Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel's Burden

Since violence and war in Israel always hit close to home for me, all the more so now because my my sister and her fiance are currently living there, I wanted to share my thoughts on the recent spate of violence that is ongoing in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Since the war began, Israel's leadership - which until now was bumbling its way to early elections in February - has apparently woken up, and now everyone, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is getting along famously (even though Olmert is on his way to resigning because of a public corruption scandal, and Livni and Barak are candidates to take over his job). A part of me can't help but join their optimism and sense of unity, and get excited at the prospect of Israel finally putting a stop to Hamas's terrorist attacks, while also exorcising the country's demons from the disastrous war in Lebanon in 2006.

On the other hand, my principal reservation about this war is whether Israel will know when to stop and when its goals have been achieved. Israel, wisely, has made clear that it has no intention of reoccupying Gaza. Stopping Hamas's daily rocket attacks into Israel and forcing Hamas to commit, for real, to a cease fire is absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, at this point, the government's ultimate goal remains somewhat unclear. It intends to stop the rocket attacks, but does it also want to eject Hamas from office as Benjamin Netanyahu (the leader of the right-of-center Likkud party and another candidate for Olmert's job) advocates? If so, who would take over running the Gaza Strip? Mahmoud Abbas, who's Fatah faction controls the West Bank, enjoys little popular support in Gaza and, most likely, if Hamas is removed from office, the Gaza Strip will degenerate into something resembling civil war, a situation which could put Israel's own security further at risk. Shimon Peres, Israel's president, has thus far rallied behind the war saying it's goal is not just to stop the rocket attacks but also to stop terror worldwide. That objective sounds "slightly" over-ambitious in my humble opinion, and I'm pretty sure Al Queda isn't going to shutter its doors just because Israel has sent some planes to bomb a few buildings in the Gaza Strip.

One major gamble that Israel has taken in the current offensive is its bet that other Arab countries, such as Syria and Iran, will not take up arms alongside their Palestinian brethren in the Gaza Strip. Israel is relying in part on the history of the Palestinian people to reach this conclusion: the Palestinians have always been considered something of the unwanted stepchildren of the Arab world, and have therefore been left to fight their own war against Israel without direct military involvement by the other Arab countries (though Iran most certainly supplies Hamas with funding and weapons). So far, Israel's gambit is paying off. While the Arab world has spewed a lot of rhetoric against Israel over the last few days, no country has taken definitive action, and Egypt even closed its borders to refugees fleeing from Gaza. So much for brotherly love. If, however, other Arab countries decide to engage Israel and the war spreads to multiple fronts, the war will lose its appeal to many Israelis overnight, will cause major turbulence in the Middle East, and will put Israel's very existence in danger.

To a certain extent, Israel has learned over time to shrug its shoulders at international opinion. The United Nations has never been particularly friendly towards Israel; western European countries maintain a deliberate cold shoulder towards Israel because their home population counts many Arab immigrants in their midst; and Eastern European countries are more closely allied with Israel's Arab neighbors as a result of alliances developed during the Cold War. Nevertheless, it appears that this time around, Israel has hired PR consultants to ensure that its image doesn't take too thorough of a beating in the international arena. The most obvious manifestation of its marketing promo to bundle the new war into an acceptable package is that Tzipi Livni informed Egypt ahead of the military offensive, and then appeared on an American Sunday talk show the day after Israel first started sending planes into the Gaza Strip.

Because of Israel's history and the fact that every citizen serves in the army, Israel lives and dies by a realpolitik worldview: in many Israelis' minds, superior military strength is the principal avenue towards achieving peace with its neighbors. This mindset has, I believe, led Israel to focus first on military solutions to its security problems before considering other avenues to peace, such as diplomacy and economic agreements. In the immediate sense, however, Israel cannot afford to allow Hamas to continue firing rockets into the country, and Hamas has made clear that it has no intention of abiding by previous cease fie agreements. Moreover, unlike the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israel's military seems vastly more prepared to succeed this time. My only hope is that Israel will know when to stop. Until then, Israel must allow for humanitarian aid to reach Gaza's civilians. And when the war does stop, Israel must take steps to encourage the rebuilding of Gaza's economic infrastructure, in order to demonstrate its commitment to achieving a lasting peace agreement - one reached not through military coercion, but through a shared vision for an end to violence and to economic stability.

Israel, indeed, now carries a heavy burden on its shoulders.