Yisra’el and the Zeal of Islam

4 09 2010

Sometimes, Referrals, I think hard about things. I’m not extraordinarily bright, but I’m interested in things, places and people beyond my understanding. That’s why I went back to university in 2009, and did a Master of Arts (International Relations). Because I remember, as a child – a very strange child – Anwar Sadat’s assassination, and asking my mother if the world was going to end. I’ve always been interested in the Middle East, and when I went on my grand tour in the mid 1990s, it was one of the first regions I visited. This post is an edited version of an essay I wrote for my degree last year so it is dated, but the resumption of Israeli settlement building in the last week has been playing on my mind; and when serious issues occupy my head instead of prancing unicorns, I don’t sleep. At all. And when I think about the reasons for the rise of groups like Hamas, or the Muslim Brotherhood, my mind fairly trembles at the thought of what ‘surrogate service providers’ may achieve in Pakistan if the millions of people left homeless and without livelihoods feel they are not being assisted by their government, or the international community.

I was very fortunate to have Dr Anthony Billingsley as my Middle East politics lecturer. Anthony Billingsley is everything someone who wants to learn could want from a teacher: good-humoured, ferociously bright, generous with his knowledge. He has contributed to The Drum (see this post on Australia’s U.N. candidacy: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2378066.htm) and I’ve also heard him interviewed on the wireless. He has a touch of the Ian Flemings about him (he’s not a Bond), as this interview explores: http://www.newspaper.unsw.edu.au/archive/2009/09_11_13/text/fivemin.htm. The man’s got pages of googledom, so I’m not going to list every article he’s given his two cents’ worth to. Back to me and my thinking. Or attempt at thinking about why I can’t see a two-state solution for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As I said, it’s an edited version of a full paper which also examined the 2006 war in Lebanon. For the record, I passed. Here goes:

Perhaps the greatest problem for Israel is its statehood. Bound and constrained by a complex, inflexible regime of institutions, ideas, relationships and practices, nation-states can render themselves incapable of identifying and ably responding to threats that transcend or subvert territorial boundaries. In Hamas, Israel is engaged with a force which is neither a conventional army, nor global Jihadist. Regardless of Syrian / Iranian surrogacy, Hamas is not regarded as a surrogate by the people; instead, it is accepted and welcomed as an indigenous, multi-faceted and highly organised service providers.

It is not a guerrilla movement as traditionally understood – a small organisation that uses its mobility as a weapon and feeds off its host population, depending on it for shelter and survival. Instead, Hamas participates in local politics, provides local services and can be bargained with. Because Hamas refuses to mark ‘X’ as military targets, civilian losses are almost certainly guaranteed to be higher than Western democracies can stomach. While it may be a surrogate of Syria and Iran, it is ‘of’ the people; an indivisible power. This philosophy is reflected in its military tactics and strikes at the heart of Israeli identity – while it is unlikely to defeat Israel by firing rockets at its citizens, Israel’s mighty army cannot prevent them from being fired. Israelis are supposed to be tough; the name for an Israeli-born Jew, sabra, comes from the Hebrew for cactus – Sa’bar; but how long can Israelis continue to manifest their insecurity in a highly-weaponised military when it does not keep them safe?

Of all of the actors central to the conflict, one force has demonstrated an uncanny ability to exploit these tectonic plates of Middle Eastern geopolitics for its own purposes: Iran. Neither Arab nor Sunni, Iran supports Islamist groups, both Sunni and Shi`a, using the Arab-Israeli conflict to bridge the sectarian and national gap. It could be argued that there is nothing Iran would like more than to see the Palestinian question remain unanswered. The continued ostracism of Hamas, despite it being the democratically-elected government of Gaza, means it has ‘nowhere to go but deeper into the embrace of Iran’. Iran is able to use the anniversary of al-Nakba to mobilise support for its Islamist proxies. The relative strategic impacts on any form of rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas are immense. Could youmfitna al-tawil , destroy the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians? How can a two-state solution be found when in reality, there are three states operating? Without a zaïm since Arafat’s death, Palestine has splintered geographically and politically between Hamas, controlling Gaza, and Fatah in the West Bank stronghold of Ramallah; all on the watch of an increasingly hard-line Israel.

The 2006 attack on Lebanon changed Israel’s political landscape irrevocably. It was a major factor in the downfall of Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party government. Governed by Binyamin Netanyahu and a coalition of his Likud Party, the remnants of the once-dominant Labour Party (with its former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak agreeing to be Netanyahu’s Defence Minister); and Yisra’el Beitenu with the latter’s leader Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer from Moldova, taking the role of Foreign Minister, leaving Kadima, founded by Ariel Sharon and led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, as the moderate opposition. Despite its domestic political shake-up, Israel repeated many of the mistakes it made in Lebanon in 2006 when it attacked Gaza in the last few days of December 2008. If the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome, then repeating these failures against Hamas almost defies belief – another entrenched grassroots movement; a Sunni Arab ally of Iran; the democratically elected (but isolated) government; with militants firing rockets at Israeli civilians. Israel’s timing was cynical (in the interregnum between the US Presidential election and inauguration); it seems to have approached the fighting, and the Arab world, from a strategic perspective that will increase instability in the region and ultimately weaken Israel‘s security’. Attacking United Nations’ installations and using white phosphorus coalesced international opinion against it; destroying Gaza’s already inadequate infrastructure (just as it had done in Lebanon); all the while ignoring the strategic impact of the horrendous images of Gaza’s humanitarian crisis conflict. Israel has experienced consistent shelling from the Gaza strip since its withdrawal in August 2005. The reality for Israel and Palestine is that the folly of 2009 has made the blockade and ghettoisation of Gaza worse. The schism between the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas has fractured the domestic constituency to an extent where one possible outcome is renewed factional fighting. Weakening Hamas by isolating it has not worked; it has not given Mahmoud Abbas and the PA a foothold in Gaza. Unifying the territories and their political and security apparatuses seems increasingly unlikely – so a one-state solution is likely to prevail. How can there be a two-state solution when there are, effectively, three states, territories, turfs – whatever you want to call them – three entities in play in that tiny strip of land: Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinian Territories are not just separated by ideology, they are physically asunder. In any event, Netanyahu is unlikely to seek a political settlement for fear of looking weaker than Olmert to his insecure citizenry.

The expectation gap that appears to be crushing the Obama administration is a leading indicator of the possible strategic impact of US foreign policy in the Middle East and one which has its roots in the 2006 Israeli-Hizbollah conflict, namely negotiations with Syria. Obama simply cannot afford to spend political and economic capital on the unflinching support of Israel of his predecessors – his strained talks with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu indicate he has no intention of doing so; as does his commitment to a two-state solution and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s repeated calls for an end to the spread of Israeli settlements. The possibilities of taking Syria out of the equation by giving both Israel and Syria what they had come close to agreeing to are of immense strategic value: agreement between the two countries would wound Hizbollah materially, and curb the ‘Shi`a Crescent’ that stretches from Iran through Syria to Lebanon and on to Gaza. It would also ameliorate Israeli insecurities stemming from two-pronged attacks and possibly revive ‘Annapolis’ – the aim of which, was to agree on the framework for a Palestinian state alongside Israel be the end of 2008, a goal which was never reached. However, the attack on Gaza made the Pax Syriana more difficult to realise. It strained relations between Turkey and Israel. Loosening Damascus’ ties with Tehran by restoring the Golan Heights and with it, Syria’s territorial integrity would also have weakened Hizbollah. However, both conflicts reinforced the Israeli public’s sense of insecurity. Why should Israel withdraw from more land when pulling out of Lebanon and dissembling settlements in Gaza has prompted hot wars?

In the end, the most likely strategic impact of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon and 2009 attack on Gaza may have nothing to do with bombs, but babies: as Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University wrote in The Boston Globe on 8 January 2009, ‘demography rather than weaponry is likely to determine the conflict’s ultimate outcome: that the Palestinian and Arab Israeli birthrate far exceeds the birthrate among Jewish Israelis is a fact with enormous strategic implications’*; and one that cannot be solved with talks, roadmaps or rockets.

To read Bacevich’s full article, follow this link: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/01/08/the_lessons_of_gaza/

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