Today’s attack in Gaza and its effect on Israeli (and Middle Eastern) politics

First and foremost, it bears noting that civilians — including women and children — died today in Israel’s air strikes on Gaza and, whatever the merits, motivations or repercussions of that attack, our hearts — Jewish, Muslim, Christian, agnostic or otherwise — should cry for the loss of innocents in any military operation.

One of the motivating factors of my blog is to demonstrate that in so many places in the world, with so many viewpoints and cultural assumptions and worldviews, politics is a way of brokering policy decisions in a way that avoids violence — even in countries without democratic institutions or even much in the way of rule of law. 

So from that perspective, even if you think the world is a better place without Hamas’s Ahmed Jabari, who was killed in Israel’s attack today, it’s incredibly sad to see the continued failure of politics vis-a-vis Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

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I have no interest in assigning blame in a conflict where both sides have used too much violence for far too long, despite strong and honestly held beliefs, and I have no idea how today’s Israeli attack on Gaza will play out (but I have a sad hunch), but it’s safe to say that with just over two months to go until Israel’s election campaign, it’s suspicious to see this kind of a wide attack on Gaza, the worst of its kind since Israel entered the Gaza Strip four years ago.

Even giving Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, today’s attack is bound to affect the election, scheduled for January 22.

Certainly, it helps Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, and it does so at a critical time when former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and former prime minister Ehud Olmert were set to make a final decision about whether they would participate in the January 22 elections for the Knesset, Israeli’s unicameral parliament, and at a time when his Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎) party’s formal 2013 election coalition with Yisrael Beitenu (ישראל ביתנו‎) has resulted in the jointly-merged coalition losing strength, not gaining.  As individual parties a month ago, they polled 40% to 45% cumulatively; the most recent poll shows Likud-Yisrael Beitenu at 36%, with their main rivals gaining — the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית‎) under Shelly Yachimovich polling 21%, and a new political party, Yesh Atid (יש עתיד‎) under popular former broadcaster Yair Lapid polling 15%.

We don’t know what exactly it means for Mohammed Morsi, the newly elected president of Egypt, only consolidating the reins of power in the Arab world’s largest country.  But Egypt has already recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, and Morsi’s aides are working to revise the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.  Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate during the presidential campaign.

The attack also puts the United States — and president Barack Obama, just eight days after his reelection — in a tougher spot than it would prefer.  Can you imagine what a Camp David-like peace accord would look like today, with Netanyahu on one side, Morsi on the other, who knows who would represent Hamas, and Obama and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton trying to sort it all?

As Jeffrey Goldberg notes in real time in his blog at The Atlantic:

[It] does help Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, and, it must be acknowledged, it might set back Hamas in some ways, but only temporarily. Another big question, of course, is, will Hamas use its longer-range rockets to bring Tel Aviv into the fight? I don’t think this is overly likely, because this would put immense pressure on Netanyahu to launch a massive retaliation, even invasion. Hamas doesn’t want an Israeli invasion of Gaza right now. Its leaders are already surprised by the Israeli response, though I don’t know why; have they not been paying attention?

Goldberg, whose voice I have long respected on Israeli and Middle Eastern issues, has been particularly realistic and even dovish on the Gaza attack.  He quite rightly wonders what Israel’s end-game strategy is, whether the counter-attacks Gaza will now likely launch are worth the danger to millions of Israelis, and whether the world will allow Israel to launch another military incursion into Gaza:

The fact remains that there is no long-term military solution to the challenge posed by Gaza, but the Israeli government doesn’t want to acknowledge this….  [By] the way — good luck to Bibi getting the world to acquiesce.  Netanyahu’s failure to convince the world that he is serious about compromise (he might have succeeded, given his Palestinian counterpart’s own alternately lackadaisical and obstreperous approach to peace talks, if he wasn’t hell-bent on growing settlements) means that he has no political capital to spend.

We don’t know how this will turn out for Israeli or Palestinian politics — it’s worth noting that Fatah’s more moderate approach in the West Bank has resulted in a Ramallah that’s economically booming, which the increasingly desperate and isolated Hamas seems as radical in its approach as ever.

Hamas, for its part, is arguing that Israel has opened the ‘gates to hell’ and promises retaliation, while Netanyahu is warning that he is prepared to expand the Gaza operation if necessary.  So today’s attack may sadly be just the opening salvo of a longer Gaza war to come.

Finally, we don’t know what it means for the wider Arab world, in the context of ongoing protests in Jordan and tumult in Bahrain, or in the context of fears over Iran’s nuclear program or the destabilizing effect of the Syrian civil war on Lebanon and Turkey.

But further tumult in Gaza isn’t likely to help a region that’s seen more than its share of upheaval in the last two years.

Photo credit to Anne Paq of Al Jazeera.

 

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