The Gaza conflict requires a more creative solution than is on offer
The world witnesses yet another tragic spectacle of the perennial Israel /Palestine war over Gaza. There are the appalling pictures of dead and injured children in schools and hospitals. Enormous explosions are seen on our screens where multi-story buildings are reduced to rubble in an instant. What happens to their inhabitants?
We know from the past that these periodic convulsions end with a ceasefire. That Israel agrees to withdraw its forces, and Hamas agrees to stop firing rockets.
And we wait for the next round.
Is it different this time?
Israel has declared it wants to actually defeat Hamas. But how does this occur, and at what cost, both for the Israelis and the Palestinians?
Defeating Hamas implies an all-out war, akin to defeating Nazi Germany. It means the Hamas administration is entirely replaced, either by Israeli occupation or by a transfer of authority to a compliant PLO, one dependent on Israeli power to sustain its existence. It is hard to imagine that Israel can actually achieve such a goal.
If too many people are killed in the process, especially civilians, does the equation fundamentally change? That any new administration in Gaza is doomed by virtue of its lack of legitimacy and the deep resentment that its imposition will have incurred.
But what are the constraints on Israel? There is obviously its own sense of morality, but there is also the level of international censure. Israel is used to accepting a certain level of opprobrium, but it will not want to lose the support of the major powers in Europe, much less the United States. Ultimately it is the United States that counts.
It is almost impossible to imagine the circumstances in which the United States would allow the United Nations to impose serious sanctions on Israel. There is too much history invested in being Israel’s guardian for this to happen. But one could certainly foresee a Security Council resolution that would be a severe censure of Israel. While Israel would rhetorically rebuff such a resolution, they would know that they would have transgressed serious boundaries for the United States to allow such a resolution.
So the question becomes, how close is Israel to such a resolution?
Already over 1,000 Palestinians are dead, mostly civilians. If the toll became 3,000 or 5,000 then the scale of activity would be different to what has already occurred. There would have been many more bombings and shellings of schools and hospitals. The fact they were not deliberately targeted would not be the decisive factor. It is the metronome of death that would count. Similarly if Gaza starts to look like it is systematically being reduced to rubble, the international condemnation will mount.
The Dresden equation comes into play. Dresden is a permanent stain against the reputation of the RAF, because the scale of civilian deaths was so great that it outweighed any conceivable military advantage. And this is what Israel has to measure.
At what point does the price of victory become too great to bear, either morally or militarily. And ultimately, what is victory?
Can Israel only negotiate with Palestinians who have been so comprehensively defeated that they have no choice but to accept Israeli conditions?
That is not the lesson from the Egyptian settlement. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was only possible because Egypt had won back its pride in the Yom Kippur war. If that is the precedent, then we can expect many wars yet to come between Israel and the Palestinians.
The rhetoric of the current war does not bode well for peace. Israel wants a victory. Hamas cannot accept total defeat. Unless both sides step back, Secretary Kerry’s peace missions are doomed to fail.
I suspect that contemporary United States administrations are unwilling to impose such pressure, either positive or negative, that will cause either side to step back. It requires more creativity than is evident from the current administration. Maybe it will take the time of the Clintons to come again.