Monthly Archives: November 2012

Gaza War Recontextualizes PLO UN Win

The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas significantly recontextualised the request by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for an upgrade from the United Nations General Assembly to “non-member observer state” status. How all parties react to the upgrade will have a significant effect on the balance of power within Palestinian society, and strongly influence future regional developments.

The PLO had left itself – and was offered by Israel and the United States – few options. With Hamas riding a wave of popularity, PLO leaders became even more determined to seek a UN upgrade. They calculate a largely symbolic diplomatic victory can offset Hamas’s illusory victory on the battlefield.

Hamas has meanwhile achieved diplomatic breakthroughs of its own, with visits from the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Egypt, the foreign ministers of Tunisia and Turkey, and more to come. Hamas is so flush with “victory” that it even reversed its position opposing the UN initiative, hoping to take some of the credit.

Now, more than ever, it makes no sense for Israel and the West to “punish the PLO” by making it harder for the Palestinian Authority to govern in the West Bank and handing Hamas yet another unearned and undeserved victory.

Hamas has undoubtedly gained, as it always does, a bump in popularity based on the euphoria produced by any conflict with Israel. In 2009, the bump deflated quickly because the PA was moving forward with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s highly successful institution-building programme while the people of Gaza began to soberly assess the massive and lasting damage done by “Operation Cast Lead”.

The PA requires at least $1 billion annually to augment its budget and cannot perform its most basic functions without such aid. The most fundamental is meeting the public employee payroll in both the West Bank and Gaza. A huge percentage of the Palestinian population is directly dependent on these salaries.

But following the 2011 UN bid, aid from the two biggest PA donors – the United States and the European Union – was reduced to about half of its previous levels. And for 2012, the American half of that half – $200 million – remains on congressional holds. And the Arab states that have encouraged the PLO in all their UN initiatives have failed to make up that shortfall.

This time, however, the PA cannot respond by pointing to gains created by its strategy of institution building. The cupboard is bare. And that creates the opportunity for Hamas to build much more sustained political gains among Palestinians everywhere, even though they yet again recklessly brought calamity, or near calamity, to the hapless people of Gaza.

The “breakthroughs” in easing the blockade Hamas says Israel agreed to, but which Israel denies – extending fishing access from three to six nautical miles off the coast, and easing passage through crossings and access to the “barrier area” – are minor and may never even materialise. They certainly don’t change the fundamental situation for the people of Gaza.

It ought to be easy for the PA and the PLO to make the case for diplomacy and institution-building. However, the confrontations at the UN and elsewhere have left the PA with little to point to other than deferred salary payments.

It seems that all parties understood that the new situation called for restraint. There is nothing in the resolution that specifically precludes the PLO from seeking membership in various multilateral agencies. But PLO diplomats have reportedly assured the West that they will not move to join the Assembly of States Parties at the International Criminal Court, which could be a prelude for seeking charges against Israeli officials, or other sensitive multilateral bodies.

The PLO appears to have been successful in winning over several swing European Union states, including, France and Spain. This support should help reassure Israel. Israel must recognise that, unless it prefers dealing with Hamas militarily, it also has a huge stake in rescuing the PA from the political and financial doldrums.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ought to vigorously pursue his offer of resuming negotiations with Israel without preconditions, which means dropping the settlement-freeze demand. The West should reciprocate by restoring financial aid to the PA and other efforts aimed at improving the situation on the ground in the West Bank. And Israel should cooperate in those efforts and abandon the policy of punishing the PLO by degrading the ability of the PA to effectively govern in the West Bank.

Washington warned Israel not to “retaliate” against the Palestinians, for example by building in the hypersensitive E-1 corridor in the occupied West Bank or withholding Palestinian revenues. Israel is apparently prepared to heed such warnings and understands the political context in which any of its actions will be perceived.

All of Hamas’s purported rivals and antagonists must work together to restore the formerly obvious contrast between the positive benefits of Ramallah’s approaches with the dire consequences of Hamas’s bellicose policies in Gaza.

Otherwise, they will be wittingly or unwittingly conspiring to move Hamas far closer to the realisation of its actual primary goal: uncontested dominance of the Palestinian national movement.

This is obviously not in the interests of the West or Israel. For the Palestinians it would be an unmitigated disaster. The conflict in Gaza, and its political aftermath, should serve as a clear wake-up call for everyone who does not want a Hamas-dominated Palestinian national agenda to act urgently and cooperate to prevent that from emerging.

The Death of Israel’s “Quality Minority”

“We’ve lost Europe,” Israeli diplomats were reported to have informed their superiors yesterday as a rash of unexpected defections to the Palestinian side began to unfold. Israelis must now ask themselves why?

Ron Prosor (R), Israel's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and his delegation watch the electronic tally board as the United Nations General Assembly votes. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)
Ron Prosor (R), Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and his delegation watch the electronic tally board as the United Nations General Assembly votes. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)

For many years Palestinians have been able to rely on a solid majority in all broad-based multilateral institutions representative of the international community. They had no difficulty securing 50 percent plus one in any of those bodies. But the long-standing Israeli counter argument has been that it could counter the Palestinian “quantitative majority” in international bodies with a “quality minority” of Western and democratic states.

Today, in the context of the Palestine Liberation Organization request from the United Nations General Assembly for a mission status upgrade to “nonmember observer state,” Israel’s claim to a “quality minority” evaporated. European state after state announced they were switching from abstentions to yes votes, or from no votes to abstentions, all of this movement in the Palestinian direction.

The most dramatic of these defections is that of Germany, a solidly pro-Israel voice in multilateral institutions since the founding of the Israeli state. Germany said it will abstain because it asked for and did not receive any assurances from Israel on settlement activity. France, Spain, Sweden (which voted against Palestinian membership in UNESCO), Italy and a whole rash of other countries announced they would vote yes. As it always prefers to do on Israeli-Palestinian matters, Britain delicately abstained from the unending historical crisis it almost single-handedly created. Another dramatic switch from a no vote to an abstention was Australia, due to a cabinet and party revolt against the Prime Minister on the issue.

Israel’s “quality minority” now consists of the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. The Israeli argument that the postcolonial world may be pro-Palestinian, but the democratic West is solidly pro-Israel collapsed. The “quality minority,” is dead, at least for now and on this vote.

The reasons for this shift begin with the fact that no party genuinely committed to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians should find the language of the draft resolution terribly objectionable. Much of the international community, including the West, seems to feel the need to reassert its commitment to a two-state solution.

Second, the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas underscored the extent to which the PLO and, more importantly, the Palestinian Authority which governs the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, need an immediate political boost. Hamas’s “victory” over Israel was illusory, but it has provided a bump of intoxication and popularity that, combined with the political and financial doldrums of the PA, threaten to shift the balance of power dramatically in favor of Hamas.

Clearly both European vote changes and American calls for restraint regarding Israel’s avowed “retaliatory measures” reflect the understanding that any effort to “punish” the PLO at the expense of the ability of the PA to govern in the West Bank will accrue immediately to the benefit of Hamas.

Flush with “victory” and a surge of popularity at home, Hamas switched its position on the U.N. initiative, now encouraging the PLO to go forward. Hamas is simultaneously hoping to get some credit for whatever success Palestinians achieve at the U.N., and also to benefit from whatever retaliatory measures are taken by Israel or the United States, especially the Congress, against the PLO or the PA.

Third, it seems likely that the PLO made assurances to the Europeans and others that they would not seek to join other multilateral agencies or the International Criminal Court. Instead, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said in the wake of the vote he wants to immediately resume negotiations with Israel without preconditions, which meansdropping the long-standing settlement freeze demand.

Skeptics are correct that the U.N. vote won’t change anything on the ground and is almost entirely symbolic. And no party is volunteering to replace the United States as the broker between Israel and the Palestinians. But the international communit just jumped at an opportunity to give everyone a shove in the right direction.

Israelis must ask themselves how they lost their “quality minority” and why so many European and Western states that have been historically supportive of them or neutral moved rather dramatically today in the Palestinian direction. The war between Israel and Hamas shows that the situation on the ground is fundamentally unstable and untenable. The dramatic shift in the diplomatic landscape at the U.N. today demonstrates that the international community understands that and is losing patience.

For the Palestinians, the next step should be a pivot toward seeking a rapprochement with Washington, because without American support they are unlikely to be able to make further progress on their goal of independent statehood. The Israelis, however, need to do some immediate soul-searching, for they seem to have convinced many of their former Western allies they are simply not interested in a genuine two-state solution.

Article VI: Egypt’s new dictatorship

“Article VI: The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.” Read that aloud slowly, and let the words roll around your tongue as they ooze out like dark, thick molasses.

It’s the centerpiece of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s recent “Constitutional Declaration,” accruing to himself powers and authority—at least on paper—undreamt of by his autocratic predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Anyone surprised by this naked and extremely aggressive power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood was either woefully naïve or grossly misinformed about its deep-seated authoritarian orientation and agenda. It is inevitable that it will attempt, if it can, to impose a dictatorship in Egypt more oppressive and thoroughgoing than anything in the past, as the declaration demonstrates.

Brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza gave Morsi the domestic and international space to act decisively. He has proven, if nothing else, a ruthless political butcher, wasting no opportunity to bring the knife down whenever he can.

The Brotherhood is trying to mollify Egyptians with two extremely unconvincing sleights of hand.

First, attention is being directed to other, far more specific, articles. Some measures will be popular, such as replacing the widely reviled prosecutor-general and reopening or retrying cases involving abuses by members of the former regime despite the double jeopardy involved.

More alarm was caused by Article II, which makes all of Morsi’s decisions since he took office “final and binding.” It forbids any form of judicial review or legal challenge, including retroactively annulling any rulings already issued against them.

It is Article VI, however, that really establishes a new and unprecedentedly arbitrary dictatorship in Egypt, giving Morsi virtually unfettered powers. It’s hard to imagine any executive action or decree whatsoever that couldn’t be justified as “protecting the country and the goals of the revolution.” At least in his own opinion, and that’s the only one that counts, because, remember, his decisions are not subject to any checks, balances, lawsuits or other form of challenge whatsoever.

His word, quite literally, is law. In Egypt now, at least according to his declaration, there is no recourse at all.

The second sleight-of-hand the Brotherhood is using to try to mollify Egyptians is the idea that this is all simply “temporary,” to be rescinded once there is a new Constitution in place and a new parliament elected. CK MacLeod reminded me of Carl Schmitt’s observation that emergency decrees or temporary suspensions of the law are often the norm in political modernity, not the exception. Hitler, for example, never rescinded the Weimar Republic Constitution. He merely suspended it every four years following the Reichstag fire, until the Soviet army overran Berlin.

It’s an apt point. Almost every autocratic Arab state has used “temporary” or “emergency” laws to justify dictatorial rule and human rights abuses. Israel, too, relies on “emergency” laws promulgated by the British mandatory authorities in 1945, particularly in the occupied Palestinian territories. So why should Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt be any different? The tediously predictable answer is, left on its own, it won’t be. It will be, if anything, more oppressive than the (also “temporary”) nationalist one-party dictatorship that preceded it.

Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood will not relinquish these unprecedented dictatorial powers unless they are forced to. Even then, they will cling onto as much as possible. It’s going to be up to the Egyptian opposition to unite and force their hands. It will be very difficult — but the way things are going not impossible and possibly even not neccessary — for Morsi’s government to block new parliamentary and presidential elections supposed to take place in the foreseeable future.

If the Egyptian people are to avoid new and even worse dictatorship than they just overthrew, they must avoid political domination by the Muslim Brotherhood. But in order to achieve that, the opposition is going to have to unite and provide an alternative which they can support, not a morass of bickering.

The government and the Brotherhood have reacted to the protests against the declaration with a combination of violence and nonchalance. They clearly think this is a temporary storm they can weather, with the already secured support of their Salafist “frienemies.” In terms of the fundamental state stability, they’re probably right. Street protests probably won’t be enough at this stage to undo the damage.

Protests and criticism at all levels, and as much litigation as possible, should be focused on discrediting or even undoing Morsi’s declaration of dictatorship. But real hopes for Egyptian democracy in the long run depend on removing from power, presumably by the ballot box, the person and party brazen, power-mad and tyrannical enough to promulgate Article VI.

Assuming, of course, that there ever is another election in Egypt.

The Palestinian Choice—And Ours

Recent developments, especially last week’s conflict with Israel, have transformed the Palestinian political landscape in favor of Hamas in Gaza and at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Palestinians are facing a momentous choice: the path of diplomacy and institution-building championed by the PA, or that of confrontation and armed struggle championed by Hamas.

For the Palestinians this is a strategic choice, but also one of values. But essentially the same choice is facing the other key actors: the United States, Israel and the Arab world. How we choose to influence Palestinian political realities will have a profound impact on our vital national interests. Like everybody else, we have to decide which group of Palestinians we want to empower based on our own values and national interests, and act accordingly.

Palestinians celebrate waving Fatah and Hamas flags at the square of the Unknown Soldier in central Gaza City on November 22, 2012. (Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images)
Palestinians celebrate waving Fatah and Hamas flags at the square of the Unknown Soldier in central Gaza City on November 22, 2012. (Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images)

Hamas struggled after its break with Syria and strained relations with Iran. But it has managed to regroup and is beginning to take advantage of the rise of Islamist movements in countries like Egypt and the new patronage of Qatar.

Its recent reckless conflict with Israel cost over 150 Palestinian lives, mostly civilians and many children, and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Yet they are trumpeting it as a kind of “victory,” because they fought Israel and survived.

Hamas has also made diplomatic breakthroughs of its own, with high-level visits from Qatari, Egyptian, Tunisian and Turkish officials. It may be finally succeeding in eroding the consensus that the Palestine Liberation Organization is the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” or even positioning itself to take a leading role in a reconstructed, post-“Arab Spring” PLO.

In the wake of the Gaza conflict and the run-up to the new Palestinian United Nations initiative scheduled for later this week, how all parties act and react will determine whether the PA can continue to govern in the West Bank, or if it runs the real risk of either collapse or atrophy to the point of irrelevance.

The PA is, frankly, broke, alienated from its Western allies and lacking any clear strategic or political options. PLO miscalculations played a huge role in creating this dire circumstance. Prompting an American veto on settlements at the U.N. Security Council in February 2011 only served to anger the U.S. and give Israel a free hand to build. The west responded to the failed PLO U.N. membership bid of 2011 by cutting aid to the PA, leading to the ongoing financial crisis in the West Bank.

For all its promise and successes, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s PA institution-building program has foundered given the funding crisis. Meanwhile, the peace process with Israel is at an impasse. As a consequence, Hamas has been able to spin a devastating and completely avoidable conflict with Israel as a demonstration that it has a vision, the will to fight, reliable patrons, and diplomatic and political momentum.

The Obama administration and Israel miscalculated as well. The settlement freeze demand was, after all, an American one. The Palestinians could hardly be less opposed to settlements than the Americans were. Indeed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could not pivot away from a settlement freeze as a condition for further negotiations as easily President Barack Obama could and did. Abbas unwisely did not leave himself a way out, as the Americans played fast and loose with an incendiary issue, only to leave the Palestinians to deal with the resulting political firestorm.

Israel, too, has played a major role in isolating, impoverishing and humiliating the PA. Israeli relations with Hamas are straightforward: limited military confrontations, prisoner exchanges, and so forth. No prospect of politically difficult negotiations about borders, settlements, Jerusalem, Palestinian statehood or anything like that.

One can only hope this is not a conscious effort to promote a new version of the familiar old implacable Palestinian non-partner for peace, perfectly suited to expanding and consolidating Israel’s occupation and settlement project.

Palestinians must choose. But any stateless people seeking freedom—and trapped in an apparent binary between going down in a “blaze of glory for God and country” or standing by impotently as occupying forces colonize their lands and punishes their diplomatic efforts—can be expected to eventually opt for the former. They must have a third option: success through negotiations and cooperation that yields short-term quality of life improvements on the ground and long-term prospects for peace and independence.

It is therefore urgently important from a Palestinian point of view for Ramallah to repair its relations with the West immediately. But this rapprochement is also crucial for the West and anyone in Israel who doesn’t want the Palestinian cause to be dominated by Hamas. Everyone will have to play their part to avoid this now very real possibility.

The PLO, if it must go ahead with an initiative at the U.N. in the coming days, should make it as non-confrontational as possible. It should provide reassurances about not seeking, at this stage, to join additional U.N. agencies or the International Criminal Court. And it should seek as much European support as it can muster.

The Obama administration should not only react judiciously, it should also try to persuade Congress not to overreact either. Israeli retaliation of some kind is probably inevitable, but American influence can do much to attenuate the damage it causes.

The Obama administration has apparently already warned Israel against building in the sensitive E-1 corridor in the occupied West Bank as “retaliation.” Israeli officials are reportedly complaining that the U.S., in its own interests, appears to be understanding the need for restraint.

These indicate a welcome U.S. recognition of the profound dangers that an overreaction to whatever the PLO does at the U.N. in the coming days might play directly into the hands of Hamas and let them argue that “armed struggle” succeeds while negotiations and diplomacy fail. But the Administration will also have to convince Israel and Congress to think in terms of enlightened self-interest, rather than reflexive anger.

Abbas has said that after the U.N. resolution, he is prepared to return to negotiations with Israel without preconditions. This means, at last, dropping the settlement freeze demand. This is an important potential starting place for the indispensable rapprochement between Ramallah and Washington.

The near future will test everyone’s seriousness about preserving the viability of a two-state solution. The PLO must work hard to make its U.N. initiative as non-confrontational as possible. The Arab states encouraging them must help the PA absorb any backlash in further aid cuts. The Obama administration and Congress must not overreact. And if Israel doesn’t actually prefer dealing with Hamas rather than the PA, it has to adjust its policies and attitudes right away.

Palestinian national reconciliation is inevitable. The question is, on whose terms will it be? Upcoming decisions by all parties, including the Palestinians, the Arabs states, the United States and Israel, will determine the outcome. And we will all have to live with the consequences.


Lost in Ramallah

Who can fail to weep for the long-suffering people of Gaza, who again find themselves under Israeli attack? Over 100 have already been killed, at least half civilians and many children. Spare a thought, too, for Israelis with legitimate concerns they might be among the extremely unfortunate few to be struck by an unguided rocket from Gaza not intercepted by “Iron Dome.”

But surely among the most politically forlorn figures in the world are the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. They seem less defeated than lost. They don’t appear to have any strategy other than quixotic diplomatic efforts at the United Nations that are almost entirely symbolic and carry an enormous price. And they don’t seem to know what, if anything, to do next.

In September 2011, President Mahmoud Abbas made a huge splash by formally requesting full UN membership for Palestine from the Security Council, and delivering a fairly impressive speech in which he laid out the unimpeachable Palestinian case for freedom and independence. The initiative failed spectacularly, as everyone knew it would. It did not even garner enough council votes to necessitate the promised American veto. But it least it got the world’s attention.

Unfortunately, the 2011 effort was also bound to poison relations between the Palestinian Authority and its main donor base, the United States and the European Union. It took some time for the full impact of this to take effect, but during the second half of this year, as the external Western funding dried up, the PA became unable to meet public employee salary payroll.

The institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—which had already made significant practical progress on the ground toward statehood and held such promise for so much more—was effectively paralyzed by diplomatic miscalculations.

Earlier this fall, public anger erupted. The grievances were mainly economic: In an effort to offset Western economic punishment against the PA, the government had raised taxes and certain commodity prices, and was tardy in paying salaries. Unions were enraged. Small businesses closed. And without funding, the economic hope Fayyad’s institution-building program had instilled in Palestinian-ruled areas of the occupied West Bank evaporated, leaving people helpless, hopeless and without any sense of agency.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Palestinians have not had national elections since 2006. This is mainly the fault of Hamas, which even boycotted the West Bank municipal elections this year. And though they were only opposed by independents, Fatah still fared poorly. But given their own dreadful record, Hamas has been justifiably terrified of Palestinian voters. Nonetheless, lack of elections means political legitimacy among Palestinians remains unresolved.

With the American election over, the Palestine Liberation Organization has decided to pursue a November 29 request to the UN General Assembly for a Palestinian mission upgrade to “non-member observer state status.” The change itself wouldn’t do much to alter the prerogatives of the mission. It might allow Palestine to join the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court. But even then, prospects for an investigation, let alone an indictment, of Israeli officials by the ICC are extremely remote.

So this year’s effort is much less ambitious, impressive or spectacular than last year’s, even though it will certainly succeed if such a resolution is presented to the UNGA. Its primary effect will be to further infuriate the Western donor base and impoverish the PA. At the September meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee of donors, PA Finance Minister Nabil Kassis bluntly told the group that without desperately needed funds, both the peace process and the future of the PA were in grave peril. He apparently returned to Ramallah empty-handed.

The PLO strategy seems to be to achieve a symbolic victory at the UN in November, and then try to undo the damage this will probably cause with Western donors by offering immediate negotiations with Israel without preconditions. This means, in effect, dropping the demand for a settlement freeze.

It’s going to take a great deal more than a vague offer of renewed negotiations for Abbas and the PLO leadership to repair relations with Washington and the West, though this is certainly their primary challenge. The West, too, must give Ramallah real options. Otherwise the US and its allies will be deliberately and consciously choosing to empower and then deal with Hamas or other Islamists.

In a vainglorious assertion of authority, Hamas has cynically dragged the people of Gaza into another disastrous conflict. In its refusal to compromise, Israel’s government appears ideologically determined to drag its own society into an unmanageable future of endless occupation and conflict.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, by contrast, is simply limping along, aimless, friendless, penniless, seemingly without any real strategy or new ideas. It looks, in every sense of the word, lost.

Demonization Is No Excuse

If Samuel Johnson was right that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel—religion, presumably, being the first—the lowest form of nationalistic pandering is also the simplest: demonization of the other and “the enemy.” The current conflict between Israel and militant groups in Gaza provides a choice array of the ugliness and cynicism of demonization, with demagogues on both sides clutching frantically at the opportunity to whip up fear and hatred. Words matter. Words shape attitudes. Attitudes define actions. And actions can kill.

On the Israeli side, the ugliness has rarely been this crass. The Jerusalem Post recently published a commentary by Gilad Sharon, son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, that bordered on the genocidal. Sharon was as blunt as this: “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza.”

Israeli security forces fire tear gas during clashes with Palestinians protesting against Israel’s offensive in Gaza, during a demonstration in the West Bank on November 20, 2012. (Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images)

If any Iranian official said such a thing about Israel, calls would resound for his indictment by the International Criminal Court. And Sharon was only echoing Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said that the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”

But it’s okay, Sharon explains, because, “The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.” Let’s not even bother with the obvious historical inaccuracy of this raving. Here’s the nitty-gritty: If Israel decides it’s in its interests to murder civilians in Gaza neighborhood by neighborhood, then they deserve to be killed.

All my life I’ve heard arguments from Arabs about there being no “civilian settlers,” and, occasionally, even no “civilian Israelis.” Last time somebody said that to me was in a car traveling at high speeds near Beirut. I demanded that he stop the car so I could get out on the middle of the highway. He refused. I contemplated hurling myself out onto the road to get away from him, but I figured I had made my point without actually courting suicide.

It’s just so easy to think like this: whatever we choose to do to the other side is entirely their own fault. They started it. They chose it. They’re not “innocent,” even if they’re civilians, non-combatants or, for that matter, children. Recall the settler rabbis’ book “The King’s Torah,” which religiously endorsed killing children who might possibly grow up to become enemies. So conscience need not make cowards of us, after all.

A similar tactic was pursued by noted Israeli commentator David Horovitz, who simply castigated Hamas as “godless killers” (that completely inverts their disturbingly theocratic hierarchy of values, of course). Horovitz makes the point that Hamas has behaved cynically, putting the people of Gaza, Israel and even the West Bank at risk. That’s true. But the death toll reveals a deeper, far more complex, reality: 131 Palestinians, at least, most of them civilians and many of them children, killed, as opposed to three Israelis.

Horovitz argues the conflict is a very simple one, especially in moral terms: “They are people who glory in death. Since we delight in life, we had better prevail.” It’s as simple as that. They are bad, evil, and must be crushed. We are good, decent and we must win. No complication. No effort to contextualize Hamas’s history, ideology, relationship with the Palestinian public, or anything else. They are simply “godless killers.”

But oddly enough those who “delight in life” have certainly managed to kill a whole bunch of innocent people over the past few days. Meanwhile, those who “glory in death” seem to have had most of this “glory” robbed from them by the Israeli military.

I’m focusing here on Israeli voices, but similar attitudes abound on the Arab side. And they are to be found in every conflict. The longer any conflict drags on, the deeper ingrained and more bitter they will become.

But they are a symptom of conflict. Not a cause. The substitution of an effect for a cause is an old technique and trick of classical sophistry. Indeed, it is the most common form ofmetalepsis, designed to confuse the audience. In this case, it’s designed to trick you into thinking that killing civilians or other war crimes are somehow okay because, for whatever reason, it’s the other side’s fault.

But it’s never okay. Not when Hamas, or any other Arabs or Muslims, commit crimes against Israelis, settlers included. And not when Israelis or their military commit crimes against Palestinians, or any other Arabs, including the innocent civilian population of Gaza.

No amount of hate speech or demonization relieves anyone of their moral responsibilities or justifies war crimes, even if Israelis and Palestinians, and their friends, are presently clambering over each other to try to prove Dr. Johnson correct.


Talk Like An Egyptian

As the conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza drags on, there are growing signs both sides need to look for a face-saving way out. The best solution for almost all concerned would probably be a cease-fire brokered by, or credited to, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, which could secure many of the most important aims of the main parties. Both Israel and Hamas have their reasons for wanting to extricate themselves sooner rather than later from the current conflagration. They have both achieved significant results already, but may have overplayed their hands and be facing rapidly diminishing returns.

Palestinian girls walk in front of a photograph of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shaking hands with the Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City on August 29, 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / GettyImages)
Palestinian girls walk in front of a photograph of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shaking hands with the Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City on August 29, 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / GettyImages)

For the Israelis, their main aim was to restore a sense of “deterrence.” Certainly the assassinations of Hamas’s military commander Ahmed Jabari and rocket-launching unit chief Yehiya Bia and several other key Gaza militant figures, including leading Islamic Jihad operatives Ramez Hamez, Baha Abu al-Alta, Tayasir Jabari, and Khalil Bahatin, have made clear the consequences of deciding to resume rocket attacks against Israel. Israel’s second goal of destroying stockpiles of weapons has also been to some degree accomplished, although the primary threat does not come from longer-range rockets that can reach Tel Aviv but from short range “Qassam” projectiles that are crude, easy to produce and for which Israel has no strategic answer other than its partially-effective “Iron Dome” missile defense system.

However, Israel is beginning to feel a serious backlash from the assault. At least 100 Palestinians, including 50 civilians, many of them children, have been killed during the attacks. Israel’s attacks on several media centers, injuring numerous journalists, including international reporters, were widely condemned. Even more embarrassing was the inexplicable assault on the al-Dalou family home which killed 12 Palestinian civilians, including numerous children, from three generations of that family and their neighbors.

Statements from Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai that “the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages” only added to the growing since that Israel was overreaching. And, as Israel’s preeminent political commentator, Nahum Barnea, pointed out, Israeli soldiers killed on the battlefield in Gaza could prove an electoral catastrophe for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hamas, too—while it may have achieved a kind of diplomatic breakthrough with a string of high-level visitations beginning with the Emir of Qatar, followed by the Prime Minister of Egypt, the Foreign Minister of Tunisia, and announced potential visits from the foreign minister and prime minister of Turkey and an Arab League delegation—is beginning to feel the heat. Hamas leaders must remember that while Palestinians rallied around them during the last Israeli assault in 2008 to 2009, there was a subsequent backlash which held them responsible for the consequences of rocket attacks.

Gaza militant groups may have changed the psychology of the conflict by showing Tel Aviv is potentially within the reach of their unguided, medium-range missiles, but these are not the real strategic challenge for Israel compared to the easily produced, crude short range rockets. And Hamas must know that by presenting “terms for a cease fire” to the Egyptian leadership, they may be overplaying their hand with a vitally important new ally.

Both sides may feel they still have more to accomplish and that the formula for getting out of this mess hasn’t yet arisen. But an Egyptian-brokered deal potentially provides something for everybody.

Israeli leaders can claim they restored deterrence, took out key militant leaders, destroyed infrastructure and demonstrated that there is a heavy price for anyone attacking Israel from Gaza. Hamas leaders can claim to have stood up to Israel, shown the Israeli public they can reach Tel Aviv, once again unfurled the banner of armed resistance, and achieved major diplomatic breakthroughs with the recent high level visits to Gaza.

Morsi can achieve the neatest trick of all: he can continue with what are effectively Mubarak-era policies—Egypt serving as a broker of cease-fires and a liaison between Hamas and Israel—while presenting the whole thing as a reassertion of Egypt’s regional leadership, and a new foreign policy that stands closer to Hamas (mainly by symbolically dispatching his prime minister to Gaza). So he can create the appearance of popular change without actually changing policies that would aggravate relations with Israel or the United States.

The Americans, too, have much to benefit from such an arrangement as President Barack Obama is already warning about the potential damage caused by an Israeli ground assault in Gaza as he continues, inevitably, to repeat platitudes about Israel’s right to self-defense.

The only real losers in such an arrangement might be Islamic Jihad and other, smaller and more militant groups that, unlike Hamas, want to continue the fighting. And, of course, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah which, throughout, has stood by like an impotent bystander blustering about purely symbolic U.N. initiatives while real people are dying by the scores.


Operation Cast Lead 2.0?

Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jaabari in a missile attack has shattered the short-lived and fragile calm in the Gaza Strip, and could be another step in the transformation of the basic balance of power within Hamas — and even the broader Palestinian national movement. The attack is the most significant escalation since Operation Cast Lead, the offensive Israel launched in Gaza in December 2008, and which cost an estimated 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives.

It is impossible to know how the conflict will unfold in the days ahead, but what is clear is that the outbreak of violence is the result of a swirl of events that are reshaping power structures within Hamas and its relationships with regional forces, including with Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced that Jaabari’s killing was the first strike in “a widespread campaign” to “protect Israeli civilians and to cripple the terrorist infrastructure” — and indeed, the IDF hit a number of targets across Gaza in the hours that followed, killing at least eight Palestinians. It’s possible that these developments are laying prelude to another Israeli ground intervention in Gaza. On Nov. 11, Israel’s Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter declared, “Israel must perform a reformatting of Gaza, and rearrange it” — but gave no indication of what that dire-sounding phrase might mean in practice.

During most of the period since Cast Lead, the Hamas rulers in Gaza have refrained from attacks against Israel and tried to prevent other militant groups from launching attacks as well. But as 2012 has progressed, that policy has changed — largely due to internal transformations within the group itself.

The internal dynamic of Hamas has traditionally been that leaders in its Politburo, which is based almost entirely in neighboring Arab countries, were more militant than their compatriots inside Gaza. It was the leaders in exile who maintained close relations with the radical regimes in Iran and Syria, while the Hamas government in Gaza was more restrained because it had more to lose from violence with Israel.

That calculation has been inverted in recent months as Hamas’s foreign alliances have undergone a dramatic transformation and its domestic wing has made a bold attempt to assert its primacy. Hamas’s relationship with Damascus completely collapsed when the group came out in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Politburo had to abandon its Damascus headquarters, and is now scattered in capitals throughout the Arab world. This has also created enormous strains with Iran, which is apparently supplying much less funding and material to Hamas than before.

Hamas leaders in Gaza, meanwhile, have increasingly been making the case that the Politburo does not represent the organization’s paramount leadership — but rather its diplomatic wing, whose main role is to secure aid and support from foreign governments. It is the Hamas government and paramilitary force in Gaza, they argue, that are in the driver’s seat, because they are actually involved in fighting Israel.

The desire to be the tip of the spear against Israel explains why Hamas involved itself in rocket attacks against Israel earlier this year, and has done much less to prevent other groups from launching attacks in recent weeks. The attacks are part of the case for the transfer of paramount leadership away from the exiles and to the Hamas political and military leadership in Gaza, which portrays itself as doing the ruling and the fighting.

This internal struggle has been given renewed urgency by the September announcement from the group’s current head, Khaled Meshaal, that he would step down. The two contenders for the top spot are Hamas’s de facto leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and the present Politburo number two, the Cairo-based Musa Abu Marzook. A Haniyeh victory would cement the transfer of power within Hamas to Gaza, while Abu Marzook represents continued hopes that Hamas’s fortunes hinge on benefiting from the region-wide “Islamic Awakening” — the group’s interpretation of what others call the Arab Spring.

These rocket attacks don’t just come at a time of intense internal wrangling within Hamas, but also Israel’s upcoming election in January. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have been under enormous pressure to forcefully respond to the continued rocket fire — more than 800 rockets so far this year, according to Israeli officials — and Jaabari’s assassination sends the most powerful of messages. Netanyahu has made his political career on security issues, but even if he hopes to limit the conflagration, it could spiral out of everyone’s control.

The third vital context for Wednesday’s offensive is the upcoming initiative by the Palestine Liberation Organization to formally request an upgrade at the U.N. General Assembly to “non-member observer state status.” Israel is vehemently opposed to this resolution, which is certain to win a majority if it is submitted. Jerusalem has reacted with a series of dire threats — including cutting off the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, declaring the Oslo Agreements “null and void,” overthrowing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, greatly expanding settlement activity, or even unilaterally annexing parts of the occupied West Bank.

Israel has also been marshaling U.S. and European opposition to the PLO’s statehood bid, apparently with a great deal of success. Together, they have been able to paint the move as “unilateral” and provocative, setting the stage for retaliatory measures. But the Israelis must be aware that any further financial, diplomatic, or political blows to the badly ailing Palestinian Authority — which is currently unable to meet the public employee payroll, on which the majority of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza depend — can only strengthen Hamas.

During last year’s PLO initiative at the United Nations, Hamas was in such disarray from its growing crisis with Syria and Iran that it was in no condition to exploit Israeli “punishment” of the PLO. This time, however, Hamas is in an entirely different position: It appears to be on the brink of achieving considerable regional and international legitimacy. The emir of Qatar recently visited Gaza, becoming the first head of state to do so, and promised $400 million in reconstruction aid to the de facto Hamas government there. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also reportedly considering a formal visit to Gaza. Egypt, too, is vying for Hamas’s affections, although President Mohammed Morsy’s government has done little to practically help the group.

Hamas can claim, for the first time in many years, to have a vision for the future, reliable patrons, and regional momentum as the primary beneficiaries of a wave of Islamist political victories across the Middle East. The PLO, Hamas can argue, has no money, no friends, no vision, and no future.

If the PLO goes forward with its initiative at the United Nations and Israel and the West react with significant punitive measures, Hamas is better positioned than ever to be the direct political beneficiary. Indeed, it will never have been closer to its cherished aim of seizing control of the Palestinian national movement — and possibly even the PLO itself — from its secular nationalist rivals.

The people of Israel will not find peace and security through endless wars with an ever-evolving array of Palestinian militants — the inevitable consequence of the lack of a peace agreement. For all its death and destruction, Operation Cast Lead failed to solve any of Israel’s security issues and did nothing to weaken Hamas’s grip on power in Gaza. But it did expose Israel to unprecedented international condemnation regarding its targeting of civilian and non-military targets, alleged war crimes, and excessive use of force. Those who fire rockets from Gaza, or countenance such attacks must also be held responsible for what they know full well will be the Israeli response — the price of which will, as always, be primarily paid by ordinary, innocent Palestinians.

Make no mistake: Jaabari’s assassination is a major blow to Hamas’s military wing, which lost its long-standing leader. And even if this is the beginning of a “reformatting” of Gaza, Israel could once again end up winning the battle but losing the war: If it is not careful, developments on the Gaza battlefield could end up strengthening rather than weakening Hamas. Worse still, it could empower extreme, new Palestinian jihadist organizations that have begun to crop up in Gaza. The potential for miscalculation on all sides — bringing another round of mayhem that only makes matters worse for everyone — is grave.


Morsi’s Gaza Challenge

Reports that open areas near Tel Aviv or waters off its coast were struck by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have transformed the politics and psychology of the conflict, making a major Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip much more likely.

The interest of Israeli politicians in striking a tough pose in advance of an election is straightforward. But the intentions of those in Gaza who know full well what the Israeli response is likely to be, and are deliberately provoking the strongest reaction they can, are less clear-cut. One potential motivation might be to call the bluff of the new Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

Palestinian relatives mourn over the body of Hanen Tafish, a 10-month-old girl, at the morgue of the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, on November 15, 2012, after she died following an Israeli air strike in the Zeitun neighborhood. (Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images)
Palestinian relatives mourn over the body of Hanen Tafish, a 10-month-old girl, at the morgue of the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, on November 15, 2012, after she died following an Israeli air strike in the Zeitun neighborhood. (Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images)

Morsi, who is ideologically aligned with his fellow Muslim Brothers in Hamas, has in fact been conducting a foreign policy towards Gaza that is, if anything, tougher than that of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, including the destruction of many smuggling tunnels. Morsi has thus far been protected from a public opinion backlash in Egypt by his Islamist credentials.

However, a widescale incursion by Israel in Gaza remotely resembling the “Cast Lead” operation that began in December 2008, which took the lives of almost 1,500 Palestinians, would completely call his bluff. He wouldn’t be able to keep pretending to be staking out a new foreign policy while continuing, or even toughening, Egypt’s traditional stratagems. And in all likelihood, he would be forced to begin to seriously recalibrate relations with Israel to the benefit of Hamas, which has been waiting impatiently, and thus far in vain, for some practical dividend from his presidential victory.

Qatar kicked the ball off in the new game with the official visit from its Emir to Gaza a few weeks ago, almost daring other Arab states, particularly Egypt, to follow suit by recognizing the political and diplomatic legitimacy of Hamas. Given the public outcry over Israeli attacks on Gaza, Morsi has already recalled his ambassador to Tel Aviv and has apparently instructed his Prime Minister to visit Gaza tomorrow in his official capacity.

Until now, it appeared that Israel’s preferred strategic response to the violence that had growing over recent weeks was to simultaneously escalate by assassinating Hamas’s military commander Ahmed Jabari, and prepare for the contingency of a limited ground offensive. As I have explained elsewhere, the increase in rocket attacks against Israel in recent months is linked to an internal power struggle within Hamas; an attempt to shift the decision-making authority within the organization to the political and military leaders in Gaza and away from the Politburo scattered throughout Arab capitals.

Jabari’s assassination was clearly meant not only as an escalation by Israel, but a message that if Hamas’s change of policy meant that its commander would no longer be preventing attacks on Israel, he would be eliminated. At the same time, Israel was strongly signaling that any action it was preparing on the ground would be limited compared to the “Cast Lead.”

But at least some forces in Gaza evidently have no interest in containing the conflict. By targeting Israel’s main city, militants in Gaza have performed a major escalation of their own, at least as provocative as Israel’s assassination of Jabari. Israel, it appears, escalated, but wanted a limited war. Others, it seems, want a major war. Whoever is funding, arming and encouraging the factions in Gaza that are firing missiles at Tel Aviv clearly have no interest in a contained or limited conflict.

In the run-up to the January election, Israeli politicians, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, will now be tempted to launch a much more open-ended military intervention in Gaza in order to be able to claim they are taking decisive action. The voices that have been urging much more far-reaching Israeli military measures in Gaza, such as Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter, who, on November 11 said, “Israel must perform a reformatting of Gaza, and rearrange it,” will be greatly emboldened. Those, such as Yosef Kuperwasser, director of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, who point out that no amount of war will resolve Israel’s dilemmas regarding Gaza, will be very much on the defensive.

Even the limited conflict thus far between Israel and Gaza has put Morsi in an exposed and difficult position. The kind of intensified conflict being provoked both by Israel’s high profile assassination and efforts to attack Tel Aviv itself by Gaza militants will quickly make his position untenable. His party’s ideology and Egyptian public opinion will inevitably collide with Egypt’s national interests and the traditional policies he has so far been rather scrupulously maintaining.

He can always try to play the role of broker, and negotiate cease-fires and truces. But it’s clear that Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza, and their international backers, are no longer willing to wait for the Morsi victory dividend. They want Egypt to move in Hamas’s direction, right away.

Alternatively, those targeting Tel Aviv might be seeking to outflank both Morsi and Hamas, and ultimately strengthen the small but growing “Jihadist” movements in Gaza. Chief among these is Islamic Jihad, which is still tied to Iran, and which has claimed “credit” for the attack on Tel Aviv, but there are other much smaller and much more extreme “Jihadist” groups gaining ground in Gaza.

All of those who are escalating this conflict—whether Israeli politicians looking at reelection, or militants in Gaza trying to force the hand of Egypt’s new president or achieve some other strategic results—are gambling with the lives of ordinary people. With senior Hamas figures assassinated and rockets now falling in or near Tel Aviv, political cynicism on all sides has brought us to the brink of a potential calamity, above all for the long-suffering people of Gaza.

MB and Salafists: the Closest of Frienemies

Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists and Salafists in contemporary Arab politics can only be described as “frienemies.” In its more nuanced form, this word describes the relationship of those who are simultaneously, for different purposes, both valued allies and deadly rivals.

This is particularly true in post-dictatorship Egypt and Tunisia. Salafists and Muslim Brothers disagree about much, but stand in common opposition to secularists, liberals and progressives. Ultimately, each would prefer to live under systems dominated by their Islamist rivals than any form of secularism. There is obviously a huge range among the Islamist, and especially Salafist, groups. Any quick overview like this is bound to be reductive. But its general outlines are accurate.

Islamists often, but not always, unite against secularists or remnants of the old dictatorships. In Egypt, the Salafist Al-Nour party courted former Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq when it appeared he might win the presidency. And there have been numerous other instances in which various Islamists have tried to leverage temporary alliances of convenience with non-Islamist parties against each other.

Insofar as Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties now dominate the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, Salafist agitation almost invariably undermines their rule. The long-term Salafist goal of unseating the Brotherhood as the vanguard Islamist movement is obvious. They do this by continuously attempting to upstage the Brotherhood on “Islamic” piety.

One of the silliest instances of this was at the outset of the first post-Mubarak Egyptian parliament, when a Salafist MP rose in the middle of opening proceedings and began shouting out the Muslim call to prayer. The Muslim Brotherhood parliament speaker admonished him that there was a mosque nearby, and this was Parliament, not a house of prayer. To everybody else it looked completely ridiculous, but from the Salafist point of view, mission accomplished.

Salafist riots in Tunisia against “un-Islamic” cultural expressions such as art galleries and cinemas proved deeply embarrassing, and even destabilizing, to An-Nahda. Salafist TV preachers in Tunisia urged their young cadres to engage in street battles with An-Nahda toughs. And over the past few weeks, Egyptian Salafists have been staging large and angry protests against the Muhammad Morsi government, as have their Tunisian brethren against the An-Nahda-led troika coalition.

The two sides in Egypt are wrangling over, among other things, Article Two of the draft Constitution. The Brotherhood appears prepared to live with the traditional reference to “principles of Sharia Law” as the main source of legislation, a vague wording with limited legal impact. The Salafists, however, are demanding the removal of the word “principles,” theoretically making Sharia the direct source of legislation.

With Brotherhood parties now leading governments that have to be responsible for actual policies rather than mere rhetoric, they find themselves open to an endless series of accusations of impiety or hypocrisy from their Salafist rivals.

When ideologues seriously vie for power, they typically find their slogans often don’t match their interests or imperatives. The new Egyptian government, for example, has been borrowing and lending money at large amounts of interest, performing extraordinary feats of theological and rhetorical contortions to explain how this does not constitute some form of “usury.” The Salafists themselves had for decades denounced politics, government and, above all, voting, as sinful and “worldly,” only to form parties and stand for elections the minute the opportunity presented itself.

To make matters worse, there is a crucial difference in political perception at play. In Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, there is every indication that the Brotherhood feels deeply vulnerable in spite of its apparent strength. They seem to fear they may have peaked too early, and won’t be able to replicate their strong victories in future elections. And they appear to recognize that while they may have secured the cooperation of, they have not yet gained control over, the greatest sources of government power: the military and police.

This is what An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was trying, apparently in vain, to explain to Tunisian Salafists in his embarrassing video comments urging them to be patient while his party worked to seize control of the army and security forces to forestall “a secularist comeback.” Ghannouchi says he fears that if Salafists push the Islamist agenda too far or too quickly, they could experience a repeat of the bloody backlash against them in Algeria in the 1990s. It’s hyperbole, perhaps, but indicative of the different attitudes that stem from power and opposition, and a thinly-veiled threat as well.

Salafist and Brotherhood preachers inveigh against secularists on television and from the pulpit in unison, and sometimes in seeming coordination. On that much, they agree. But they also regularly accuse each other of any manner of misdeeds and frequently leverage alliances with the very secularists they both detest.

At one register they are the strongest of allies, while at another the bitterest of enemies. They are the closest of frienemies.