The other day Politico’s Arena asked if President Obama should follow the suggestion of Senator McCain and appoint former President Clinton a special Middle East negotiator to end the current spat of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Presidents, terrorism, Middle East, I just had to answer:
First, it has to be observed: tens of thousands have been killed in the Syrian civil war but the story is soon buried. A flurry of fighting involving Israel becomes immediate front-page news that requires international attention and high-level negotiators.
Is recommending Clinton as a Middle East negotiation a plan by McCain to move Clinton out of US politics, where he has been extremely effective as an advocate and supporter of President Obama?
It is difficult to imagine what former President Clinton could bring to a peace process. There is a relatively narrow window for peace agreements (as opposed to cease-fires.) Is Hamas really prepared to crack-down on those who launch rockets, because if they are not then Israel cannot offer them anything. For that matter, does Hamas have demands that Israel can realistically meet?
When Egyptian President Sadat travelled to Jerusalem in 1977 he was making a clear and explicit statement that the end goal of achieving peace was his highest priority. Great efforts were still required to make the Egyptian-Israeli peace a reality, and President Carter’s personal engagement was essential in making it possible. But the Egyptians had made a profound first step. It is not apparent that this has occurred among Hamas.
With that out of the way, I’ll offer a few additional thoughts on this sad, sad conflict. But only a few. I’ve spent substantial chunks of my career on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is just so painfully sad and – surprisingly peripheral. The deaths of children in war is awful, but there are so many other places where far more terrifying things happen. Further, the deaths of children from disease and malnutrition pervades the world. Rationally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a small, local scuffle (maybe bigger than Ecuador vs. Peru, but nothing like Pakistan vs. India.) As I noted above, tens of thousands have been killed in Syria – shouldn’t that matter more?
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels rage throughout the greater Middle East which raises temperatures around the world. It is always important to remember the importance of emotional issues in world affairs.
As to this round of fighting in particular, Janine Zacharia writing in Slate makes the thoughtful point:
Netanyahu is surely right. Israel’s response to these ongoing rocket attacks is justified. But being justified isn’t the same thing as being smart. The truth is Israel has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip for five years now, with no plan besides a misguided military strategy for how to end it.
I’m inclined to agree, but what would a smart strategy in Gaza look like? Sometimes it can be to the advantage of a stronger power to make concessions to a weaker power – and it is fair to point out that the military plays an outsized role in Israeli national security decision-making. But what concessions can Israeli realistically make, would they be enough to induce a change in Hamas behavior or would they merely lead Hamas to the conclusion that violence works? What if those concessions are followed by violence, either at the hand of Hamas or by one of the myriad other uncontrollable factions (the inestimable BJ Tucker gives a brief overview of how Palestinian factionalization hampers cease-fire negotiations. Israeli can accept occasional rocket fire, but serious Israeli casualties or rocket fire near the main Israeli population centers will not be ignored and lead to even harsher reprisals (concessions and tolerance can only go so far).
A key part of this narrative is that Mubarak sold peace with Israel on the cheap. In Egypt it is believed that the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives a year in military aid, and hundreds of millions more in economic aid, are just a portion of what Egypt’s adherence to peace is worth. To get more, the plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to persuade Washington that it can’t take Egypt for granted. The strategy will be to stimulate crises that will be amenable to resolution by the transfer of resources. No one can predict what those crises will look like. It’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t involve Israel.
To some extent the same goes for Hamas. Clearly an open recognition of Israel would be a tremendous boon for Gaza. But, as noted above, issues of the heart often trump the “rational actor” theory. But for Hamas in particular, the conflict with Israel is essential to their ability to govern and attract international attention. Without the conflict they revert to being a small corner of a big world. And it does not help that neighbor Egypt now believes its best strategy is to fan the flames with Israel and then take credit for putting them out.
A closing thought on this rambling, and sad post. Is the smart strategy a lose-lose? Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has kept things quiet on Israel’s northern border. In the 2006 war, Israel was perceived to have lost. But Hezbollah was hurt badly and recognized that a few more victories like 2006 would destroy the organization. So Israel won by losing – giving Hezbollah the public victory while letting them know that Israeli capabilities remained extremely formidable. With this image of victory, Hezbollah has been able to keep its border quiet and refrain from future attacks on Israel. (Perhaps the same could be argued about the relationship between the Yom Kippur War and Sadat’s willingness to make peace a few years later.) But it is tough to see how Israel could throw one to Hamas. Nonetheless, it is food for thought.