Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Formaldehyde Option

“...when you're playing solitaire, when there is no one sitting across from you at the table, you have no choice but to deal the cards yourself." Dov Weisglass, in an interview with ARI SHAVIT Haaretz Magazine 8 October 2004

A few years ago, much ink was spilled over Dov Weisglass’ 2004 assertion that the intent of Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza was to indefinitely freeze any serious political progress in achieving a full and comprehensive peace. By putting the ball squarely in the court of the Palestinians, it was thought, further momentum would be dependent on a unity of purpose and commitment to true peace and recognition that the Palestinians would be unable or unwilling to achieve.

And so it proved, if only for five years. A war in Lebanon and two in Gaza have hardened the broad Israeli consensus, but they have also seriously jeopardized the goodwill Sharon’s Gaza manoeuvre bought in 2004 with the international community. Furthermore, the genuine partnership built with the Bush White House has been swept away. The Bush commitments outlined in the June 2002 and April 2004 statements regarding peace with the Palestinians were the bedrock upon which Sharon’s strategy was founded. The Obama White House has shown little inclination to abide by those commitments. Any informal agreements on natural growth inside existing settlements, moreover, have been spectacularly disavowed by the Secretary of State herself. Hence Bibi’s first challenge, to re-establish either partnership or leverage of the kind built in 2004.

Among Israel’s difficulties throughout this upheaval has been the role of the international community in seeking to legitimize negotiating with Hamas, and in perpetuating the fallacy that the PA could or would make the commitments necessary to satisfy Israeli imperatives in a peace agreement. The government of Ehud Olmert bought into this world view. Though he offered at least as much as Barak in 2000, Olmert’s overtures were still rejected by the weakened PA, though they were accepted by the international community as a new Israeli baseline for negotiation. Bibi’s second challenge was to establish a baseline for negotiations that would satisfy the Israeli body politic, hardliners in his coalition, and bipartisan congressional supporters in the US, while at the very least setting the Europeans back on their heels.

The substance of Bibi’s final challenge was demonstrated in President Obama’s Cairo speech. Though it came from a post-modernist deconstruction of grievance and persecution demanding redress in history, Obama’s assertion that Israel’s legitimacy arose from Jewish suffering and persecution was deeply offensive to many Israelis and Jews around the world. The Arab world has effectively used this twisted logic in its advocacy against Israel, and it has been magnified by anti-Israel organizations on the radical left. “We came from here and you did not.” is a powerful overture in any conversation on the issue. Bibi’s recounting of the Israeli narrative thus had a clear purpose.

As Bibi asserted eight times in his speech at Bar Ilan University, above all the Palestinians and the world must recognize the ancestral, aboriginal rights of the Jewish people to establish a state in the land of their forefathers. Contained within this formula was a gentle but persistent rebuke to President Obama. More importantly there was also a “change in the conceptual frame”, as the renowned Israeli lecturer David Olesker puts it. Negotiations could start, but they could only be consummated by something the Palestinians have always been unwilling to grant.

The five years since 2004 also brought turbulence and fragmentation to Palestinian society. Free elections heralded by the US brought in a Hamas government in Gaza which soon violently ousted the PA. A resurgent Hamas, bolstered by Iranian support, soon determined to challenge Israel, first in the summer of 2006, and again in December 2008. The damage and repercussions still echo in Israeli and Palestinian societies. Yet despite the best efforts of Arab superpowers Egypt and Saudi Arabia to forge some kind of unity government, Hamas and PA leaders are as far apart as they have ever been. Furthermore the influence of Iran which so thoroughly frightens moderate Arab leaders has grown. Prime Minister Netanyahu was expected to concentrate more on the Iranian threat than he did on Sunday; instead he grappled with the challenges enumerated above. Why? The results of the Iranian election provided a true formaldehyde option, where even the international community could be expected to maintain, if not harden its approach to Iran’s nuclear agenda.

Netanyahu’s response to the challenge was in many ways influenced by Ariel Sharon’s choices in 2004. First, as the 6th century BC philosopher Sun Tzu put it in THE ART OF WAR, “Do not stand on weak ground.” If 65-70% of Israelis accept the inevitability of some kind of Palestinian state, denying that reality would show weakness and petulance. Next, he followed another Sun Tzu dictum, “Always take the initiative.” By setting out an Israeli agenda and establishing Israeli red lines, Netanyahu forced a Palestinian response; one which he knew would be shrill and contemptuous. The double standard of Palestinian demands for recognition of their origins and rights in Israel while continuing their denial of Jewish origins and rights therein would be exposed to the light of day. The scenario was shaped in such a way that no Palestinian government could be seen to accept the Israeli narrative by its own people without endangering its own existence.

Finally Mr. Netanyahu addressed the American agenda. It is quite clear that the partnership enjoyed with the Bush administration is a thing of the past. What remains is old fashioned political leverage. By conditionally accepting a Palestinian state, Netanyahu removed one stone in Obama’s shoe, leaving only the issue of growth in the settlements, which he has narrowed down to natural growth within existing boundaries – once again giving up weak ground. The stone has become a pebble, which irritates more than hurts. In any event Netanyahu can now demonstrate that intransigence is a Palestinian problem rather than an Israeli one. Since the Palestinian leadership can ill afford to be seen as caving in to the Israelis, the political side of the peace process has once again been set in Formaldehyde. Who knows how long it may last this time?

Arieh Rosenblum

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Declaring Victory from a rathole in the rubble

Why is it that terrorist leaders like Ismail Haniyeh and Hassan Nasrallah find it perfectly normal to declare victory when they can't show their face above ground for fear of it being blown off? Let's look at the Hamas example as a case in point. Hamas has lost some 600 operatives killed and thousands wounded. It has lost more than half of its rocket stockpiles, more than half of its mortar shells, every single visible government institution; It has less than half of the smuggling tunnels it started out with in Rafah, with the prospect that these will be more closely watched on both sides of the border and that the PA will return to supervise the Rafah crossing. It's best crews are dead, as are its spiritual leader and its Interior minister, usually described as being in the top five leaders. It has been shown to run away from abttle, a cardinal sin in the Arab world. It's tactics on the ground proved singularly ineffective, and its rockets, though of longer range, no better aimed than before. It has served to unite the Israeli populace, give its soldiers back some of the esprit de corps they lost in the Lebanon War two years ago, and demonstrate the effectiveness of new doctrines and tactics for the IDF. The most that can be said for Hamas is that it was successful in hiding many of its fighters, that it managed to bring about the usual European condemnation of Israel's excessive force, and that Iran didn't decide to cut off their blood money yet. If this is what the Palestinian people construe as a victory, what does a defeat look like?