Worse than a crime

2009-01-14 00:00

“Israel is not going to show restraint,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Washington Post on Saturday, after the United States abstained from Friday’s UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. All last week speculation grew that Washington was going to defy its Israeli ally for once and vote for the resolution, but literally as the delegates sat down in the council chamber the phone call came from President George W. Bush ordering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to abstain.

So nothing will stop Israel from hammering the Gaza Strip as hard as it likes — and the situation is unlikely to change with the inauguration of Barack Obama next week, because he has no intention of squandering his abundant but finite political capital on a quixotic attempt to bring peace to the Middle East. He will spend it instead on goals that have some chance of being achieved and he will be right to do so.

Yet the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip will almost certainly end within the next two weeks. International revulsion at the carnage among Palestinian civilians will play a certain role. Any big loss of life among Israeli soldiers, or the capture of even one or two soldiers, would turn Israeli public opinion against the war overnight. And the clincher is that the Israeli election is on February 10.

The war is being fought now largely to shift the opinion polls in favour of the ruling parties before the election. However, it must be over and somehow look like a success, before Israelis actually vote.

The war against Hamas in Gaza looks more and more like the three-week Israeli war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, which could hardly be called a success. It will last about as long. It will kill about as many Arabs, probably 1 000 or so. And it will end with Hamas, like Hezbollah, still able to fire rockets at Israel.

This means that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader who is already leading in the opinion polls, is almost certain to form the next Israeli government. He is the ultimate rejectionist, the man who successfully sabotaged the Oslo Accords and effectively killed the “peace process” during his last term as prime minister in 1996-99. He rejects the very idea of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu is a glib ideologue who does not understand strategy and sees no reason for Israel to seek peace with its neighbours if the price is giving the Palestinians back their pre-1967 borders. In the long run, therefore, the war is more of a disaster for the Israelis than it is for the Palestinians.

Israel enjoys three huge strategic advantages. It has the strongest army in the region, backed by the only modern economy and the only technologically competent population. It has a monopoly on nuclear weapons within the region. And it has the unstinting, unquestioning support of the world’s only superpower. But none of these advantages is forever and Israel needs to make peace with its neighbours while it still possesses them.

The existing Arab regimes are willing to make peace with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders, mainly because they fear the further radicalisation of their own populations, and perhaps even violent revolution, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester. But the Arabs as a whole have all the time in the world: sooner or later the wheel will turn and Israel will become vulnerable. If it has not integrated into the region by then, it will be in mortal peril.

It is pointless to make moral judgements about this war and foolish to use the body count as an indicator of virtue or blame. About 70 Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli who has died during the current Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, but that does not mean that the Israelis are in the wrong.

“The only reason that there are more victims in Gaza than in Sderot is because Hamas is not good at shooting rockets,” Zalli Jaffe, an Israeli civilian living in Jerusalem, told a BBC reporter last week. “To conclude that Israel is at fault would be like saying that the United States was wrong in World War 2 because many more Germans died than did Americans.”

That is quite true: Hamas would do exactly the same to the Israelis if it could. The prospect of a 70-to-one kill ratio makes Israel much readier to use military force than if it had to sacrifice one Israeli life for every Palestinian it killed, but the kill ratio tells us nothing about the morality or the utility of the war.

It is the usefulness of this war, not its morality, that Israel should be questioning. Unless Israel re-occupies the Gaza Strip permanently — which nobody wants to do, because it would mean a constant stream of Israeli military casualties — then once the army pulls back Hamas will re-emerge, even stronger. The Arab regimes that might make peace with Israel will be further undermined and Israel gets Netanyahu as prime minister.

As was said after the execution of the Duc d’Enghien on Napoleon’s orders, the Gaza operation “is worse than a crime. It is a mistake”.

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