After two weeks of fighting, the United States added its voice to those seeking an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, announcing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would fly to the region to join talks this week (AP). French efforts to secure a truce continue (CSMonitor), though previous UN Security Council deliberations ended in stalemate (NYT), tempered by knowledge that Washington would veto any Council move too critical of Israel. Israel’s determination to achieve tactical aims in Gaza (FT) overshadowed diplomatic efforts. Driving home Israel’s intention to continue with military operations, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected a Russian mediation offer (Haaretz), telling Moscow “we have no intention to … legitimize them and pass messages on to them.”
Israel says it has targeted Hamas infrastructure, but no attack on an area as densely populated as the Gaza Strip can fail to kill innocents. On January 6, an Israeli mortar shell destroyed a UN-operated school for refugee children (BBC), with local sources reporting scores dead and dozens wounded. Israel says its forces fired in self-defense (Ynet). The civilian casualties have spawned protests around the world (VOA), including large gatherings in the United States, Britain, Turkey, Australia, and across the Middle East. Following the school tragedy, Israel announced it would, indeed, accede to international demands that it allow a humanitarian corridor (CNN) to be established.
Indeed, signs of the pressure on U.S. allies in the region abounded as Cairo’s streets filled with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jordan’s prime minister announced his country’s ties with Israel, based on a 1994 peace treaty, would be “reconsidered” (al-Jazeera). As foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid notes in the Washington Post, the attacks have underscored “a yawning divide between the policies of rulers and the sentiments of those they rule” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere.
As the crisis unfolded, the United States has allowed the European Union and Egypt to take the diplomatic point position. President Bush said January 5 he understood Israel’s desire to protect itself (MSNBC), reflecting his administration’s general belief that Israel had no alternative but to attack in the face of years of rocket strikes launched from Gaza since Israel withdrew in 2005. The Washington Times, often a good reflection of Bush administration thinking, counseled U.S. diplomats to concentrate not on a cease-fire, but on giving Israel time to “permanently cripple Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure.”
President-elect Barack Obama, meanwhile, has abided by his promise not to interfere with U.S. policy until his inauguration on January 20. This has brought criticism from the Middle East (al- Jazeera) and Europe (EurArchive). Yet, in spite of the continued bloodshed, the upcoming change of the guard in Washington has brought a new focus on long-term issues: the lack of anything resembling a “peace process” between the Israelis and Palestinians at the moment; the absence of a unified Palestinian voice; the conundrum of Hamas’ legitimacy; and the wider question of Iran’s influence in the region and its quest for a nuclear weapon.
While neither the United States nor the European Union recognizes Hamas, a variety of voices have criticized the idea that the group could somehow be frozen out of Mideast diplomacy. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Cook says Washington instead should support conciliation between the two Palestinian factions, the more secular Fatah on the West Bank, and the Gaza-based Islamists of Hamas. “Without a clear military solution to the conflict, Israel will ultimately end up, one way or another, having to negotiate with one of its most bitter enemies,” Cook wrote recently in U.S. News & World Report. Writ large, the same argument applies regionally, according to the authors of a new CFR-Brookings book, Restoring the Balance. Dialogues with currently shunned actors like Syria and Iran will make a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace more likely and will encourage regional stability, say the book’s two primary coauthors, CFR President Richard N. Haass, and Martin S. Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. The Obama administration, Haass writes, should apply its mantra of change to Mideast policy (FT). The New York Review of Books, meanwhile, looks at recent books by U.S. diplomats who previously tried and failed to seize such opportunities.
Opinion on Israel’s decision to take on Hamas, meanwhile, is as divided as ever. New York Times columnist Bill Kristol supports the war and argues that withdrawing now “would be a triumph for Iran” and allow Hamas to claim a victory by survival similar that claimed by Hezbollah in 2006. The Jerusalem Post applauds the move, too. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot argues the move was justified but lacked achievable goals. Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, and Hassan Bin Talal write in Lebanon’s Daily Star: “Israelis and Palestinians must understand that the mere application of force will never be enough to achieve their long-term ends.” And an editorial in the Saudi-based Arab News says Israel’s violent method of seeking improvements to its security will ensure the opposite happens.
Still, Israel’s prospects for a clean victory must be looked upon skeptically. Beyond the public relations arena, where Israelis have learned to expect little, each of the wars Israel has fought since 1982 in Lebanon have invariably ended with a withdrawal, affording its foe the ability to claim victory merely by dint of having survived. Just like Hezbollah in 2006, notes historian Juan Cole, Hamas is good at small wars.
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