Why did Israel launch its offensive on Gaza on 27 December? Little is clear and as always there are competing accounts and interpretations, with even more confusion and argument over its degree of success or failure.
On the face of it, leaving aside the human cost, the balance sheet is seriously in deficit for the Kadima/Labour coalition government of Israel. Killing over 1200 Palestinians, a third of them children, meant it took another beating in international opinion. It looks like it will take a beating in the elections in the coming week. Corporal Shalit who has been held by a Hamas group since he was captured in June 2006 has not been handed back and the sporadic launching of Qassem rockets by fragmented Palestinian groups in Gaza has not stopped. So the government faces the dilemma so commonly produced by the use of force, whether to do it again even though it palpably didn’t achieve its objectives first time round. It is, therefore, not possible as it sometimes in such cases to figure out motives on the basis of the effects of the action.
So what did the Israeli government think it stood to to gain from what turns out to have been a quite significantlycounter-productive action? Usually, this kind of question gets a one-dimensional answer that differs according to which side the commentator stands of this bitter partisan divide: for Israel’s supporters and defenders, it’s a matter of security; for its critics, a matter of power. But the dynamics of conflict are more complex than the parties in a conflict and their supporters usually make out.
When I was in Israel on a brief visit a couple of years ago, just a few weeks before Hamas out-fought Fatah to take control of Gaza , the Qassem rockets were regarded by several Israelis I met in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as an issue of only modest significance. That was an urban perspective, not the views of settlers, who are always much more militant, nor the way it looked in rural southern Israel where you were vulnerable to the rockets, however infrequent their launches and random their targeting. Some Israelis (some said, most) were beginning to regard Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular as barely an irritant. With the wall being built, many Israelis seemed to think their country’s trajectory no longer depended on sorting out relations with Palestine – in a view I heard expressed several times, Israel neither needed Palestine economically nor feared it for any security threat.
But those were the views before Hamas took control in Gaza. Over the following year, until a ceasefire that was inaugurated in June 2008, over 500 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military action and 14 Israelis by Palestinian groups. While each death is in itself a tragedy, it is hard to view that death toll as calamitous for Israel. The ceasefire lasted six months. Hamas ended it because Israel refused in negotiations in mid-December via Egyptian intermediaries to relax its economic blockade of Gaza or open border crossings. The situation then returned to what it had been in the first half of 2008 and Qassem rocket launches recommenced. As in the year up to the ceasefire, while there would be human tragedies, there seemed no reason to think the rockets would be a real threat to Israel’s security.
Nonetheless I think it is pretty one-eyed of Israel’s critics simply to dismiss the idea that security of Israeli citizens is an issue or a motive for the government. A government that cannot assure the security of its citizens is falling down on one of its basic functions. It should cause neither surprise nor outrage if a government takes action to try to improve ordinary citizens’ security. And it is hardly conceivable that Hamas would condone the rocket launches if it did not believe that they offered some sort of a challenge to Israel, its security or its well-being. While the security of Israel as such would not be at stake because of Qassem rockets, the security of some of its citizens always will be. Many have argued that Israel’s reaction was disproportionate and either recklessly indiscriminate or cruelly precise in its targeting; that is as it may be but still does not mean that the Israeli government had no thought for security when it launched the offensive.
It is worth thinking about two aspects of power politics that may have influenced the Israeli government. The first is the question of Israel’s power over Palestinians. It is pretty complete – Israel has overwhelming military superiority over militant Palestinian groups, has an economic and political stranglehold on both Gaza and the West Bank, is increasing its occupation of the West Bank, has won the international political and diplomatic argument about its right to exist as well as the fight over its survival, successfully resists the return of refugees, and currently has the effective power of veto on whether there will ever be a Palestinian state. But some Israeli strategists and politicians want to go further. Despite all these advantages, Palestinians still resist. There is an Israeli school of thought that both wants and thinks it feasible to deal Palestinian society such a crushing blow that the Palestinian will to resist would be broken for a generation or more.
That could explain the cruelty of some of the attacks, whose effect visibly took away the breath of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But it is not commensurate with the scale of the offensive. Initial estimates are that it will take Gaza 3-5 years to rebuild, but the will to resist has quite visibly not been broken. And it is scarcely credible that that is what Israel would have expected; it is risible to think that a three-week contained offensive could destroy what has not been destroyed by 60 years of statelessness and 40 years of occupation.
Power politics may nonetheless have been a motive, in that the Israeli government was doubtless seeking to gain increased credibility within Israel by its firm action. The trouble is, since it has not achieved its objectives, it is easy for the offensive to be painted in the colours of inadequacy, with the conclusion that it is time to make way for a government that would see the thing through. If this was a motive, which is certainly credible, it has not worked.
The international stage
While it is credible that both security and domestic political power motivated the Israeli offensive, I think there may well have been a third and more powerful reason. Understanding it helps to explain a particular issue – the timing. Note that, when the ceasefire ended in December, Israel could have returned to the status quo ante of a low-level conflict that killed 500 Palestinians, mostly militants, in a 12-month period. Instead it opted for an intensive if contained military action, that killed 1200 Palestinians, well over half of them non-combatants, in just three weeks. Yet note also that this has not had a decisive effect on the immediate conflict situation, in that Qassem attacks have continued.
What the action has done is to put the new Obama administration in a jam. It was no secret that Obama came into office seeking a way out of Iraq and looking to reorganise US relations with Iran. Israel is unhappy about both policies. At the same time, in the interests of broader regional stability, it was expected that Obama would be looking for yet another revival of the search for a long-term settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Andeverybody understands that this must be done without provoking the opposition of the pro-Israel lobby in the US – that is, it must be done quietly.
In the Middle East, everything is connected to everything else and anybody seeking to intervene politically must ride several horses simultaneously in different directions. In the weeks before his inauguration, Obama’s silence over the Gaza offensive was widely noted in the region with considerable sourness. The argument that he was silent because there is only president at a time cut little ice with observers who noted he had no problem talking about the economy during the transition. Within the Middle East, the contrast took a considerable amount of gloss off the new administration’s initiation. And with that, some – by no means all, but some – of Obama’s legitimacy and appeal was lost, which he needs in order to maintain US credibility even as he changes tack in regional policy.
In other words, the main thing that has changed as a result of Israel’s Gaza offensive is not Israel’s security or the Kadima/Labour coalition government’s prospects of re-election; the main thing that has changed is that Obama’s policy will be even harder to implement. And if Obama had reacted openly and critically to the offensive, this would have brought the Israel lobby into action in the US, undermining the domestic base of his new approach to the Middle East. Thus, however he reacted, the Gaza offensive would have made Obama’s policy goals harder to reach.
Knocking the new US administration off balance at its outset is a significant gain for Israel, which benefits almost as much from a US administration’s uncertainty as from its open support. This analysis is inevitably speculative but Israel has often shown a subtle understanding of how both US and Middle Eastern politics work, and though the Olmert government is not the shrewdest ever to have led Israel, such a manoeuvre is not beyond it. For this gain, Israel has paid a significant political price, and overall its Gaza balance is in clear deficit. But it is, of course and as always, Gaza that has paid the human price.