Stephen M. Walt

Brain-dead on both sides

As I write this, the latest battle between Israel and Hamas has taken a worrisome turn. In response to Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari and its latest pummeling of the Gaza strip, Hamas has launched missile strikes at Tel Aviv, and more alarmingly, Jerusalem. Here are my initial thoughts, with the ...


As I write this, the latest battle between Israel and Hamas has taken a worrisome turn. In response to Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari and its latest pummeling of the Gaza strip, Hamas has launched missile strikes at Tel Aviv, and more alarmingly, Jerusalem. Here are my initial thoughts, with the caveat that events are moving rapidly and may quickly overtake this analysis.

On the whole, this latest series of clashes reveals the utter lack of imagination and strategic foresight on both sides. It is a pointless exchange of violence that will not alter the basic strategic situation one iota. The fighting may enhance Netanyahu’s chances for reelection, but he was likely to win anyway. It may further enhance Hamas’ stature and underscore the impotence of the Palestinian Authority, but the latter’s growing irrelevance was already understood, if not openly acknowledged. But it brings neither side closer to achieving its core objectives.

Israel’s bind is straightforward, as John Mearsheimer lays out clearly here. The Netanyahu government is dead-set against allowing the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own and wants them to accept permanent Bantustan status instead. Netanyahu is eager to negotiate for as long as it takes, provided that no deal is ever reached and that the construction crews can keep gobbling up more land on the West Bank and ensuring permanent Israeli control. Those pesky Palestinians have refused to play that game, and also refused to give up their demands for their own state. And Palestinian groups living in the de facto prison in Gaza have continued to fire rockets into southern Israel from time to time, although the amount of damage and number of deaths produced by these strikes has been much lower than the deaths and damage caused by Israel’s own attacks on Palestinians. (According to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, Israel has killed 319 Palestinians since Cast Lead in 2009, while Palestinians have killed 20 Israelis.)

The problem is that Israel has no good option for dealing with this situation. Reoccupying Gaza would expose the IDF to a prolonged bout of urban guerrilla warfare and underscore the harshness of Israel’s overall policy as well as its failure to quell Palestinian national aspirations. Bombing Gaza and assassinating Hamas officials won’t work either, because new leaders rise up to replace them, and it makes Israel look even worse in the eyes of most of the world. Nor can bombing and shelling destroy the hidden rocket stockpiles or prevent new weapons from being smuggled in. The only long-term solution would be a political deal, but that’s ruled out by the overriding desire to create greater Israel and the resulting need to deny Palestinian desires for their own state.

Finally, this policy is bound to cost Israel more and more with the passage of time, especially given the winds of change blowing through the Arab world. Israel was within sight of regional acceptance a few years ago, as the entire Arab League had endorsed a Saudi peace plan that promised full recognition once a two-state solution was achieved. But two states is further away than ever, and Arab governments that have to pay more attention to public opinion are going to be forced to isolate Israel even more stringently. As Uri Avnery and Daniel Levy note, even a short-term Israeli tactical victory is likely to have negative consequences over the longer-term.

Yet Hamas’ recent behavior seems equally foolish. Firing off rockets demonstrates continued defiance, of course, and it would hard for Hamas not to respond when a key leader is killed, just as it would be hard for Israel to refrain on the rare occasions when Hamas is able to do real damage. But Hamas cannot hurt Israel enough to force Netanyahu to compromise, and the rocket attacks give Israel the pretext to retaliate with all the superior force at its command. Given the pro-Israel media bias in the United States, this situation also ensures that Hamas continues to be seen as a dangerous bunch of fanatics while Israel gets the usual free pass from U.S. commentators and politicians. Given these basic realities — which are hardly news these days — one has to ask what Hamas thinks it can accomplish by continuing on this path.  

In this context, attacking Jerusalem makes even less sense. Not only does it put Palestinian lives and Islamic holy sites at risk along with Israelis, it will do nothing to help Hamas’ image as a responsible political actor. The only way this could redound to Hamas’ benefit is if it provokes Israel into a frenzy of violence or a direct ground assault on Gaza (i.e., a replay of Operation Cast Lead), and it’s possible that that’s precisely what Hamas is trying to achieve. But if so, then they are gambling with the lives of Gazans in an especially callous way. Furthermore, the black eye that Israel suffered over Cast Lead didn’t produce a strategic breakthrough, so why does Hamas think provoking an even more disproportionate Israeli response will help now?

Tragically, what we have here is just another example of a mindless, tit-for-tat of violence devoid of broader strategic purpose. No matter how this latest round ends, Israelis will claim to have "restored deterrence" for the umpteenth time. But we can be confident that a few months or years will go by and they will have to restore it yet again. No matter how this latest round goes, Hamas will claim it has taught Israel a lesson and reaffirmed its right of resistance. But the alleged "lesson" won’t be clear and we can be confident that it won’t galvanize any serious rethinking in any of the places that matter. In short, this latest little bloodletting won’t make Israel more secure and won’t move Hamas or the Palestinians an inch closer to their stated national aspirations. In their ceaseless competition to outdo each other’s myopic behavior, Israel and Hamas are in a dead heat.

The real result will be to move us still closer to the day when the conflict shifts from the present struggle between the powerful Israeli Goliath and a divided, stateless, and lightly armed Palestinian David, and into a movement for Palestinian civil and political rights within the Greater Israel that Netanyahu & Co. are determined to build. Ironically, and tragically, that’s an outcome that Hamas and Israel both oppose, which further underscores the brain-dead quality of their current behavior. I’ve opposed such a development in the past and advocated two states for two peoples instead, but the one-state outcome looks increasingly unavoidable. And in that context, even a prolonged, contentious campaign for civil and political rights wouldn’t be as pointless as what we are now witnessing.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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