- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009




If insanity is trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome, then U.S. and Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East has long since entered the realm of the insane. As if striving to prove this maxim, Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza both damages American and Israeli security and harms prospects for regional stability.

Why did invading Gaza work any better than previous “iron fist” policies implemented against Palestinians, Lebanese and other antagonists? In the 1980s, Israelis and Palestinians could circulate between all areas under Israeli military control with minimal disruption. Since then, encounters that began with shop closures and stones against tear gas and occasional bullets now trade in rockets and air strikes.

Today walls, enclosed highways and dozens of checkpoints choke any sort of interaction between ordinary citizens from both communities. After all these “protective” measures, are Israelis in fact safer today than 20 years ago? Hamas’ rockets can be made in any simple workshop. Estimates are that Israel killed perhaps 500 Hamas fighters (of a total 15,000) along with roughly as many civilians. As a result, residents of several Israeli cities are never far from incoming rockets, while West Bank settlers are walled into their own stifling enclaves. Ironically, Israelis today are discovering what white South Africans realized a generation ago: Walling your neighbor out also means walling yourself in.

U.S. support for the recent operation and those preceding it also confounds America’s stated aim of regional stability based on democracy promotion, improved rule of law and increased trade. Rather than furthering these objectives, it sent several messages that weakened the U.S.-backed security architecture in the region and beyond: 1) Refugee populations merit no protection from aerial bombardment and shelling, and have no right to flee across international borders. Egypt and Israel are signatories to the Geneva conventions, and both refused to allow civilians to flee the fighting. The continuing degradation of refugees’ legal rights and occupiers’ responsibilities does nothing to advance U.S. interests, and will affect standards of operation civilians throughout all theaters, not just this one.

2) Uncritical backing of the attack on Gaza rendered American prestige and reputation hostage to Israeli actions. This connection cannot possibly build anything more constructive than fear - and loathing - of American assets throughout the region. Fear may have its uses. However, genuine goodwill works far more effectively when pursuing policy goals that require active regional compliance and cooperation, such as a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, orchestrated nonproliferation pressure on Iran, etc. Meanwhile, Israel’s attack further damages the legitimacy of U.S. allies throughout the region, particularly Egypt and Jordan - which in turn reduces their ability to provide meaningful assistance to American policy initiatives.

3) Hamas’ rival faction, the secularist Fatah, has accommodated key U.S.-backed Israeli demands for more than 15 years on the West Bank. Moreover, and contrary to mainstream reporting, Hamas largely upheld a truce with Israel from July to November 2008. In return, Palestinian leaders were rewarded with more settlements, land expropriations and walls in the West Bank, and this month’s recent onslaught on Gaza. The inherent lesson is that it makes no difference whether one cooperates with Israel or not - the result will be the same, and not a positive one for your constituents. Such lessons are not likely to encourage what is usually referred to as “moderation” on the Palestinian side, or in the Arab world more broadly.

4) The recent war further clouded the status of the Gaza Strip, the heartland of Palestinian nationalism. Israel, hoping to pass the torch to an unwilling Egypt, shuns legal and moral responsibility for Gazans’ welfare. Its military attack also intensified the physical, political and psychological separation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Such centrifugal actions made a revived peace process ever more difficult, and brought closer the day when no single actor within Palestinian society can deliver more than a few cantonized neighborhoods to a negotiated agreement.

5) Finally, Israel’s policy choices in recent years counteract its own long-term security requirements. For years, a peace based on a two-state solution has been held out for Palestinians as an ultimate goal. At the same time, more land has been taken, checkpoints added and settlements built. This enables the Israeli state to better control the daily lives of Palestinians living under occupation (as, , Gazans still do). However, it also precludes a viable and politically acceptable two-state solution. The indigenous Arab population is now walled in and unable to move between cities - yet it remains in place (which may explain the return of the idea of population “transfer”). Soon, Palestinians may simply demand equal rights in a single state, whatever its name. Such demands will be far harder for Israel to argue against in the international arena, and will push portrayal of the Israeli state ever closer to the South Africa precedent. It is this final point which argues most strongly that Israel’s attack on Gaza traded the possibility of a peaceful and secure future for the certainty of another ephemeral tactical victory.

Nabil Al-Tikriti and Ranjit Singh are assistant professors of Middle East history and politics, respectively, at the University of Mary Washington.

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