Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip and its drive to inflict defeat on HAMAS came as no surprise to the incoming Obama administration. After extensive preparation the offensive launched during George Bush’s final days is calculated to give Israel a one month window to decapitate HAMAS and destroy enough of its military infrastructure to change the political facts on the ground. What comes next is a new interim strategy; the One and One-Half State Solution.
Once Israel has visited as much destruction as possible in Gaza over the next two weeks, Israel’s next prime minister, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and soon-to-be President Obama will proceed to craft incremental agreements. Substantial resources will be committed to rebuild the West Bank, while the war torn Gaza Strip is left economically and politically isolated. In other words, the failed Two-State Solution will devolve into a de-facto One and One-Half State Solution until such time as Gaza is subdued and purged of its extremist efforts.
If this new strategic turn sounds highly unlikely, its far more feasible than the prospects of Abbas and Al Fatah reconciling their differences with HAMAS. HAMAS’s shocking electoral victory over Al Fatah in 2005, and smashing Al Fatah in the Gaza Civil War in 2007 has left more bad blood on the floor than can be overcome in the short run. Nor is reconciliation on Abbas’s agenda. Israel’s strike to neutralize HAMAS’s leadership and degrade its growing military capability was designed to elevate Al Fatah to the only legitimate internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people. Thus the stage is set to engineer new talks favorable to Israel and Abbas that will rise to the top of Obama’s crowded foreign policy agenda when he takes office.
In the short run calls from the European Union, the United Nations and the broader international community for a cease fire will fall on deaf ears. Israel’s air and ground war will likely continue up to Obama’s inauguration, or until international pressure for a cease fire outweighs the military value of completing the mission. Tel Aviv’s phantom goal of eliminating HAMAS’s capacity to launch rockets into Israel is a thinly veiled justification for an open-ended invasion and occupation of Gaza.
Predictably the invasion was backed by U.S. Secretary of State Rice with a familiar refrain that the U.S. wants a cease fire, but cannot support a return to the “status quo ante.” Under the slogan of searching for a “durable peace” the U.S. will stand by Israel until the job is done.
In a repeat performance of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, the Sunni-led Arab regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States are all supporting Israel’s actions in the hope that HAMAS will be severely crippled or defeated. HAMAS’s downsizing will relieve the Arab kings and sultans of the burden of hypocritically supporting HAMAS’s anti-Israel and anti-U.S. leadership backed by Shiia-led Iran and enjoying support on the Arab street.
It is not insignificant that today the three most popular leaders in the Sunni majority Middle East are Shiia Muslims (Nasrallah-Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader, Syrian President Bashir Assad and Iranian President Ahmadinejad). More importantly, the Sunni Arab monarchs want to see Iran’s support and strength diminished by the defeat of HAMAS which secures funds, arms and political support from Tehran. Iran and Shiia Islam’s influence that is metastasizing across the Middle East is a direct threat to the Sunni monarch’s authoritarian rule. Another important component of the invasion strategy to reduce Iran’s profile is to demonstrate to Syria that its best interests would be served by jettisoning Iran and joining Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Quartet’s new peace born-of-war solution. For Egypt and Saudi Arabia who have invested a great deal in promoting their own Israeli-Palestinian peace plans and cease fire agreements, HAMAS’s defeat is critical to stopping Iran’s momentum.
Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah have resisted attempts to be drawn into the conflict. While condemning the invasion Hezbollah will not unleash its own rocket attacks against northern Israel unless HAMAS is in jeopardy of being totally wiped out. Hezbollah’s priority is consolidating its political gains from the 2006 victory against Israel and preparing to win the parliamentary majority in Lebanon’s upcoming elections.
Despite the military setbacks HAMAS will suffer, it will survive and rebuild its strength in Gaza. Iran and HAMAS are looking to the long run and are confident that its Al Fatah rivals will lose support over time for its complicity with Israel and the U.S. in supporting the invasion. Iran will bide its time and settle for being the beneficiary of heightened anti-U.S. sentiments that continue to deepen across the Middle East. In the West Bank, al Fatah is attempting to suppress mass demonstrations by Palestinians supporting HAMAS and Abbas has even blamed HAMAS for starting the conflict, as if who shot first is the essential question at hand.
In the final analysis there is not going to be a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace until there are peacemakers and peacekeepers on both sides of the conflict. Between the Israelis, Al Fatah and HAMAS, the invasion places the prospects for peace even further in the distant future. That is precisely why the quest for reconciliation between HAMAS and Al Fatah has been abandoned by the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
So what will the new Obama administration do? The conflict has forced Obama’s hand. He cannot retreat or put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner. Nor is it guaranteed that a cease fire will occur. Wars have uncertain outcomes, and the West Bank could erupt even if Hezbollah keeps its powder dry in Lebanon. Moreover, Obama has two wars to prosecute in Afghanistan and Iraq that are far more strategic to the U.S. and its allies. The Persian Gulf is still the critical ground zero of the Middle East, and its oil is the lubricant powering a tottering world economy that cannot withstand another short-term energy jolt.
With no prospects of a comprehensive peace in the Levant, Obama will have to go slow and embrace the concept of extracting whatever short term concessions he can out of the situation. The de-facto One and One-Half State Solution will likely be his best option. Obama and the Europeans could pursue a soft strategy of building agreements short of changing any of the base terms of the Roadmap. Massive injections of capital and economic development projects in the West Bank will be critical to pacifying West Bank Palestinians and doing what hasn’t been done; improving their daily lives. They are tired of empty talk, promises, and peace plans that yield more violence and suffering.
Israel would have to agree to stop construction of its settlements in the West Bank and roll back some of its roadblocks and checkpoints. Abbas and the new incoming Israeli Prime Minister (most likely Netanyahu) would agree to a cease fire in the West Bank. Egypt, Jordan and the Saudis would need to invest in the West Bank development initiative with substantial support from international NGO’s to monitor the Palestinian Authority administration of finances and development projects. A small international peace keeping force may also be inserted in the West Bank. In short, the goal would be to economically and politically isolate Gaza and HAMAS, but not militarily attack HAMAS. Presumably, Israel’s invasion would reduce HAMAS’s capacity and appetite for conflict. Palestinians would therefore have two distinct paths to choose from; a potentially prosperous and peaceful West Bank or a struggling and chaotic Gaza.
The One and One-Half State solution is a roll of the dice, but it is a chance to try something new to produce tangible progress in the West Bank instead of more non-productive peace talks. It is a dangerous initiative that would require patience to endure the blow back that will come from turning Gaza into an island of desolation for an undetermined time. If Obama is lucky, HAMAS’s may actually be forced concentrate on rebuilding GAZA and defer on launching rockets into southern Israel. The struggle in the Levant is moving to another level. Condoleezza Rice was correct when she said there can be no return to the “status quo ante.” Going backwards is not an option or possibility. The question is whether developments move in the direction of peace and stability or towards a deepening of the crisis. The hour for all sides to cast off unrealistic dreams committed to paper in far away places like Oslo is at hand.