It is sometimes referred to as “mowing the grass.” It is the belief, shared by many in the current Israeli government, that they should resign themselves to a future of fighting small war after small war, to cut back the military capabilities of their enemies. It will then watch those adversaries re-arm – after which it will have to fight them again a few years later, and likely again after that. Israel will not definitively defeat its opponents, but neither should it expect to reach a lasting peace deal with them, at least not anytime soon. It will instead, goes the view, have no choice but to keep a lookout on the growing grass, occasionally venturing forth to cut it back.
The strategy is based on the notion that Israel has many enemies, but no partners for a lasting peace. The first part of the story is true. The latter? It’s not that simple.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been a skeptic about the peace process and has done much to undermine it. He’s never gone so far as to publicly reject it. But last month, just after the start of the Gaza operation, he surprised reporters by saying “that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” The lesson he has apparently drawn from Gaza is that a future independent Palestinian state on the West Bank cannot be fully independent; to prevent a terrorist state from taking hold, Israel must control its borders, as it does Gaza’s.
That is a rejection of the whole point of the peace process, namely the creation of a two state solution, which is what the international community, Israel and the recognized Palestinian leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) all claim to want.
Is Mr. Netanyahu’s long-standing skepticism about the peace process simply an acknowledgment of the realities of life in the very bad neighbourhood that is the Middle East? Or are his choices, in the years prior to this latest Gaza war – from settlement expansion to a rejection of a Hamas-PA accord, even on terms unfavourable to Hamas – helping to create that reality, and contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The latest round of grass-mowing has been considerably more costly than the last go around. Hamas has learned much over the years. It has also diverted much of Gaza’s tiny economy into the business of tunnel-building. The result has been high Israeli military casualties and, thanks in part to Hamas’s willingness to place fighters and rocket launchers in civilian areas, a very high Palestinian civilian death toll. Both of those results serve Hamas.
The enormous number of Gazan civilians dead and wounded also frays the international consensus that lined up behind Israel, not Hamas. The late Abba Eban, a long-time Israeli diplomat and foreign minister, once quipped that if a UN resolution were introduced declaring that the Earth was flat and Israel had flattened it, the motion “would pass by a vote of 164 to 13, with 26 abstentions.” He would have been surprised by the international attitude toward the Gaza fighting. In addition to the European, American and Canadian governments, the Saudis, Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority would all be happy to see Hamas taken down a notch or even overthrown.
And on the question of a cease fire, Cairo and the PA are on the same page as Israel. They want any halt in fighting to contain no rewards for Hamas, and no ability for it to claim it won concessions with blood.
It cannot be wrong for Israel to defend itself. Nor is it wrong to want to defeat Hamas, including on the battlefield. The Hamas threat, missiles across the border and tunnels under it, is very real. But is Israel addressing the Hamas threat and fighting the war in a way that makes peace between Israel and the Palestinians – who are represented by a government that is not Hamas – more or less likely? Is Israel increasing the popularity and appeal of extremists like Hamas?
A month ago, before the war, Hamas wasn’t even the most popular party in Gaza. But the longer it fights Israel and the more Palestinian civilians die, the more legitimacy it may gain. It is a radical organization. It thrives on radical situations.
If you know your enemy desires a war, a war that will bring him political gain, should you not be reluctant to give it to him on his terms?
Before the war, Hamas was a weakened and unpopular political force. It couldn’t even pay its civil servants. After weeks of fighting, its military capabilities have been degraded, but at a price: Hamas and its rejectionist approach to Israel have been given a powerful shot of respect and popularity. At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which wants to negotiate with Israel and is willing to play a game of patience and moderation, has been undermined and humiliated by the war. It looks like a bystander, and is mocked by its own recent, failed attempts at achieving success through negotiations with Israel.
Is this what Israeli policy should want?
Mr. Eban once said that the Arabs, including the Palestinians, “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” For decades, it was all too true. But ever since the peace process came so close to success and then collapsed in 2001, Israel has also been willing, and sometimes eager, to miss the bus.
Wars are easy to start but as the latest Gaza operation demonstrates, not necessarily so simple to finish. Hamas will see dozens of its tunnels blown up, but they can be rebuilt. Spent rockets can be replaced. New recruits can take the place of killed fighters. Mowing the grass does not remove the grass.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority cannot magically make all of this go away. Peace is not just over the horizon. But peace talks must resume, and they have to be embarked upon with the intention of going somewhere. The two state solution cannot be abandoned and replaced with a permanent state of war solution.
Israel lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, and it is surrounded by enemies. But not only enemies.