It’s a most unwelcome feeling of déjà vu which must settle over any observer of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the US role in it. An escalation is seen in the woefully asymmetric exchange of fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Israel claims the escalation was entirely initiated by Hamas, when in fact Israel had provoked it, and it begins air strikes in Gaza. Thus began Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and so has begun Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Hopefully this episode will not end with nearly 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, as Cast Lead did.
That hope is dimmed by the fact that once again Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the upper hand in the first move of the second round of his chess match with President Barack Obama. By launching this offensive now, Netanyahu knows full well that Obama, who is trying to bring a divided Congress together to deal with a potential economic crash caused by a looming “fiscal cliff”, cannot afford to do anything less than fully supporting Israel’s actions at this time. If he doesn’t, he will have the additional weight of criticism from the Israel lobby, something he simply cannot afford to contend with during a time of domestic crisis, which he needs Congress to resolve.
Primarily, though, Netanyahu’s timetable for this attack was based on Israeli politics. With early elections called for January, Netanyahu’s gambit of forming a joint ticket with the fascist Yisrael Beiteinu party has not yielded anything close to the sort of polling results he had hoped for. His old rivals, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are both considering entering the race and Netanyahu has reason to believe they would take more votes from him. Opening a wider operation against the Gaza Strip strengthens Netanyahu, whose candidacy depends on the insecurity of Israeli citizens; it makes it less tempting for Olmert and Livni to enter the race and it takes the issues of the economy, the failed budget talks that led to the collapse of the current Israeli government and widespread concern over various social issues — all of which are major areas of weakness for Netanyahu — away from the electoral spotlight.
Gaza was the obvious choice for military action. Despite some warnings about Syria, Israel does not want to be anywhere near that conflict. And Obama’s electoral victory clearly meant that an attack on Iran was not going to materialize, at least not in time for it to do any good for Netanyahu’s re-election bid. So, Gaza it was.
Israel set up the narrative earlier this month. Most US and Israeli media recaps of the events leading up to the launching of Operation Pillar of Defense begin with an attack on Israeli soldiers on November 8. What is generally not mentioned is that the soldiers were operating inside of Gaza at the time. Given Israel’s claim that it is no longer occupying the Strip, the soldiers were thus a legitimate target. But this is spun as the “terrorist attack” that led to Israeli retaliation, then to increasing numbers of rockets launched at Israeli civilians, and, eventually, to this broad military operation.
Whether or not the White House is aware of this chronology is irrelevant as this is the narrative that is dominating not only the media but the politics around the Israeli assault on Gaza. Obama would face a herculean task if he tried to stop Israel from acting in what most will see as legitimate self-defense. And, indeed, international law does dictate that the targeting of civilians, as the rockets from Gaza almost always do, is unequivocally illegal and any country has the right and duty to protect its civilians. Trying to get past that very real point would require a great deal of effort from Obama, something that Netanyahu knows full well. So Obama’s not trying; the State Department quickly issued a statement fully backing Israel’s attack and putting all of the blame for the escalation on Hamas.
Yet this could prove to be a grave complication for Obama going forward in his second term. As I have argued, Obama needs to use his second term to repair the damage he did in his first term to the US’ standing in the Arab and larger Muslim world. There are many things he can do, but everything comes back to Israel-Palestine and the US’ destructive role in that conflict, as it always does. But how can he move toward a resolution amidst the despair, the failure of Oslo and the lack of any negotiations for years?
Mending ties with Egypt and Turkey, the two countries that have both increased democracy in their systems in recent years (albeit in different ways) and have also increased participation of openly religious parties, could go a long way to reassuring the Muslim world that we will respect their popular choices. It would also send a chilling message to the Israeli government, and could possibly provide the spark needed to move toward productive diplomacy around the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That proposal, or any other, is going to be undermined by Obama’s support for Israel in Gaza, especially if a ground operation ensues and we see hundreds of civilian casualties — as we did with Operation Cast Lead four years ago. Surely Obama knows this, and despite the political constraints he faces at the moment, his failure to adopt at least a slightly more conciliatory stance here does not bode well for his handling of the Middle East for the next four years.
Egypt has already recalled its ambassador to Israel. At this writing, the UN Security Council is holding an emergency session on the Israeli attack on Gaza. The Arab League has issued strong statements condemning the Israeli action and called for the UNSC to call for an immediate cease-fire. If past behavior holds, the US will prevent any such statement until it deems that Israel has had enough time to carry out its operational objectives. And, just moments ago, reports came in of three Israeli civilians having been killed by a rocket from Gaza, which makes a wider operation even more likely. Eight Gazans have been reported killed so far.
Given the stranglehold the Israel Lobby (and, I’ll note, this is further proof that the Lobby is far from pro-Israel, but in fact works to support the Israeli right to the detriment of Israel’s best interests and the security of most Israelis) has over Congress, there is little hope that Obama’s second term will be an improvement over his first in regard to his Middle East policies. The US reaction to the assault on Gaza reduces even that small hope.
But it does not reduce it to zero. There is real impetus for Obama to leave office with a better relationship between the US and the Arab world than there is now. In order to do so, he would have to also at least begin to steer the US relationship with Israel toward one of a more normal alliance, dictated by the relative interests and geo-strategic positions and needs of each country, rather than the current “special relationship” where US policy is predicated on Israeli desires. It is inconceivable that Obama would even try to fully accomplish that, but, especially given his tense relationship with Netanyahu and the continuing Israeli tilt rightward, he may be willing to take small steps in that direction once the looming fiscal cliff crisis is resolved.