When the Guns Go Silent in Gaza, Big Risks Will Emerge

When the Guns Go Silent in Gaza, Big Risks Will Emerge

REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

When the rockets both sides now fire in the tragic Gaza conflict finally stop, the smoke will clear on a new political and diplomatic landscape in the Mideast. What will it look like?

As far as one can make out at this early moment, nobody will come out of this better off. Hamas, the Netanyahu government, and the supporters of each will have to reckon up the price of their commitments and whether it is any longer worth holding to them without altering course—in strategy and tactics, if not in goals, too.

“This is a moment where you really have to say ‘enough is enough,’” Jan Eliasson, the U.N.’s deputy secretary-general, said at the secretariat in New York last week. The remark was aimed at “those who have the power to stop this”—meaning all sides, obviously—and went instantly around the world.

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No wonder. Eliasson expresses two essential new truths. First, after six decades and counting, the bankruptcy of violence as the commonly shared strategy in the Mideast is finally obvious. From now on, nobody can credibly profess faith in a military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Rockets are an interim measure and no more -- neither side can any longer expect them to produce a positive yield.

Second, we witness a worldwide shift in public opinion on the Mideast crisis. Nobody’s default position—I am “pro-Israel,” I am “pro-Palestinian”—can any longer be advanced unambiguously.

These are the emerging realities, even if they take time to sink in.

The first thing to recognize is that when this phase of the conflict is over, we will not be any further forward than we were before it started several weeks ago. In short order, this is likely to emerge as a significant—if not decisive—setback.

Hamas, for all the talk of disproportionate response and capabilities, has already come out of this escalated crisis badly damaged. The rubble over which it will govern when the guns go silent will only underscore newly evident political inadequacies and its unworkably shallow pool of intelligent minds. Any thought of Hamas as a credible governing institution, its election to power in 2006 notwithstanding, has been worked over big time just in the past few weeks.

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Robert Fisk, the noted Mideast correspondent of the Independent, said it as well as anyone in a commentary a few days ago. “Yes, Hamas is corrupt, cynical, ruthless,” Fisk wrote in a piece not short of outrage over the civilian casualties of Israel’s artillery and rocket campaign. “Most of its ‘spokesmen’ are so stupid, so incoherent, so prone to bawling abuse at the top of their voices, that they far outdo the ever-so-gentle Mark Regev [Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman] in turning the world against Hamas.”

The second half of Fisk’s thought is damning in the other direction. “But the world is turning against Israel, as EU ministers repeatedly (though ever so gently) tell the Israelis,” Fisk concludes.

It would be difficult to object to the large demonstrations against the Israeli campaign now taking place in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere. Reports of civilian casualties televised daily into the world’s living rooms, as Americans discovered during the Vietnam War, have the power to do more than break hearts. They can alter policy and politics. No one can be excused for missing this.

Look again at Fisk’s formulation. It is one thing to turn against Israel’s strategy as one causing needless suffering because it cannot accomplish anything. It is another to turn against Israel, and this is the very poor risk Netanyahu now takes.

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Confounding objections to Israel’s policies with anti-Semitism is a tiresomely overplayed hand. But the Israeli press already reports a not-yet-reliably-measured rise in gestures against Jews in major European cities since the outbreak of violence in Gaza.

Other questions come into focus. What now for the so-called BDS campaign in support of boycotts, disincentives, and sanctions against Israel? Two points here.

One, the Presbyterian Church’s decision in June to divest of Israeli companies whose products are deployed in the occupied territories will do little damage counting in shekels but a lot otherwise. “BDS is a wake-up call,” Roger Cohen asserted in a column in The New York Times earlier this year.

Two, as Cohen went on to argue, the BDS campaign presents the same danger as the protests Gaza now prompt: It could conceivably turn anti-Israel full stop. “I oppose it because I do not trust it,” Cohen wrote. “That does not mean that Israel can ignore its message.”

This leads to another question now facing Netanyahu. In effect, the Gaza campaign lends the far-right wing in his coalition an immense new influence in international politics. The prime minister has to ask how the world outside Israel, newly exposed to this streak in the Israeli political constellation, will respond to it. Or is it time, he may also ask, to discipline the extreme right parties for the sake of better policy outcomes?

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There is one larger liability for the Netanyahu government now. The prime minister expresses considerable satisfaction with the extent of U.S. support since the Gaza campaign began. But this is to paper over fissures in the relationship evident beneath the surface for many months.

These became apparent when the Obama administration opened talks with Tehran on its nuclear program after Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist president, signaled his desire to do so at the U.N. last September. More acutely, Secretary of State Kerry shocked many Israelis when he warned, in a joint Israeli-Palestinian interview last November, of a third intifada. “I’ve got news for you,” the plainly frustrated secretary said. “Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or next year’s.”

No one in Washington or Jerusalem thinks this is the time to dwell on these subterranean differences. But it is not the time to forget them, either. In part because of Gaza, they aren’t going away.

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