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January 2009

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Middle East Realities
By David T. Jones

There are two juxtaposed realities for understanding the Middle East:

  • The regional Arab/Islamic/Muslim states, either publicly or privately, desire to eliminate Israel; and
  • Israel rejects being eliminated.

Given that these realities have persisted for the past 70 years, the likelihood of a solution is minimal.  As former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan is quoted as saying, the Middle East is not a "problem" because "a problem is something with a solution." 

Not that it is impossible to conceive of a solution to the complex interlock of territories, borders, populations, refugees, and intersecting religions, let alone to the ostensibly more simple Gaza issue.  If not Political Science 101, neither is it beyond the conceptual grasp and creative analytic drafting of a group of advanced graduate students/Middle East scholars.  Nor has it been a question of U.S. indifference, as some of the finer and most motivated minds in multiple U.S. administrations have wrestled with the dilemmas.  And we have struggled to find that most elusive of prey – a valid interlocutor (or rather multiple such interlocutors who do not die or become incapacitated before reaching agreement).  The most obvious efforts were those made throughout the Clinton Administration; their failures resulted in a wide variety of lamentations, learned articles, and reflective memoirs (the most recent being Innocent Abroad – a much delayed recount by twice U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk).  All of them recount defeat; if victory has a thousand fathers, defeat, albeit an orphan, has a thousand explanations. 

But there is another possible explanation for defeat, i.e., failure to come to an agreement satisfactory to both Israel and its enemies.  Bluntly, there has been insufficient suffering.

It may be a truism that in war, truth is the first casualty, but perspective is an MIA.

In the calculus of human tragedy in the last half of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century, the loss of life associated with fighting and privation in the Arab-Israel conflict is marginal.  Just how does it compare, simply to name a few, to the slaughter on the Korean peninsula, the deaths from fighting in Vietnam, the genocide in Cambodia, the mutual atrocity between Iran and Iraq, the massacres in Rwanda, and the ongoing catastrophe in Darfur?  Quite literally millions died during these events; the Middle East makes the news – other geography fills cemeteries. 

Nor are the fibrillations of the Red Cross or the United Nations regarding privation among Palestinians in Gaza during the now concluded fighting particularly compelling.  In comparison, we might deign to consider that reportedly 4,000 have died of cholera in Zimbabwe (with barely a media mention), and that in comparison to any image of refugee camps in Africa, the citizens of Gaza did not appear undernourished or in tattered rags.  Gaza is not Buchenwald, and all of the self-aggrandizing rhetoric will not make it such.  Nor, for that matter, are the unguided missile attacks on Israel the equivalent of the German blitz against London.  They are not fireworks, but neither are they V-2s.

The losses remain acceptable to both sides. This is unfortunate but true.  If they were truly unacceptable, they would not continue.  Hamas would stop firing rockets and turn to enlightened civil management.  Israel would withdraw totally to its 1967 borders – or lay waste to Gaza and drive all Palestinians into the sea/Sinai.  Instead, the casualties are political counters in the ongoing game of positional maneuver.  Hamas cynically exploits its dead for the international media, while assuring that its style of combat creates casualties.  With almost 60 percent of Gaza's population is under 16, there will be no shortage of candidates to lug AK-47s for Hamas.  For their part, Israeli politicians posture for their proximate election and demonstrate the dimensions of their testicles by being "tougher" than the rest of the candidates.  Simultaneously, Israel attempts to gain international appreciation for its restraint; this is "have it both ways" wishful thinking.  If there were a "button" that its opponents could push to eliminate Israel, there would be 100 million fingers on the button in a heartbeat.  By exercising "restraint" Israel will end being hung as a sheep rather than a goat, but will end dangling none the less.  And the steady progress toward an Iranian nuclear weapon raises the stakes with each passing day.

Indeed, the Israeli combat incursions, perhaps unwittingly, are instructing their opponents about how to endure pain.  What did Hezballah learn from the 2006 fighting?  That if you hang on, the Israelis will quit.  What conclusion did Hamas draw from Hezballah's experience?  One suspects it is that until the last fighter is routed from the last bunker in Gaza, Hamas will declare victory – as it now has.  All that has been demonstrated is that for Israel half measures don't even get half results.  And Israel's current unilateral cease fire leaves Hamas (and the rest of the Islamic world) to conclude that Tel Aviv lost its nerve.  Hamas's subsequent commitment to a (shorter) cease fire is as convincing as a sex worker's professed affection.

Israel has forgotten the lessons that it should have remembered from earlier wars, to wit, that the victors dictate the terms of peace and the losers – don't.  To be sure, some losers learn better than others.  Thus Jordan, Syria, and Egypt may hate Israel as deeply as they did prior to combat in 1947, 1956, 1967, and/or 1973, but they are not eager to slug it out with Israel again.  Each of these states is ruled by essentially the same establishment (royal or dictatorial) that came to appreciate it had more to lose from war with Israel than non-war, i.e. "war is less."  Tel Aviv believed that Lebanon had learned the same lesson; however, Beirut's fractured polity now believes war is more – and Tel Aviv failed in 2006 to reverse that conclusion – and it continues to pay the consequences.

The surest bet that anyone can make regarding the outcome of the Gaza fighting is that absent the elimination of Hamas, the rockets will keep falling on Israeli territory – just as they have continued throughout the fighting (and during the previous cease fire and predictably during the present cease fire).  The widest conceivable UN mandate will not prevent Hamas from rearming – either by directly smuggled missiles or by components, materials, and technical skills to build such.  Nor has there been a UN force yet devised that will pursue the intelligence-driven policing necessary to suppress a terrorist organization.  To believe otherwise is to bet that deferring disaster is equivalent to preventing disaster or that with delay "the horse will learn to sing."

But we are about to bring the various horses into the studio for singing lessons.  Once again the choir of Middle East experts is pitch testing its tuning forks.  They can be confident that whatever has been patched together in Washington between the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Secretary Rice will have a half life of days, if not hours, as soon as Secretary of State Clinton reads its fine print.  For its part, Hamas's fighters believe it has won – and has forced Israeli withdrawal.  And the Obama administration may indeed "hit the ground running" with the best of intensions – and find that a brick wall is its first direct and painful encounter with Middle East realities.

So far as Gaza is concerned, the Israelis insist quite justifiably that it is unacceptable as a rocket launching platform.  Hamas, equally justifiably, insists that hermetically sealing its borders to all normal movement/transit equates to imprisonment.  Hamas implies it will stop firing rockets when it has full control over Gaza's entry points; Israel says it will consider such action when the rocket firing/terrorism stops.  Deadlock.  The "cease fire" is really just a "reloading break." 

Bringing an end to smuggling is the key to any Gaza stability.  The maze of Gaza-Sinai tunnels, a system reportedly mounting into the hundreds, has grown in sophistication over decades and provides the mechanism through which inter alia missiles and missile components enter the territory.  Failure to counter this threat demonstrates the potential for Hamas to attack Israel not with nuclear weapons, but with much more easily fabricated and transportable chemical and/or biological weapons.  It is not an affectation, but quite possibly an existential requirement, that these attacks be ended before Hamas obtains capabilities to match its desires. 


mccaffreyDavid T. Jones is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations. During his Foreign Service career, he was a researcher/editor for the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report chapters on “Israel/Occupied Territories” and researcher/writer for the Historian’s Office study of the Clinton Administration’s Middle East Peace Process.

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