Even before the latest cease-fire took hold, it had become clear that the dilemma facing Israel in Gaza entails more than simply developing military answers to the challenge posed by Hamas.
The real question is whether Israel’s leadership is capable of using new, non-military tools to address the anti-Israeli rage that has gained momentum across the region in the wake of the Arab Spring. And now, in the wake of Palestine’s resoundingly successful bid for observer-state status at the United Nations, Israel’s conundrum has become particularly acute.
Israel conducted the recent showdown with Hamas in a regional context that has changed dramatically since its last incursion into Gaza, “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008. The rise of Islamist regimes throughout the Arab world, and the subsequent shift of regional alliances, has increased the Jewish state’s isolation. Major regional powers like Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar now support an emboldened Hamas, whose paramount objectives are now to consolidate its increased international legitimacy and sideline the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA).
Indeed, Israel is now in a strategic trap, owing not only to the Arab Spring, but also to its own diplomatic blunders, particularly the disintegration of its alliance with Turkey. No display of military muscle could help; only robust peace diplomacy could end Israel’s isolation. Unfortunately, Israeli leaders are unable to summon the statesmanship required to manage the strategic readjustment occurring in the region.
Instead, Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained the thinking behind the recent hostilities in Gaza in typically existential terms. He fell back on a defining speech in Israeli history, General Moshe Dayan’s eulogy for Roi Rothberg, a young soldier riddled by bullets from the Gaza Strip in 1956.
Rothberg was killed because “the yearning for peace deafened his ears, and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush.” Dayan-Barak warned that “beyond the furrow of the (Gaza) border, a sea of hatred and desire for revenge is swelling, awaiting the day when serenity will dull our path.”
An anxious nation is counseled to be resilient: “Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us…. This is the fate of our generation…to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.”
Like Dayan before him, Barak believes that Israel, a “villa in the jungle,” is forced to go to war every few years to consolidate its deterrence in an unmerciful Middle East neighborhood, where “there is no pity for the weak, nor a second chance for the defeated.”
But Barak skipped a cruelly candid paragraph in Dayan’s speech that evoked the imposing magnitude of the Palestinian plight: “Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today…. For eight years, they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages where they and their fathers dwelt into our estate. It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our midst, that we must seek Roi’s blood.”
The Middle East, of course, is not a congenial neighborhood. But audacity in the quest for peace, as demonstrated by Yitzhak Rabin and Barak himself in the past – and as Dayan demonstrated as a negotiator with Egypt– is no sign of weakness. Like the United States, which has come to terms with the changes in the Middle East by dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, and even with Salafists, Israel would be well advised to test Hamas on the diplomatic front. Hamas’s military collapse would not pave the way for the moderate Fatah to return to power in Gaza; it would enthrone Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda.
Hamas’s promise to the Palestinians, however, is a delusion. Religious fervor and a state of permanent conflict with Israel might be a badge of identity, but they will not pave the way to victory. Hamas is ready to expose Gaza’s civilians to Israel’s devastating retaliations as long as this serves to mobilize the region against the Zionist aggressors and to mock PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s illusions of a diplomatic solution.
Hamas understands that accommodation with the Jewish state – and attending to the tedious business of providing decent governance in Gaza, rather than accumulating a formidable arsenal with help from Iran and Sudan (for which “Palestine” is just a pretext) – would mean the end of the organization as we know it. Yet, unlike Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda, Hamas is susceptible to change; and this is precisely what Israeli diplomacy should strive to achieve.
This requires, first and foremost, superseding the cognitive dissonance whereby Israel dreams of engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but refuses that path with the Brothers’ Gazan offspring, Hamas. Instead, Israel should acknowledge Hamas’s right to govern, which means opening the borders (including the Rafah crossing to Egypt), lifting the siege, and allowing free movement of goods and people.
Moreover, Israel should use Egypt’s vital role in brokering the recent cease-fire as an opportunity to expand the bilateral dialogue with the new Islamist regime in Cairo to include issues of peace and regional security. President Mohamed Morsi’s government cannot be uninterested in periodic flare-ups in Gaza, which serve only to destabilize Egypt. The current cease-fire, however, will be as short lived as many others before it – its terms are practically identical to those that ended Operation Cast Lead – if Israel does not follow up with a vigorous peace initiative on the broader Palestinian front.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and internal security minister, is Vice-President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.