Israel’s deadly politics

It’s a new year in an old and bloody world.

In Israel, politicians jockeying for power have launched the most lethal military assault on Palestinian territory in decades. Israel has justified its bombardment of Gaza on the grounds that Hamas broke a fragile, temporary cease-fire. The Israeli government is right to consider Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli civilians inexcusable, but the timing of the Israeli military offensive has more to do with politics than anything else.

Ehud Barak, Israel’s Labor Party defense minister, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister from the centrist Kadima party, are both contenders for prime minister in Israel’s Feb. 6 national elections. A show of “toughness” against Hamas could help Labor and/or Kadima beat back the right-wing Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been leading in the polls. Meanwhile, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faces corruption charges, has just a few weeks to restore his own tattered reputation.

Adding to the time pressure is U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s upcoming inauguration. As long as President Bush was in the White House, Israel could count on a U.S. administration that wasn’t merely “supportive” of Israel but blindly, mindlessly so. Obama may be less willing to offer Israel blank checks. Thus this New Year’s military offensive, timed for the crucial window before Israeli elections and Obama’s swearing-in.


In a strictly military sense, Israel will “win” this battle against Hamas. For all its threats and bravado, Hamas is weak, and its weapons -- terrorism, homemade rockets -- are the weapons of the weak. Since 2001, Hamas has fired thousands of unguided Kassam rockets at Israel, but the rockets have killed only a handful of Israelis.

Israel’s military, in contrast, is one of the most modern and effective in the world (thanks in part to an annual $3 billion in U.S. aid). Israel can easily bottle up the tiny Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million people. On Saturday, the first day of the offensive, Israeli bombs killed at least 180 Palestinians. By Wednesday, the Palestinian death toll exceeded 390.

But if there is no reason to doubt Israel’s ability to pulverize Gaza, there’s also no reason to think this offensive will improve Israeli security. Destruction of Hamas’ infrastructure may temporarily slow Hamas rocket attacks, but sooner or later they’ll resume.

The Israeli assault may even strengthen Hamas in the longer run and weaken its more moderate secular rival, Fatah. As Israel should know by now (as we all should know), dropping bombs in densely populated areas is a surefire way to radicalize civilians and get them to rally around the home team, however flawed.

Ironically, it’s precisely this psychological phenomenon that Olmert, Barak and Livni are counting on among Israelis, but they seem to assume it doesn’t exist among Palestinians. (Or, worse, they’re too cynical to care, as long as they profit politically.)

Israel has no viable political endgame here: There’s just no clear route from bombardment to a sustainable peace. But the damage caused by this new conflagration won’t be limited to the Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s military offensive already has sparked outrage and protests throughout the Arab world. The current crisis also may destabilize some of the more moderate Arab governments in the region -- in Egypt, for instance -- where leaders now face popular backlash if they don’t repudiate Israel.

And if you think that none of this really matters for us here in the U.S., you’re kidding yourself. Arab and Islamic anger over Palestine continues to fuel anti-Western and anti-U.S. terrorism around the globe.

It’s time for the United States to wake up from its long slumber and reengage -- forcefully -- with the Middle East peace process. Only the U.S. -- Israel’s primary supporter and main financial sponsor -- can push it to make the hard choices necessary for its own long-term security, as well as the region’s. In January 2001, the Taba talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority came achingly close to a final settlement, but talks broke down after Likud’s Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister on Feb. 6, 2001. Sharon refused to meet with Yasser Arafat, and newly inaugurated President George W. Bush had no interest in pushing Israel toward peace.

Eight years later, Israel faces another election, and we’re about to swear in a new president. When he takes office, Obama needs to push both Israelis and Palestinians to sit back down, with the abandoned Taba agreements as the starting point. Here’s to a less bloody 2009.