Israel’s continuing assault against Gaza is in many ways linked to the (extremely counter-productive) 33-day war that it maintained against Lebanon and Hizbullah in 2006. There are similarities and differences. In both cases, one of the over-arching war aims has been an attempt to “restore the credibility” of an Israeli military “deterrent” that had been badly eroded– in the minds of many Israeli leaders– since 2000, or before.
That, in a nutshell, is the meaning of the “shock and awe” phrase that’s been widely used to describe the completely disproportionate scale of Saturday’s opening salvo, which left more than 280 Gazans dead.
The 33-day war notably did not succeed in “restoring the credibility of Israel’s deterrent.” (Analysis, here.) In 2006, Ehud Barak, who is currently Israel’s Defence Minister and the head of the rapidly weakening Labour Party, had to sit on the sidelines, as he’d been replaced in both those positions by Amir Peretz (remember him?)
This time around, Barak is in the catbird seat as Defence Minister and must feel a very strong compulsion that this Israeli “war of choice” must succeed where its predecessor failed, for at least two reasons:
- 1. It was Barak’s decision, when he was prime minister back in 2000, to execute a “unilateral” (that is, un-negotiated) withdrawal of all Israeli troops from areas of South Lebanon they had occupied since 1978 that in the years that followed was widely blamed by Israeli hardliners for the continuing erosion (or even, collapse) of the “credibility” of Israeli deterrence. So he has a strong personal reason to want to see it “restored.”
2. He wrested the position of leadership of the Labour Party back from Peretz after Peretz’s inexperience in military affairs was widely blamed for the failure of the 2006 war. But Labour has continued to slide in the Israeli opinion polls. When I heard the experienced Israeli political analyst Naomi Chazan talking in Washington earlier this month, she said the then-current polling would give Labour only six seats in the 120-member Knesset, down from a current holding of 19 and considerably down from Labour’s longheld position as the decades-long ruling party in Israel. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter has an excellent piece in today’s paper, detailing the degree to which the current war effort is really “about” Ehud Barak’s electoral ambitions.
My analysis of Ehud Barak is that, while he may have considerable technical and operational smarts in the military realm, his political skills are next to zero. That applies both domestically and in diplomatic affairs. After he was elected premier in 1999, he alienated the coalition partners which are a sine qua non of governmental survival in Israel at a faster clip than, I think, any preceding Israeli prime minister. He also succeeded in organizing not one but two complete diplomatic debacles– one with the late Syrian president Hafez al-Asad, in Geneva, in May 2000, and the other with longtime PLO chief Yasser Arafat at Camp David later that year.
Today, more than ever before, strategy is about politics, rather than simply military-technical smarts. That has been amply demonstrated in recent years by the failures of the US and Israel to translate their unquestioned military-technical superiority over their respective foes into strategic gains of any lasting value. I see no reason to believe that Ehud Barak has learned this lesson– far less, that he has “suddenly”, overnight, acquired the kind of political-strategic smarts the current international environment requires.
He certainly did not have them during his previous term as prime minister. And it is extremely hard to discern, regarding the present assault against Gaza, what a successful path to an Israeli strategic ‘victory’ of any lasting value would look like.
Of course, we should not ignore the purely petulant/vengeful “expressive” function of Israel’s current outburst of anti-Palestinian violence. That alone might– were the country to be holding its elections, say, next week rather than six weeks from now– have been enough to give Barak and Labour the electoral boost he seeks… (Which is not, of course, the same as “winning” something of lasting strategic value to the Israeli people as a whole. But it could be seen as “winning” something valuable to Ehud Barak’s political ambitions, which are not small.)
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Two important principles of the laws of war are that any belligerent attack be both discriminate and proportional. That is, commanders are under an obligation to discriminate between “legitimate” military targets and those that serve mainly civilian functions, and when in doubt to err on the side of assuming that targets whose real purpose is unclear are civilian, rather than military. Secondly, commanders are under an equally weighty obligation to make their attacks “proportional” to the task at hand.
Violating either of these principles is considered a “grave breach” of the laws of war, that is, a war crime.
In yesterday’s attacks, many of the targets were offices and operations bases for a civilian police force associated with the Hamas-dominated governing authority in Gaza, but not part of the Hamas-affiliated “Qassam Brigades” paramilitary force. Targeting them completely failed the test of “discrimination.” The test of “proportionality” was similarly grossly violated.
But what was Israel’s political- strategic aimin these attacks? To me, it looks very similar to the targets in Ariel Sharon’s attacks against the PA police and associated forces in Gaza and the West Bank in spring of 2002. That is, the forcible dismantling of the governing authority with which the police forces were affiliated. The rhetoric of Israel’s leaders around the attacks certainly seems to indicate that.
In 2006, the Israeli military attacked many facilities associated with the government in Lebanon, including vital roads, power plants, bridges, etc. But I don’t think it actively targeted any Lebanese police stations. At the time, it was trying to prop up Lebanon’s “official” government. This time, it most certainly looks as though it is trying to dismantle the extensive apparatus through which Hamas has tried to govern Gaza. I note that that police apparatus has also been used in the past six months to try to rein in the Palestinian hotheads who were reluctant to go along with the Hamas tahdi’eh.
Ehud Barak is trying with his attacks to make the whole of Gaza ungoverned, a completely and massively failed administration. To this extent, his assault looks very similar to Ethiopia’s 2006 assault against the somewhat moderate Islamist administration that had been slowly consolidating its grip in Somalia, or indeed to the Bush/Bremer dismantling of the entire central state system in Iraq.
Some in Israel have claimed that the goal in Gaza is not to “break” Hamas completely, but simply to “tame” it some more so it becomes ready to accede to Israel’s political demands. Given the scale of yesterday’s assault, I don’t see that.
Is part of the goal, too, to try to prepare the ground for a Fatah restoration in Gaza? Sort of similar to the stated goal in 2006, of strengthening the hand of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, against Hizbullah?
Well, it didn’t work out at all back in 2006, in Lebanon (where earlier this year, Hizbullah engaged in some “cognitive capture” of its own, with respect to Siniora, who effectively rebranded himself as a loyal Hizbullah
And it is highly unlikely to work out as a winning strategy in Palestine, where Fatah has already been in considerably more internal disarray than Siniora’s “March 14” coalition ever suffered.
Here are two reasons why “dismantling the Hamas administration in Gaza” will be an unsuccessful– indeed, highly counter-productive– strategy for the Israeli people as a whole:
- 1. Having a completely ungoverned chunk of land containing 1.5 million people with zero stake in a continuation of the status quo, that is tucked right into your own country’s heartland, is a recipe for longrunning disaster, not any kind of “stability.” Remember, too, the 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, the 1.2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, and the four-plus million Palestinians in Jordan. All these constituencies have already become considerably inlflamed by the scale and tragedy of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The level of their mobilization will continue to rise so long as Israel’s attacks continue. This would happen with or without Khaled Meshaal’s call, yesterday, for the launching of a :”third intifada” and the resumption of suicide/”martyrdom” operations against Israel.
2. With this assault, the fallout has already started to spread considerably beyond the constituency of people who are Palestinians… As I noted yesterday, the fallout in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds will be enormous. It has already started, and we can confidently expect that the longer Israel’s assault is maintained the higher the regional stakes will rise.
For these reasons, it is in the interest of Israel and of all the US-backed and pro-US regimes in the region that Israel stop its military attacks as soon as possible.
But how can it climb back down the ladder of the escalation that it itself so recklessly started?
Not easy. And especially, not easy for this small band of people running this Israeli war effort, who seem to be stubborn, politically ignorant, politically ambitious, and vindictive in equal measure.
But not easy for anyone, to suddenly stop this orgy of violence dead in its tracks– more especially so, given that they have now destroyed the very policy instruments through which Hamas has been able to exert a considerable degree of control over the very restless and deprived population of Gaza.
If Olmert, Barak, and Livni want to stop the war, who will they negotiate with, to achieve this?
Has an Olmert-led government once again, as in 2006, painted itself into a completely unescapeable corner?
Remember, too, that the regional dynamics this time are far more favorable to Hamas than they were to Hizbullah in 2006. Back then, many of the pro-US regimes were (a) very scared of Hizbullah, because it was Shiite and seen mainly (if wrongly) as only an arm of Iran’s foreign policy; and (b) able to stir up some anti-Hizbullah propaganda amongst their own predominantly Sunni populations on these ground.
Well, as it happened in 2006, those sectarian “sensibilities” didn’t work nearly as well for Israel and the Bushites as they had hoped. Indeed, the longer the war and the killing dragged on, the weaker those “sectarian” arguments became.
This time, they don’t exist at all.
Also, the US’s actual power in the region is noticeably reduced from what it was in 2006.
Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni have launched the whole of the Middle East on a wild ride. Neither they nor their backers in Washington will be able to shape this outcome. The best we can hope for now is some kind of forceful political intervention from other, more neutral powers.
The Security Council’s passage, this morning, of a resolution calling for an immediate halt of all military activities is a start. But a lot more hard diplomatic work– by the four non-US permanent members and all other responsible parties– needs urgently to be done.
In particular, the Security Council needs to spell out explicitly the terms, based completely in international law and international legitimacy, for a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians and a speedy but realistic timetable of actions to bring this about.
Washington alone, under Bush or under Obama, no longer has any credibility to be the “sole” or even the “main” broker for the final-status peace that Israelis, Palestinians, and all the other peoples of the Middle East so desperately need.