How Israel Lost

Palestinian infoshop. Milan, November 2012.

After an ugly week between Israel and Gaza, a cease fire has been put in place and seems to be holding. I suspect it’s going to hold for a good while, despite a natural cynicism born of years of watching cease fires fall apart. Only time will tell who came out ahead. However, it’s not too early to make an assessment of winners and losers.

Civilians on both sides lose, as usual. Six Israelis, including four civilians died, and dozens were injured. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (an organization which has more than once run afoul of the Hamas government) 156 Palestinians were killed of whom 103 were civilians, and 1,000 were wounded, of whom 971 were civilians. A lower ratio of civilian deaths was confirmed by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, whose initial estimates don’t cover the last two days of fighting. They recorded 102 deaths by that time, of which 40 were confirmed to have been civilians. Of the other 62, B’Tselem still has 35 classified as unknown as to whether they were civilian or not.

Whatever the numbers may be, that is a lot of blood exchanged for little assurance that something similar will not happen again.

The Palestinian Authority emerges as a major loser here. Hamas flags were the norm at protests in the West Bank, and unrest grew there to a point where Israel is concerned about the PA’s ability to control its people. But much more than that, the terms of the cease-fire provided some gains for Hamas, something the Palestinian Authority’s years of cooperation with Israel have not done. The message sent to the Palestinian public is that cooperation will only get you more settlements, while resistance gets you at least some small concessions (I’ll look more closely at the cease-fire terms below.)

Ramallah’s bid for non-member status at the UN may continue, and President Mahmoud Abbas would be wise to follow through. It represents the only thing he can show his people he has achieved. But even that has now been diminished next to Hamas’ perceived victory. The Palestinian Authority has lost virtually all legitimacy with the Palestinian public, and no visits from Hillary Clinton are going to change that. US warnings to Israel not to cut off the flow of tax funds to the PA so it won’t collapse merely postpone the inevitable. If there was any hope for the Palestinian Authority, this probably killed it.

Hamas’ claims of victory are largely merited. Gaza was, of course, hit hard, but ruling an overpopulated Strip that lies in shambles is old hat for Hamas. It’s what they’ve been doing all along. They lost many of their rockets and other military equipment, but, as we saw four years ago, it will require only a few months to restock. Ahmed Jabari, whose death was the spark for the escalation, was a key leader, and he wasn’t the only one killed. But it’s important to remember that Hamas has lost many leaders over the years and it hasn’t incapacitated the organization. One wonders why Israel continues to think such targeted killings are useful tactics. Actually, one suspects that they don’t.

Hamas lost very little, but gained a lot. Its legitimacy as a governing body grew by leaps and bounds. During this conflict, the Secretary General of the Arab League, the Prime Minister of Egypt and the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan all visited Gaza. Until now, such official visits, even from Arab governments, were exceedingly rare.

But more than that, Hamas not only proved again that it could withstand Israel’s military. It showed the organization’s ability to hit back had grown. Missiles now threaten not only Tel Aviv but also the Jerusalem area (even if, for obvious religious and popular reasons, Hamas would probably not risk coming any closer to Jerusalem than they did.)  And probably most important, the cease-fire agreement actually includes Israeli concessions. True, the mention of facilitating the opening of border crossings and allowing the movement of people and goods is likely to get bogged down in negotiations and Israeli foot-dragging, but even the fact that the subject was broached in an agreement is noteworthy.

Solidarity gig flyer. Milan, November 2012.

Hamas’ biggest gain, however, is that Israel agreed to stop operating on the Gaza side of the fence. Until now, it had a security zone in which the IDF continued to operate inside Gaza. Indeed, it was during one such operation that Hamas fired at Israeli troops at the beginning of the month, which prompted Israel to escalate further. That is a major Israeli concession, in the eyes of the Palestinian people. The gains here massively outweigh any damage Israel did to Hamas’ capabilities.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi Isa El-Ayyat is the one person universally seen as the biggest winner. He occupied the role of mediator that his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had filled and his performance met with approval in both Washington and Jerusalem. But, despite some criticism that was certain to come, Morsi also managed to assuage his public and, more importantly, his Muslim Brotherhood party by working in the concessions to Hamas mentioned above. He ingratiated himself to the Obama Administration, and established a good working relationship with it. Morsi maintained Egypt’s relationship with Israel as well, and, apparently, left the Israeli government with some hope that they might yet be able to foist Gaza off on Egypt. And he did that while consistently declaring support for the Palestinian cause and bearing that out in his actions.

That’s pretty impressive. The sad part is what else Morsi has been up to in his own country. As the political struggle over a new constitution in Egypt rages, Morsi cashed in on his mediation efforts to the tune of a $4.8 billion loan approved by the International Monetary Fund on very favorable terms. With all of that behind him, Morsi then moved to massively expand his presidential powers, leaving him unaccountable even to Egypt’s judiciary,  endowing himself with broad powers to protect “the revolution and the nation.”

In essence, Morsi has established a totalitarian rule again in Egypt, and has certainly given weight to widespread fears that the Muslim Brotherhood is hijacking the constitutional process. This could have serious ramifications, as the Brotherhood is playing a central role in other countries, most publicly Syria, these days, and Morsi’s actions are likely to raise serious suspicions about Brotherhood intentions in other countries as well.

Egypt’s new president also assumed a great deal of responsibility in managing the cease fire, and he has limited control over Hamas, and obviously none over Israel. And Morsi has yet to get the Sinai under full control, so if attacks come from there that could seriously undermine his standing in the mediator role. But these concerns are speculative. Today, Morsi has certainly established himself as a regional leader and a key player in the conflict with Israel. Sadly, perhaps as the man who will ultimately undo the gains made by many brave Egyptians.

Iran is getting pushed away from the Palestinian issue. Its partnership with Hamas (which is far less intimate and coordinated than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have us believe) has never been an entirely comfortable one. Qatar in particular is strengthening its relationship with Hamas, but it is worth noting that Hamas’ support in the region is coming from Egypt and Turkey as well.

All these countries are US allies, and all have open communications and relations with Iran. Iran may continue to provide arms to Hamas, though a stronger relationship with Qatar could open up other clandestine methods of arms acquisition. But it is clear that there is a push, both within and outside of Hamas, to minimize the connection to Iran. This is certainly a reflection of Hamas, and especially its leader, Khaled Meshaal’s disapproval of continued Iranian support for the Assad regime in Syria.

Window display, Via Venini.

US President Barack Obama also comes out ahead in all of this. While the initial American responses seemed to be business as usual, Obama seems to have supported Morsi’s efforts in the cease-fire, which may have been decisive in Morsi obtaining terms that offered at least some possibility of easing the siege on Gaza. However,  his public stance was in support of every action Israel took.

In the wake of his defeating Netanyahu’s candidate, Mitt Romney, in the election, and with the success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which intercepted hundreds of Hamas rockets over the course of the fighting, Israelis may well see Obama a little more positively, and may be distressed at their Prime Minister having backed the wrong horse. The episode is likely to give Obama more room to maneuver with Bibi over the coming months. The stern message Obama sent with Hillary Clinton, a warning to Israel not to take any drastic steps in response to Abbas’ UN bid, may indicate a strengthened US position.

Benjamin Netanyahu is perceived to have done well, but his gains are not all that significant. For the time being, Bibi has pushed most of the domestic issues off Israel’s elections table, but they’re about to come back. Certainly, he can claim to have done much better than his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and he’d be right. Netanyahu probably bought as much time without rocket fire as Olmert did, with far less damage to Israel’s international image. But most Israelis are disappointed with the cease fire. The damage done to Israel, including loss of life and injuries, is comparable to Operation Cast Lead four years ago, while Hamas has made even more gains. When the smoke clears, Israelis may feel that Bibi was unable to muster the courage to launch the ground attack that Olmert did, and which most Israelis wanted.

Israel’s losses outweigh its gains. Yes, there will be at least a period of quiet, and Hamas will have some rebuilding to do. These are the claimed objectives, and they were met. But at what cost? Does Israel really want to destroy the quisling Palestinian Authority in favor of an independent Hamas government? There may be reason for the Israeli government to do this, in the hopes of convincing the world that there is no Palestinian partner. However, armed resistance will return in a big way. Israel gave Hamas a lot more legitimacy, and made at least one clear concession. They also opened the door to ending their siege of the Gaza Strip, which I might see as a very positive development. But it’s hard to believe that is seen as a positive in Israel.

While it is an old canard on both sides of this conflict that the other side “only understands the language of force,” Israel has sent a powerful message to the Palestinians that it holds true for them. While Bibi has stubbornly refused any gestures that might allow Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations and has built settlements at a breakneck pace, Hamas has won concessions from them with force of arms. What lesson would anyone take from that?

Israel has also thrust President Morsi into a much stronger regional role, and he has assumed it without changing his organizational line that Israel is the aggressor. Israel has now empowered both the man and his worldview. Moreover, while the Arab Spring continues to roil, Israel has now thrust Hamas more firmly into the arms of Egypt and Turkey, the emerging regional leaders, as well as Qatar, which has designs on its own increased role. All of these countries are prepared to take action to oppose Israeli policies. While this is not new, they have now moved to much more open support for Hamas.

The current Netanyahu-Lieberman axis has ambitions of dumping unwanted parts of the West Bank on Jordan and dumping Gaza on Egypt. Neither of these things is going to happen. Unfortunately, that seems to be the extent of a long-term vision the new Likud-Beiteinu ticket has. As Israel moves rightward, this lack of long term vision will become more apparent, and Israel will find itself without a political program and facing a Hamas-led Palestinian polity, which will not agree to a demilitarized state and will be supported in this by Egypt and Turkey. The current operation has likely cemented this inevitability. Thus, Israel achieved its stated objectives, but came away having lost far more than it gained.


Israel has proven again that its overwhelming military strength can destroy a lot, but it cannot bring peace or security to its people. The Palestinian political scene has completely shifted to one where Hamas is favored and faces little competition from Fatah. The Obama Administration has established that it has a much dimmer view of an Israeli ground attack in Gaza than the Bush Administration did. And Hamas has established itself much more firmly as a government, and as a military force.

Israel’s continued special relationship with the US, and its overwhelming political, economic and especially military superiority mean that there is still no immediate threat from any of this. But its position is weakened, and business as usual is fast becoming a thing of the past. Israel has also sent a very dangerous message, that violence may not ever win the Palestinians their freedom, but it will get them farther than diplomacy, at least under US aegis, will. We’re starting to see the result of a shifting playing field in the region, and it is not playing well for an Israel that is continuing to move to the right. The trouble is that the Israeli political “moderates” in the Kadima/Labor realm are actually criticizing Netanyahu for not going far enough in Gaza, so there are no good alternatives there.

As usual, Israel’s only hope for peace remains the hope that outsiders will intervene. The Obama Administration has shown no sign of the strength or will required to do that, even though the president, and others in his administration, have demonstrated that they know that this is what is required. As usual, the thin hope lies in convincing Obama that he can and should want a resolution of this conflict more than the parties themselves, and that it is best for everyone if he acts. Considering Obama’s ill-treatment at the hands of Netanyahu, the chances of any such initiative being taken are most likely zero. If Bibi has one victory to his credit, it’s that. However, in the long run, Israel will turn out to be the biggest loser.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.