Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Talk and Action

“The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews. Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it, Turkey threw out a million Greeks, and Algeria a million Frenchmen. Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese—and no one says a word about refugees. But in the case of Israel the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees. Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single Arab. Arnold Toynbee calls the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis. Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms. But when Israel is victorious it must sue for peace.”
—Author/longshoreman/philospher Eric Hoffer, writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1968

Let us stipulate that the killing of hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is a tragedy and a travesty and should not have happened. Let us further stipulate that, while Israel did not initiate the current military conflict with Hamas and Israel has the right to self-defense, those facts by no means confer absolution on Israel for the loss of innocent life directly at its hands.

(As I write this, yet another cease-fire has been announced. Let us pray it holds.)

Having stipulated all that, let us look at the best course for ending the violence. Two things seem pretty obvious to the detached observer. The first is that, when Hamas stops its rocket attacks on Israel, then Israel stops its not-always-pinpoint-accurate retaliation against the launch sites in Gaza. The second is that, when Israel stops its assault on Gaza, Hamas does not stop its attacks on Israel. So from a practical point of view, the obvious solution would lie in getting Hamas to stop its attacks.

Why then does the diplomatic pressure seem directed mainly at Israel?

It is because Israel is a democratic constitutional state and thereby susceptible to moral pressure. Hamas, on the other hand, is an organization that wields power largely through the force of its weapons and which has been designated by many countries as a terrorist group. It is by definition virtually impervious to moral persuasion. But that does not mean that it is impervious to other kinds of persuasion.

The week before last, Secretary of State John Kerry made a fool of himself by consulting with two of the very few governments who actually support Hamas, Qatar and Turkey, and then presenting Hamas’s wish list to Israel as a proposed cease-fire agreement. As recounted by The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, this not only (all too predictably) upset the Israelis but also most other Arab nations as well, particularly Egypt which shares a border with Gaza and which was shut out of the discussion and also the Palestinian Authority, the so-called moderate Palestinians who are technically in partnership with Hamas but remain rivals with that group and would prefer to see it out of Gaza.

When Kerry gets praise for his diplomatic efforts, it usually takes the form of “well, at least he’s trying” or “at least he is doing something.” That is what many commentators said when he energetically threw himself into new Israel/Palestinian talks after succeeding Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. In hindsight, it is easy to see why the wilier Clinton—and the Bush Administration before her, after some early forays—did not go near the Palestinian situation. They were savvy enough to realize that there is no reliable negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. Clinton would know this particularly well. In the final days of his presidency, her husband actually managed to get Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to agree to about 95 percent of what Yasser Arafat had insisted upon. Realistically, there was never going to be a better deal for the Palestinians than that one. And yet, knowing that winning that agreement would never satisfy his hard-liners, Arafat walked away. Two months later the Second Intifada began, and it continued for more than four years, resulting in thousands of deaths. Similarly, less than three months after Kerry’s talks broke down in April, Hamas dramatically escalated its rocket launches against Israel.

So the question is, if the immediate goal is to stop the violence, why bother continuing to put pressure on Israel, which will never agree to sit back and endure bombardments without responding? Why not put very public pressure on Qatar and Turkey for their support of Hamas? Or, more importantly, why not put public pressure on Iran, which provides missiles to Hamas? Maybe even sanctions? Oh, wait…

Perhaps Iran does not get called out so as not to complicate the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The irony is that those talks are another Kerry diplomatic initiative that is likely to have the exact opposite outcome than what is intended.

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