AARON DAVID MILLER — Israel and Palestine are poised uneasily between a peace they cannot have and a confrontation they try to avoid.
The timing of the Israeli strikes in Gaza seems important, right after the US election cycle. How should external observers understand the recent Israeli decision?
It had to do primarily with a reality that had been building over the last year in which the numbers of high trajectory weapons fired from Gaza by smaller Islamic Jihadi groups — as well as Hamas — became a test of Israel’s capacity to deter. The problem was becoming a significant political one for Netanyahu, particularly with the approach of Israeli elections. He had to “answer the mail” on that threat, as the 2008-2009 ceasefire was clearly eroding. The context for this attack was the importance of restoring a measure of Israeli deterrence, which came at some cost given Hamas’ gains. This had nothing to do with the US elections.
It seemed, to many external observers, that the recent fighting erupted out of relative quiet. Is this view valid?
No, it certainly is not. It is crucial to track the statistics from the region. If one looks at the stats in 2009, which was the quietest of the succeeding three years since the Israeli offensive in 2008, there is a marked increase in the use of high-trajectory fire. There were daily incidents along the border. For people who follow this situation very closely, they would have observed an escalation. The key Israeli response to these attacks was the killing of Ahmed Jabari; once that was done, Hamas had no choice but to respond. And they did.
Debate on Israeli military policy in recent months has centered on the possibility of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. How can, if at all, Pillar of Defense be seen in relation to this more regional posturing? Is Hamas still allied in the same way as before with Iran or even Syria, or have they looked towards countries like Egypt or Qatar?
The Hamas-Iranian relationship has deteriorated in large part because of Syria and a growing divergence of objectives. The relocation of Khaled Meshal and the external Hamas leadership from Damascus — and their search for a new home — coinciding with Qatari willingness to support them, and the rise of the Islamists in Egypt, has created the beginnings of a shift. Whether or not this shift becomes consequential, I do not know. Those who argue for a consolidation of Hamas control in Gaza — on the part of the internal leadership — also have to be taken into account on this development. There is, in effect, a growing divergence between Iran and Hamas.
That relationship was never as strong as Iran’s real card, which is Hezbollah. I do not think the Israeli-Hamas confrontation had much to do with Iran at all. If the Israelis were interested in testing Iron Done — truly testing it — they would have triggered a confrontation with Hezbollah. In this scenario, Iron Dome would not have functioned nearly as effectively. There is a major difference between rockets — which Hamas used, and which lack precision — and missile, which Hezbollah has. Many people see the recent fighting as laying the predicate for an Israeli strike against Iran. I just do not buy that interpretation.
Although you wrote during the fighting that Hamas could have “already won the war,” looking back, who achieved “victory,” that is, could Hamas and Israel have emerged in a better position than they were in before? Is victory too strong a word?
Hamas won big time vis-a-vis Abbas. There are no victors in this situation; victory assumes a comprehensiveness and a finality. There is no victory. There is no end-state. This is the greatest reason that — barring some other development — we will be back fighting again in some form further down the road. The Israelis and Hamas both came out of this conflict having experienced important gains.
There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the way in which the recent offensive has bolstered Hamas at Fatah’s expense. How do Israeli leaders dissemble their policy towards the Fatah-led West Bank and the seemingly much more militant Hamas Gaza, given Netanyahu’s seemingly singular focus on Hamas? Does he ignore Abbas?
It is not a question of ignoring. It is a question of what does Netanyahu want. The Israelis are not looking for a conflict-ending agreement, because the price is too high for him to pay. Second, his priority is not an Israeli-Palestinian agreement anyway. It is to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge and stay in power. These are far more important objectives. I think Netanyahu would like to maintain a negotiations process with Abbas that drags on interminably, which is good for Israel’s image in the international community and in the United States, but I do not think that there is a chance that Netanyahu wants a conflict-ending agreement. Abbas might want one, but I do not think he is prepared to pay the price of what one would cost. Even if he were, the question would be: “Who speaks for the Palestinians?” How does he deliver a significant part of the Palestinian National Movement that retains the capacity to resort to the gun?
I think we are at a period, frankly, where we have been for at least the last ten years: Poised uneasily between a peace we cannot have and a confrontation people want to try to avoid.
Mahmoud Abbas’ bid at the United Nations to upgrade Palestine to a non-member observer State was successful. Although the recent fighting has not helped his standing amongst Palestinians, how should the international community interpret Abbas’ bid? Can it be seen as a success or a diplomatic placeholder?
I do not think his bid is either of those things. A placeholder for what? I have pointed this problem out in a piece for CNN.com, in which I compared Abbas‘ bid to one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, the one in which George and Jerry plan a sitcom about nothing. I do not see where this bid goes. I do not see how Abbas, over time, benefits from this success. It is a short-term boost, but then what? What are the options, without a negotiating process, and without an Israeli partner?
Abbas has also set into motion certain negative consequences. If, in fact, they do seek to join and affiliate with other UN agencies, the US will defund them. If he goes to the ICC court, the US will have to cut of relations with them. I think the Palestinians are in a box. Worse still, he has raised expectations among Palestinians again, only to have them dashed once it becomes clear that this bid will not produce statehood, or economic benefits.
AARON DAVID MILLER is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, most recently as the Senior Advisor for Arab-Israeli Negotiations. His blog, Reality Check, runs weekly on ForeignPolicy.com