In the Arena

The Myth of the Decisive Blow

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The brilliant Israeli writer David Grossman has an op-ed in the New York Times today calling for a unilateral cease fire by the Israelis in Gaza. I agree with him. 

It is significant that Grossman, who tends toward the peaceable and writes with the authority of a father who lost his son in the 2006 Lebanon fiasco, does not oppose the initial assault against Hamas. I agree with that, too. Hamas was asking for it. The constant missile strikes into Israel were intolerable, with the promise of worse to come. Hamas had taken the opportunity to build a considerable arsenal during the cease fire (a pause that Hamas, not the Israelis, abandoned). So, of course, Israel was justified in its targeted attacks on the Hamas weapons caches, military training facilities and military leadership in the first days of its offensive–and it is justified in its campaign to eliminate the tunnels from Gaza to Egypt that are the source of much of the weapons and contraband. 

But the longer this offensive continues, the more it begins to seem that Israel is aiming for a “decisive blow” against Hamas–an impossibility, a fantasy promulgated by decisive blowhards, that raises the stakes in this operation and makes it more likely that Israel will emerge from this the perceived loser. Beyond the public relations consequences, there is also the likelihood that with the best targets taken out, lesser targets will yield increased civilian casualties and foolish over-targeting, which is what happened in Beirut in 2006. If Hamas survives a continued aerial onslaught and ground war, which it surely will, it wins. 

 If the offensive ends now–with a flood of humanitarian aid from Israel and its allies–a significant message will have been sent to Hamas: if you persist in lobbing rockets at our civilians, we will reserve the right to punish you severely, peremptorily, at a time of our choosing. (The current offensive has also sent Hamas a significant message from the neighboring moderate Arab countries, especially Egypt: don’t expect any sympathy from us.) 

Ultimately, the only solution to the situation in Gaza–if there is one–is intense, patient, long-term negotiations mediated by the United States and, perhaps, by Israel’s neighbors. The Bush Administration, egged on by Jewish neoconservatives and Christian evangelicals, sided too often and without question with Israeli military overreactions and foolish strategies–such as the 2006 Lebanon war and the unilateral abandonment of Gaza (without fully negotiating the future relationship between Israel and Gaza). It thereby relinquished what should be the U.S. government’s natural role, as an interlocutor trusted by both sides. 

In the end, there are no decisive blows in Gaza. There are occasional military actions to limit the military threat of Hamas. And there are negotiations. If the negotiations–which should include direct talks with Hamas–work, ultimately there may  no longer be a need for military actions. But that will require a more balanced U.S. foreign policy and a saner Hamas, chastened perhaps by this week’s necessary Israeli kinetics.