"What Happens Then?"

James Fallows asks a good question about the Gaza war:

The one relevant thing I do know concerns a repeated source of tragedy in foreign-policy decision making. That is the reluctance to ask, before irrevocable decisions, “And what happens then?” For instance: so we depose Saddam Hussein. What happens then? This question is all the harder to ask when the step in question feels so good. Crushing Saddam. Or, punishing Hamas.

I predicted that Israel would be back in Gaza with ground troops before the withdrawal. And I supported the withdrawal anyway, because while separation from the Palestinians is a necessary condition to achieving peace and security, I was under no illusions that it was sufficient. There were three arguments for having settlements in Gaza: that they were a bargaining chip to be negotiated away for peace; that they were necessary to justify an Israeli military presence that was independently necessary for security reasons; and that they were a concrete manifestation of Israel’s claim to the entire Land of Israel, a claim Israel should press because (so the argument goes) the claim is just and right. I found none of these reasons persuasive before the withdrawal, and I find none of them persuasive now. The withdrawal was, in retrospect, still the right policy.

But I knew Israeli troops would be back, and I knew they would fail to achieve anything concrete and lasting by returning. I regard my own prescience in this regard with something more like fatigue than pride.

This war has reminded others of the 2006 Lebanon War. It reminds me more of Operation Grapes of Wrath, the 1996 Israeli offensive in Lebanon launched by Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Both wars were launched without much consideration for “what happens then” because both were launched for political reasons: in both cases, a left-leaning government felt it would lose all credibility if it did not respond forcefully to provocation. Indeed, in both cases, that left-wing government feared that such a loss of credibility would bring Binyamin Netanyahu to power in the next election and, in both cases, the government won support from across the spectrum in the United States precisely because the leadership of America’s Democratic Party shared those fears, and wished to prevent their becoming a reality. (And that should answer the questions of those who wonder why, if Democratic voters tend to oppose Israel’s retaliatory invasion of Gaza, the Democratic leadership has been pretty lock-step in support.)

So what does happen then? If I had to predict, I’d say the invasion will be a mixed success in tactical terms, with Israel successfully liquidating a number of Hamas leaders and much physical infrastructure. Whether the Qassams stop falling entirely or not, Hamas will be operationally weakened for some time. I would not bet on Hamas losing control of the territory – and Israel had better hope Hamas does not lose control, lest she find Somalia on her doorstep. Nor would I bet on Kadima’s political gambit working; it didn’t work for Labor in 1996, after all. As for the more extravagant rationales being floated – this will strengthen Fatah in the West Bank? Or will strike a blow against Iranian prestige? Or is actually a dry run for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities – the less said the better. The tangible achievements from this war, and the great loss of life among the Palestinians may, at best, be a short respite from Qassam fire.

Was there an alternative course of action? I suppose there must have been, but I don’t see a plausible one. The Israeli government could not simply ignore the continued rocket attacks. Nor would a tit-for-tat response accomplish anything – indeed, it would make the government look even weaker than ignoring the problem entirely. While on its own terms, the war seems rather pointless, it fits into the larger Israeli strategy of the past fifteen years. It’s just that the strategy in question is neither inspiring nor particularly complicated.

Since 1993, Israel has been staging a fighting retreat from the bulk of the territories won in 1967. Rabin understood that the effort he led to crush the first Intifadeh had failed, strategically; that there was no plausible military path to retaining the territories; and that the territories had become a strategic liability for Israel. He didn’t trust Arafat for an instant, but he still embraced Oslo, as the fig-leaf for a retreat to more defensible lines. The retreat stalled out with Rabin’s assassination and Netanyahu’s election, but Netanyahu could not actually escape the logic that Rabin followed. Indeed, he tried to force a conclusive division of the territories by daring Arafat to declare a state unilaterally (something Arafat and his successors have pointedly declined to do), and so he grudgingly signed the Wye accords. With Barak in office came a new effort to force a conclusive division of the territories, this time by diplomatic means. After the failure at Taba came the Second Intifadeh, to which Sharon responded with Operation Defensive Shield, which was his cover for a decisive retreat from Gaza. The current violence is intended to provide cover for the reelection of a center-left coalition that will stage a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank.

That’s what the war is about, strategically: providing Israel’s government with domestic and international cover for the next phase of unilateral retreat from its post-1967 positions to more defensible ones.

Not terribly inspiring, nor terribly complicated, is it?

Are there alternatives to this depressing spectacle? Well, Israel can’t defeat Hamas militarily. Israel could obliterate the Palestinian people of Gaza physically – they have that power – but (thankfully) they will not do that. Israel could absorb the people of Gaza into its body politic at the price of becoming a bi-national state or a unitary Arab-dominated state, a price I find it very hard imagining the Israelis being willing to pay. Short of either of these solutions, there is no way for Israel to impose its will on the territories; contra Max Boot, Israel does not have the ability to impose a peace at gunpoint, impeded only by interfering outsiders (and, by the way, regardless of what one might think of taking Putin’s Russia as a model, who says the Second Chechen War is over?).

By the same token, Hamas cannot defeat Israel. The fundamental asymmetry between Israel/Palestine and France/Algeria is that while Algeria was a _département of France (or, rather, four départements) Algeria was not France, while Israel and Palestine are the same place by two names, and the Israelis have no intention of leaving their home. (It may be objected that the Boers had no intention of leaving their home either, and have not. The fundamental asymmetry between Israel/Palestine and the Boer Republic/Bantustans is that it was not plausible to envision a Boer Republic living alongside and on equal terms with a black South African Republic but, while that is not the reality, I believe it is entirely plausible to imagine Israel living on such terms with a neighboring Arab state, whether that state was a Palestinian national state or not.)

It would be nice, given these facts, to think that an outside party – such as ourselves – could convince the parties to the dispute to see reason and agree to a plausible political settlement – particularly since we all know what such a settlement would have to look like (a Palestinian state including the Arab parts of east Jerusalem and a presence in the Old City, and a grant of Israeli territory near Gaza plus monetary compensation in exchange for those settlement blocs that would be annexed to Israel). It would be nice, but I don’t think it is correct. Trust between the two sides is at an absolute zero. The Palestinian side is in no position to enforce any agreement it might agree to, having no functional institutions of any kind, and the only plausible route to the development of such institutions is in the context of violent struggle against Israel and against rival Palestinian factions (which, indeed, is how Hamas came to power in Gaza). Besides, America has absolutely no credibility with the Palestinians at this point, and the purchase price for such credibility would be exhorbitant in terms of our credibility with other allies (and not just Israel). Israel, meanwhile, is fully aware of the incapacities of the Palestinian leadership; even those who expect nothing of this war – and that’s a broad swathe of the Israeli political spectrum – expect even less from dialogue. (Note that even Meretz supported the war in its first few days.) And while America could certainly punish Israel in various ways, I don’t see how we would plausibly convince Israel to do something she feels is genuinely threatening to her national interest, nor how we would overcome the substantial domestic obstacles in Israel to achieving peace, given that these obstacles arise in large part from the structure of their political system.

Indeed, the last time America was truly in a position to try to wrestle the various parties into a final peace settlement was in Bush Sr.‘s term, at the Madrid talks, and that was a unique moment in history: right after America’s victory in the Gulf War, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, before the rise of resistence to American unipolarity, to say nothing of al Qaeda, a period of unprecedented American diplomatic clout. Even Giant Obama is unlikely to restore us to such a position in the near term.

Happy New Year everyone.