Abunimah: From Gaza to Obama: What Next for the Middle East?
Israel’s attack on the occupied Gaza Strip caused massive death and destruction. It has also profoundly changed the regional political landscape, calling for a deep reassessment of U.S. policy. It is into this perilous situation that U.S. President Barack Obama steps. Early moves, entirely consistent with statements during the campaign, indicate that the necessary reassessment will not soon be forthcoming. Hence, despite the appointment of the well-respected and highly-experienced former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as envoy, the region should brace itself for enduring political stalemate and escalating violence.
Beginning on 27 December 2008, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air for 22 days. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes echoed statements from Palestinians and international witnesses when he called the devastation in the coastal territory that is home to 1.5 million Palestinians “extremely shocking.”
Amnesty International found “indisputable evidence” that Israel had indiscriminately used white phosphorus–that causes horrific injuries and death–in civilian areas. There have been numerous allegations of other war crimes and atrocities, including summary executions of civilians, denial of medical care to the injured, the targeting of ambulances, medical personnel, UN facilities where civilians had sought shelter, as well as systematic targeting of private homes, police stations, universities, mosques, fishing boats, factories and workshops, government buildings and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
In just three weeks, Israel killed more Palestinians in Gaza–at least 1,300–than in any previous year since it began its violence crackdown on the second intifada in 2000. Among the dead were 412 children and 110 women, according to health officials. Although large numbers of male civilians, including dozens of civilian police officers, were killed, exact numbers have not been reported. Among the 5,300 injured, 1,855 were children and 795 were women. Thirteen Israelis, ten of them Israeli soldiers, also died. Preliminary estimates put the number of homes completely destroyed at more than 4,000 with 17,000 damaged. Tens of thousands are displaced or without shelter.
The enormous physical and psychological cost of Israel’s attack, particularly on children, has yet to be fully calculated, and its consequences will be deep and lasting on a society that had already suffered from 61 years of dispossession, 41 years of military occupation and almost two years of total blockade.
Israel Lost Much More than It Gained
Israel’s pretext for the Gaza attack–accepted by the United States and other western governments–was to stop indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas from Gaza. It is indisputable, and Israel has acknowledged that Hamas did not fire any rockets at Israel from the moment a truce deal was reached on 19 June 2008 until after 4 November 2008, when rocket fire resumed. Israel had also acknowledged that Hamas moved to prevent other factions that fired about two dozen rockets over that four-month period from breaking the truce. Hamas resumed rocket fire only after Israel carried out a 4 November 2008 attack on Gaza that killed six Palestinians. Hamas allowed the already collapsed truce to formally lapse without renewal on 19 December 2008 primarily because Israel had refused to loosen the crippling blockade of Gaza or halt its armed attacks that had killed dozens of Palestinians during the truce.
Although it wanted to prevent rocket fire, Israel’s primary goals were to restore “deterrence” lost in its 2006 Lebanon debacle and to fatally weaken Hamas and rob it of political support. It achieved none of these goals; Hamas and other resistance groups still had rocket launching capability even after Israel declared a ceasefire. Hamas did not collapse as a military or political organization and retained the mass support without which a guerilla organization cannot function. Having survived an all-out assault from the Israeli war machine, Hamas emerged with significantly enhanced prestige among Palestinians and Arab public opinion, just as Hizballah did from its 2006 war with Israel.
In order to consolidate this support, Hamas will have to show that it can competently manage the aftermath, including assistance to the families’ victims. Hamas leaders in Damascus and Gaza have already announced plans to distribute financial compensation and rebuild, again following precedents set by Hizballah.
Israel’s Jewish citizens overwhelmingly supported the attack on Gaza and celebrated tactical “victories”–essentially their ability to inflict enormous pain and damage. With time, Israelis may begin to recognize that as in Lebanon they have suffered another strategic defeat: Israeli military power cannot cow entire populations into submission and cannot remake the politics of the region to reflect Israeli preferences. This lesson should have been learned after Israel’s disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon but has yet to be absorbed by Israeli elites.
In addition to military power, Israel relies on Western support to maintain regional dominance. This pillar is starting to weaken as a consequence of Gaza; despite solid support from Western governments, Israel faced unprecedented waves of outrage from global public opinion and civil society as expressed in press commentary, enormous demonstrations and other mass actions. Israel’s official hasbara (state propaganda) machinery was unable to suppress these mobilizations. One consequence is likely to be the mainstreaming of support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, modeled on the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s, to force Israel to comply with international law.
There have been unprecedented calls from international jurists, civil society organizations, UN officials, legislators and others for Israel to be held accountable. Israel is concerned enough that its officials and military officers may face war crimes charges that it has taken active countermeasures, such as tightening official censorship of accounts of actions taken by its army in Gaza and even on publishing the names of soldiers involved and offering legal support.
For decades, Israel nurtured a narrative persuasive in the West that its creation, maintenance and conduct were the morally righteous legacy of the Nazi Holocaust. The long-term viability of this narrative as a means to mobilize political support and suppress criticism has been badly if not irrevocably degraded by Israel’s actions in Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority and the Arab “Moderates” Lose Out
As part of the “War on Terror,” the Bush administration divided a vast swathe of the planet from Morocco to Pakistan between so-called “moderates,” on the one hand, and “extremists” on the other. A moderate is any actor that is in a patron-client relationship with the United States. In the Arab region, this group includes Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora (up to May 2008) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas. An extremist, in this scheme, is any actor that opposes or resists U.S. hegemony in the region.
The labels, “moderate” and “extremist,” clearly imply value judgments and were created to obscure underlying power relations and interests. They have nothing to do with democracy or Islamism; the most “moderate” regimes from the U.S. perspective are often the most undemocratic, repressive or theocratic (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, PA). Whereas, “extremists” may have received popular mandates at contested elections (Hamas, Hizballah, Iran) or be secular (Syria). What is at stake is America’s ability to shore up a regional order it dominates, but that is coming apart at the seams. If the Gaza attack was supposed to tip the balance in favor of the moderates, it backfired even more spectacularly than Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006.
Among Palestinians, it is now conventional (though certainly not universal) to view Abbas, whose official term as PA president expired on 9 January 2009, as having zero legitimacy and credibility. Large segments of Palestinian public opinion view Abbas and his government headed by Salam Fayyad as irrelevant. Hamas–through its own successes and survival and because there is no viable alternative–has effectively emerged as the closest thing Palestinians have to a national leadership. That is probably not a position Hamas can or wants to sustain, and there remains a pressing need for Palestinians themselves to create representative and inclusive bodies to guide the national movement.
Before Gaza, Hamas sought reconciliation while Abbas’ leadership continued to impose U.S.-dictated conditions that Hamas would never meet. Now, as they feel their support draining away, some voices in Ramallah are calling for reconciliation on almost any terms. Others are opportunistically attempting to persuade Arab and international donors to channel desperately needed humanitarian aid for Gaza through Abbas in order to revive a dead political body.
In a 21 January 2009 “victory” speech broadcast live on Al Jazeera, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal set out his movement’s new terms for reconciliation: the PA would have to abandon “security cooperation” with Israel, release political prisoners and support and recognize resistance not “silly negotiations” (a mocking reference to Abbas” dismissal of Hamas’ “silly rockets”) as the foundation of a national program. Even as the PA becomes irrelevant, there are few signs it is capable of making such compromises that would jeopardize its last existing base of support, “the international community,” and the Israeli government.
Thus, the Palestinians are entering a period, similar to the 1970s, where only credible leadership is isolated and scorned by Israel and its Western backers who continue to try to prop up or nurture pliable clients.
Arab Regimes More Divided than Ever over Israel, U.S.
The divisions between moderates and those resisting U.S. hegemony broke into open confrontation during the Gaza crisis, with the two blocs convening rival summits. The moderates, particularly Egypt, undoubtedly lost the political and public opinion battle. Throughout the region, there were unprecedented accusations of collusion with Israel directed at Egypt, which failed to mount an effective public defense.
Moderates boycotted an informal Arab summit convened by Qatar on 16 January 2009. Reflecting an official strategy of demonizing Iran, one of Egypt’s official newspapers dismissed the Doha summit as “Persian” rather than “Arab.” Nevertheless, the PA’s absence left the floor to Hamas to represent Palestinians, further enhancing the latter’s status. Qatar, which hosts a major U.S. military base, and Mauritania cut off all ties with Israel. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pronounced the Arab Peace Initiative dead and suspended indirect Turkish-brokered peace talks with Israel.
Despite attempts to patch over differences at a 19 June 2008 meeting in Kuwait, Arab leaders remain deeply divided over relations with the United States and how to deal with Israel. Hamas’ ability to deny Israel any strategic achievement in Gaza–like Hizballah’s success in 2006–reinforced and expanded the constituency arguing that resistance is a viable option, and that without the power-balancing effects of resistance, no negotiations can achieve meaningful results. The moderates’, supporting open-ended negotiations that have achieved little in 18 years, reliance on the United States and holding out the Arab Peace Initiative indefinitely have few cards left to play. As their priority is preservation of their increasingly unpopular regimes, moderates are unlikely to be able to offer any creative initiatives, although it can be expected that among their tactics will be the further demonization of Islamist-led opposition and resistance movements in an attempt to play into Western fears and prejudices.
A notable phenomenon is NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member and spurned EU candidate Turkey’s emergence as a regional power apparently more sympathetic to the pro-resistance bloc. In addition to his country’s brokering role on behalf of Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to represent Hamas’ interests at the UN during the crisis and issued uncharacteristically harsh condemnations of Israeli behavior and violations of international law. This was in step not only with Arab public opinion, but also with that in Turkey, where hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Istanbul against the Israeli attack. Turkey is not only supplanting a regional role once played by Egypt but, along with Iran, asserting that Western powers are not the only non-Arabs who can intervene in the Arab world.
Enter the Obama Administration
In his first detailed remarks after taking office, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to Middle East peace and appointed the widely-respected Northern Ireland peace broker, former Senator George Mitchell, as his new envoy.
But Obama’s basic approach remained unchanged from that of his predecessor. Obama fully accepted the Israeli narrative of its attack on Gaza and reaffirmed that “we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself against legitimate threats.”
The president reiterated that Hamas must abide by the Quartet conditions to “recognize Israel’s right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements.” In effect, Obama expects Hamas to accept Israel’s highly controversial and anathema to most Palestinians political demand to be recognized as a “Jewish state,” even while Israel is not required to accept any Palestinian rights even those grounded in international law; renounce any Palestinian right to self-defense or resistance while Palestinians are under occupation, blockade and constant Israeli attack; and abide by agreements that Israel has systematically violated without consequence. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal explicitly rejected the Quartet conditions in his 21 January 2009 speech, while reaffirming his movement’s willingness to engage in a political process on fair terms.
Obama insisted that reopening Gaza’s borders–a fundamental requirement of the Fourth Geneva Conventions and on which Palestinians’ lives literally depends–be conditioned on “an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating.” Specifically, Obama stated that the United States “will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot rearm.” Obama, like Bush, has accepted the Israeli view that Palestinian violence, rather than Israeli occupation, siege and active colonization and the far more massive Israeli-generated violence these entail, should be the sole focus of U.S. concern.
President Obama reaffirmed the boycott of Hamas and continues to recognize Mahmoud Abbas as PA president. This was confirmed by the State Department spokesman Robert Wood. Although when challenged, Wood could not provide any legal basis for how Abbas’ expired term was extended.
The new administration has therefore publicly recommitted to a set of policies that are demonstrated not to work and to exacerbate conflict, violence and political stalemate.
The only bright spot was Mitchell’s appointment. His earlier foray to the region produced the 2001 Mitchell Report, which called for a full cessation of all violence by both Israelis and Palestinians, and a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction. This less biased approach contrasts with now standard U.S. policy of opposing only Palestinian violence while endorsing much more devastating Israeli violence.
Above all, Mitchell brings with him his reputation as the broker of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which heralded the end of the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland. But that experience demonstrates why the odds are stacked firmly against a similar success in the Middle East.
In Northern Ireland, violence by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), loyalist and other paramilitaries came to be viewed as the symptom of systemic injustice that had to be redressed through an inclusive political process. Moreover, British state-sponsored violence always presented–like Israeli violence–as “self-defense” came to be seen as part of the problem rather than a solution. Previously, demonized parties, such as Sinn Fein, were brought into the process in contrast to the continued exclusion of Hamas. No party was forced a priori to accept its adversaries’ political demands or renounce its own. Each was allowed to represent the interests and views of those who elected it, thus producing an agreement that could enjoy broad support.
Finally, the United States used its weight to pressure the British who were the strong side in that conflict and support Irish nationalists, the weaker side. In this sense, the Irish American lobby had a beneficial influence on U.S. policy because it helped level the power imbalance so that negotiations could succeed. The Israel lobby, by contrast, works to push the U.S. to support Israeli intransigence and pressure the vastly weaker Palestinians and will mobilize all its resources to frustrate Mitchell’s mission. Indeed, before Mitchell even set foot in the region, a major Israel lobby figure signaled opposition to the new envoy, precisely because he might be “too fair.”
This leads to the discouraging conclusion that without the political support and policy framework needed to change an already tried and failed approach, Mitchell’s determination and skill are unlikely to make much difference.
Palestine Center Brief No. 174 (27 January 2009)
By Ali Abunimah
Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. He is an expert on Palestine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada, an online publication about Palestine and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Electronic Iraq and Electronic Lebanon.
The views expressed in this information brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.