel can look at the situation and understand that the government’s actions over the past 50 years have made them less safe, not more. I also know that the leaders of Hamas are acting to provoke exactly this kind of response from Israel because it serves their cause to perpetuate hatred and revenge.

    I don’t remember the exact timing, but I remember hearing a report not too long after Bush took office that he was going to adopt a “hands-off” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I remember thinking that it was a very bad idea. Not too much later, the peace process completely fell apart.

    I wonder if both sides fear that the new Obama administration will work to engage them again in forging peace. It certainly appears that neither the Israeli government nor Hamas is all that interested and that they are acting now to purposefully make peace next to impossible. I can’t think of anything else to explain the madness.

    In the meantime, hundreds of people are dead, thousands are injured with limited access to medical care, and the bombing continues. What a great way to start a new calendar year.



    I am the perpetual devil's advocate when it comes to Israel. I'm always defending it with critics and criticizing it with defenders. Because I'm often deeply conflicted about Israeli policy, I usually see both sides and try to share the other side with others who don't. In this case, the NYT has done a much better job than I can do in this article, which reports that the Israelis believe that their enemies perceive them to be militarily weak (or weakened, anyway), and that a show of force is needed to press Hamas to negotiate a new truce and stop the rockets. This rationale jives with my past discussions with Israelis, who often express the view that Arabs only respond to force.

    This perspective was born of a tough history in which Israel has only been able to bring enemies like Egypt to the negotiating table after dealing them humiliating military defeats. Some, like Charles Krauthammer, have argued that Israel ended the second intifada by disproporionate use of force as well. (And yes, I know he's not the most objective source, but many Israelis share his view.)

    The fact is that Israelis have not found any way, peaceful or violent, to end the conflict, and the violence has if anything brought them only temporary reprieves. You can also make a strong case that the killing perpetuates the cycle of violence and that the means do not justify the ends. But while retribution surely colors the recent attacks, I think it's a bit unfair to suggest that the Israelis are acting solely for retribution and that their talk of deterrence is disingenuous. I also sympathize with Israelis who feel that they are held to a double standard. There is no more egregious example of disproportionate force in recent history than America's response to 9/11.

    That said, I don't mean to stop you or anyone else from criticizing Israeli policies. I'm just sharing what I understand of a common Israeli perspective.

    Yes, I agree that our response to 9/11 was way over the top. But our government isn't criticizing Israel. The situation is so complicated that it's impossible to understand, probably from an insider's perspective as much as an outsider's. But clearly what they're doing doesn't work.

    Maybe in the short term, Hamas or Hezzbollah or whichever terrorist organization sees that they can't win. But they don't care. They can hide and wait for a few months. There is a never-ending supply of terrorists. Israel guarantees that by their agressive actions. And the United States is, at best, complicit.

    Since writing this, I saw a headline at TPM that the Israeli defense minister says the purpose of the attack is to destroy Hamas. I can't believe they think that's possible. I just can't. It's too ridiculous. They can destroy every last remaining member of Hamas and all of their rocket launchers. Tomorrow, there will be more to take their place. And Iran or Syria or somebody else will be happy to provide more rocket grenades.

    There has to be another way. A way that doesn't involve massive destruction and loss of life.

    What is Israel doing? First, here's what it's not doing: retribution or retaliation. The six-month truce that just ended -- proposed and enforced by Hamas -- had effectively halted the deadly rocket attacks that are now being cited as a casus belli. Since "Operation Tempered Lead" began, rockets have killed three Israelis. But get the order of cause-and-effect straight.

    Little attempt was made to renew that truce, or even to carry out Israel's part of the original deal, which included easing its blockade of food, fuel and medicine into Gaza (a blockade that, incidentally, constitutes collective punishment, a violation of the fourth Geneva Convention). Stage two of the truce was supposed to be a prisoner swap to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, but Israel balked at that as well.

    No, it was much more important that Hamas not be allowed to govern. It's not by accident that airstrikes have hit police stations, schools and government offices as well as military targets. The Israelis know they can't wipe out Hamas, which draws on popular support. But they can render Gaza ungovernable.

    Why now? Tactical reasons:

    1. Kadima wants to beat the even more hawkish Likud in the February elections. Acting tough, by killing Palestinians, is always a sure vote-getter.

    2. Israel worried that Obama might not give the green light to "all-out war" once he's in office. This way, it's a fait accompli.


    1. U.S. pressure for a peace deal is coming. Israel doesn't want to negotiate with a Hamas-Fatah coalition government, sure to be far more demanding and hard-nosed than President Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies. (That's another reason no Shalit swap occurred: Marwan Bargouthi is among the 1300 prisoners Hamas wants freed -- and he's the one Fatah leader Hamas would be willing to serve under. Can't have that.)

    2. Israel's leaders don't want Gaza to be part of any future Palestinian state. A partial reason for the blockade was to force Egypt to take on responsibilty for feeding and policing the strip. The last thing Egypt wants, but Israel has convinced itself Gaza should somehow become somebody else's problem.

    3. The Gaza shock-and-awe operation is a demonstration project for Palestinians in the West Bank: "This could be happening to you." So don't make waves and go along with whatever settlement we eventually offer Abbas; the alternative is Gazafication.

    But of all these rationales, I think winning the February elections is by far the most important.

    Eloquently put, acanuck. I accept the influence of all these factors, particularly the upcoming election, and I agree that Israel wants Hama to fail as a government. But in all your real politique, you leave out one obvious answer to the "why now" question. Hamas declared the truce over on Dec. 18th and subsequently launched a barrage of missiles into Israel. That's more than your average political pretext.

    Second, while it's correct to blame Israel for the failure to renew the truce, it's incorrect to blame only Israel. Neither side made an effort to renew it, and neither side abided by the conditions. Hamas slowed the rocket attacks, but they did not "effectively end" them, unless one counts ten attacks per month count as an effective end. Israel did ease the blockade (which I oppose) at times and then closed it back up after rocket attacks. As for Corp. Shalit, the terms that I heard Hamas offer were for something like 10% of all Israel's Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorists. And then there's the weapons smuggling.

    It was a begrudging truce on both sides, created by necessity, not interest. Small wonder that it hasn't lasted.

    You're right, Hamas wanted the release of 10% of Palestinian prisoners. In exchange, it offered to free 100% of its Israeli prisoner. I imagine many of those swapped would necessarily be "convicted terrorists" under Israeli law. Bargouthi, for example, was found guilty of five murders even though he offered no defence, refusing to recognize the Israeli court's jurisdiction. The crime of some others was to be democratically elected as Hamas legislators.

    Weapons smuggling? Israel has a massive nuclear stockpile, Predator drones, F-16s and top-of-the-line U.S. technology. And a military that likes to display its prowess. Isn't it only prudent of Hamas to smuggle in as many weapons and as much ammo as the tunnels can bear?

    As you've gathered, Genghis, I'm far less sympathetic to the Israeli case for this war than you are. I just don't buy that the current assault or the blockade that preceded it are responses to Palestinian provocations; they are aspects of long-term policy. Israel and the U.S. have been trying to overturn Hamas's election victory since it occurred, instead of realizing that it was the inevitable culmination of a half-century of stifling, soul-destroying oppression.

    In 1949, David Ben-Gurion rejected a proposal to seize the West Bank, realizing the existential danger to Israel of either ruling over or dispossessing hundreds of thousands of Arabs. What was obvious to him then should still be obvious today.

    It's fine and good to be critical of Israel's case for war, but you shouldn't spare Hamas your criticism. Israel actually has real terrorists in its jails, people who deliberately murdered civilians. And unlike Hamas, which is now shooting suspected collaborators without trial, they have an independent and respected judicial system. (Regarding Bargouthi, courts don't generally refuse to convict just because the defendant refuses to testify. Personally, I think that he should be released but for political, not legal reasons.) But more to the point, I can't imagine any nation in the world releasing large numbers of violent prisoners for a single soldier who has been kidnapped for ransom. Thus, Israel's refusal of Hamas' trade offer was not a sign of bad faith, as you argued before. The ceasefire did not bind them to accepting whatever deal Hamas offered.

    Look, I think Israel made a mistake on undermining Hamas rather than trying to work with them. Hamas won democratically, they have the mandate to speak for the Palestinians, not Fatah, and Israel should have at least attempted to engage them.

    But I could be wrong, and so could you. The Israeli's don't think that its possible to work with Hamas for a number of reasons, and they fear that state power will give Hamas the means to launch an all-out attack on Israel. Though such an attack would not pose a mortal threat to the state, it would result in far more death on both sides than what we're seeing today. The Israelis have learned from hard experience that aggression can be a better deterrence than reaction. If I were in the Israeli government and charged with keeping my own citizens safe, I can't be confident that I would have done otherwise.

    I'm not asking you to offer Israel your blessing or cease your criticism but to try to see their side. There are plenty of crazies in Israel, but the Kadima and Labor leaders are not crazy. They are people wrestling with difficult, life-and-death choices for which there seems to be know good answer, and I daresay that they're a good deal more cautious than our own dear departing leader. It's a lucky thing for the world that Canadian terrorists aren't launching rockets into Vermont. (Don't get any ideas.)

    If I don't go out of my way to see the Israeli side of the argument or level criticism at Hamas, it's because it's so unnecessary. The U.S. State Department, the Democratic Party (as represented by Nancy Pelosi) and the mainstream media have that ground pretty well covered. My dissent is just a drop in the ocean.

    I don't argue that Hamas is an innocent victim in all this. Its decade-long use of suicide bombers demonstrates the group's ruthless valuation of human life. But it has been struggling to evolve, getting out of the terrorism business after its two top leaders were assassinated in quick succession in 2004. Israel reciprocated, even going so far as to publicly state that it had not intended to kill a Hamas leader who happened to be in the same car as a targeted member of Islamic Jihad. Unfortunately, Hamas's tentative rapprochement with its mortal enemy couldn't survive its unexpected election win in 2006.

    I agree with you that a tremendous opportunity was lost in 2006. The election result threw all sides -- Hamas, Fatah, Israel and the U.S. -- off their game. Even though they had a legislative majority, Hamas tried to form a unity government, and agreed to let Abbas negotiate with Israel. If Fatah had risen to the occasion, the group could have been co-opted into the peace process -- and, unlike Fatah, it would have had the street cred to enforce any viable peace deal. Instead, Fatah boycotted the government and the West fell back on a punitive response: freezing PA finances, isolating its leaders, and effectively telling Palestinians that their democratic votes only counted when cast the way the occupying power approved. The election should have been a wake-up call, but the world hit the snooze button. A definite lost chance. Within half a year, Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, and Gaza had the crap bombed out of it.

    (In passing, you say you can't imagine any nation exchanging large numbers of prisoners for a single captive, but there are lots of precedents. Most notably, in 1983, Israel swapped 4,600 Arabs for six Israeli soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon. In 1985, about 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for three Israelis. Another swap in 2004 saw more than 400 Arab prisoners freed.)

    As for Canadian terrorism, that's so 1970. Been there, done that, seen the movie.

    Well, the U.S. had GW/Condi running the diplomatic circus. What was one to expect? Fatah and Hamas were playing their power games, as you note. And Kadima can't get its act together. People liked the idea of Kadima, and they liked Sharon (the less mean version), but as a party, Kadima been divided, scandal-prone, and short on self-confidence. They deserve to lose, but I shudder at what Bibi will bring to the scene.

    Swaps: I should have said any other nation. My sense was that the number Hamas asked for was a lot higher, but I couldn't find any specificity. A couple of other differences: 1) the other swaps happened at moments of relative stability, not at the height of tension. 2) Shalit was not captured during combat in enemy territory, he was kidnapped from Israeli territory. I actually can't say why that seems so much worse to me, but it does. Less like an exchange and more like a ransom.

    Anyway, thanks for taking up the discussion. It's been a good one.

    It's not guaranteed that Likud will form the next government, even if they take the most seats. Kadima can find coalition allies on both the left and the right, and Labor's support is almost a given.

    I'd like to see Tzipi get her shot at governing, even though she's moved to the hawkish side of Olmert. Her policies are crap, but she's young enough and I suspect smart enough to learn from errors and try new approaches.

    Her two rivals are dinosaurs. Ehud Barak is totally unprincipled but in my opinion not very bright. He's accelerated the death spiral of the once-honorable Labor Party, but fortunately the voters can see that. Bibi is the sharpest of the lot and also totally unprincipled; voters can see that too, but seem OK with it.

    Virtually all the Palestinian prisoners were snatched from Palestinian territory; the only difference from Shalit is that they weren't taken specifically as bargaining chips. If you wear the uniform in a war zone, you're fair game.

    I enjoyed the discussion. We should revisit the topic once all the dust has settled. And apologies to Orlando for having hogged her blog.


    No apologies necessary. Sometimes you learn more when you shut your mouth and let people who know what they're talking about do the talking. In this case, that definitely applies to me.

    Yes, let's revisit. I hope the dust settles soon for everyone's sake.

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