Mismanaging the diplomatic phase

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Israel’s Operation Cast Lead had its "Qana moment" on January 7. Some 40 civilians were killed when Israel mistakenly attacked a United Nations school sheltering civilians. The incident was reminiscent of heavy Lebanese civilian casualties caused by the IDF in Kafr Qana in South Lebanon in 1996 and again in 2006; in both cases, the tragedy altered the nature of the war Israel was fighting against Hizballah.

Last week’s unintended deaths in the outskirts of Gaza City were inevitable: Israel is fighting against guerillas who cynically exploit their crowded urban surroundings and teeming civilian population to the utmost. If Israel expands its offensive in this environment, more such tragedies are inevitable, as are additional incidents–caused by the same set of factors–of IDF soldiers killed by friendly fire.

This war’s "Qana moment" accelerated its diplomatic phase. Yet to date, diplomacy has gone nowhere. The diplomatic phase began with visits by European leaders early last week and culminated, for the time being, in UN Security Council Resolution 1860 of January 8. The Europeans came in two separate delegations and quickly began contradicting one another and themselves. Both Hamas and Israel rejected the UN’s call for a ceasefire, while Egypt is unenthusiastic about offers to deploy American or European engineering forces on its side of the Gaza-Sinai border to help stop Hamas’ weapons smuggling. And on January 9, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) ceased to be recognized by Hamas, which argues that his term has ended, thereby constraining any residual capacity he may have had to negotiate or act on behalf of all Palestinians.

Yet the diplomatic phase continues. In parallel, the Israeli leadership is contemplating expanding the war effort in two possible directions. One is reoccupation of the philadelphi strip on the Gazan side of the Gaza-Sinai border. This would be a step toward stopping Hamas smuggling of weaponry through tunnels under philadelphi. But it apparently must be coordinated with Egypt, hence is being delayed.

A second possible direction of Israeli military activity in Gaza is the launching of a major offensive aimed at reoccupying the entire Strip and removing the Hamas leadership. This option is usually associated with the approach of the Israeli political right and center. In the present instance, it is also based on intelligence assessments that Hamas’ resistance is weakening. But it is important to note that some on the political left are also advocating it, in the belief that Israel can find a way to restore the PLO to power in Gaza, thereby ostensibly enhancing the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is an extremely dangerous idea. Israel has failed whenever it tried to manipulate the structure of Arab leadership, from Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon in the early 1980s to the Village Leagues and similar abortive schemes involving the Palestinians.

In this regard, the First Lebanon War is particularly instructive: Israel removed the PLO from Lebanon and instead got… Hizballah. There is no telling what we’ll get in Gaza if we remove Hamas, but the return of Fateh/PLO is improbable. More likely we’ll end up with heavy losses and an open-ended occupation, fighting Islamists who are even more radical than Hamas while the world condemns us. The Israeli public will not forgive the government that gets us into such a mess.

Hamas’ conditions for a ceasefire are apparently full withdrawal of Israeli forces and opening of all the crossings, including Rafah, with Hamas and not the PLO or the EU in control on the Gazan side. There may be something to negotiate here. Certainly Israel intends eventually to withdraw. Its prolonged closing of the Gaza-Israel crossings to exert economic pressure has in any case backfired, pushing the Gazan population into the hands of Hamas and helping precipitate this war and generate a humanitarian crisis. Rafah should also be reopened if and when the smuggling tunnels are closed. The question of a non-Hamas presence on the Gazan side of the crossings would still have to be negotiated.

Is anybody in Jerusalem listening? This war has demonstrated that the IDF successfully learned and applied the lessons of the military failure in Lebanon two and a half years ago. But Israel’s leadership appears not to have learned how to lead better. Yes, its decision-making process has become more deliberate and responsible. But the three senior leaders, the trio of PM Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and FM Tzipi Livni, are clearly not on the same page and Israel’s war aims have been fudged and obfuscated throughout.

The latest example of this mismanagement is UNSCR 1860. A decision that does not mention Hamas at all and that the United States and France both initially promised to delay or veto, might at least have been improved if Israel had taken the trouble to send its foreign minister to New York, where eight Arab foreign ministers were busy lobbying.

We’ve shown Hamas and Gazans what we can do when we are justifiably angered by their terrorism. Now it’s time to communicate with Hamas and offer to open those passages if it accepts our terms.

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