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How the West Chose War in Gaza
How the West Chose War in Gaza
Keep the Calm in Lebanon
Keep the Calm in Lebanon

How the West Chose War in Gaza

Originally published in The New York Times

As Hamas fires rockets at Israeli cities and Israel follows up its extensive airstrikes with a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, the most immediate cause of this latest war has been ignored: Israel and much of the international community placed a prohibitive set of obstacles in the way of the Palestinian “national consensus” government that was formed in early June.

That government was created largely because of Hamas’s desperation and isolation. The group’s alliance with Syria and Iran was in shambles. Its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt became a liability after a July 2013 coup replaced an ally, President Mohamed Morsi, with a bitter adversary, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Hamas’s coffers dried up as General Sisi closed the tunnels that had brought to Gaza the goods and tax revenues on which it depended.

Seeing a region swept by popular protests against leaders who couldn’t provide for their citizens’ basic needs, Hamas opted to give up official control of Gaza rather than risk being overthrown. Despite having won the last elections, in 2006, Hamas decided to transfer formal authority to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. That decision led to a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, on terms set almost entirely by the P.L.O. chairman and Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel immediately sought to undermine the reconciliation agreement by preventing Hamas leaders and Gaza residents from obtaining the two most essential benefits of the deal: the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government and continue to administer Gaza under the new one, and the easing of the suffocating border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that bar most Gazans’ passage to the outside world.

Yet, in many ways, the reconciliation government could have served Israel’s interests. It offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.

Israel strongly opposed American recognition of the new government, however, and sought to isolate it internationally, seeing any small step toward Palestinian unity as a threat. Israel’s security establishment objects to the strengthening of West Bank-Gaza ties, lest Hamas raise its head in the West Bank. And Israelis who oppose a two-state solution understand that a unified Palestinian leadership is a prerequisite for any lasting peace.

Still, despite its opposition to the reconciliation agreement, Israel continued to transfer the tax revenues it collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf, and to work closely with the new government, especially on security cooperation.

But the key issues of paying Gaza’s civil servants and opening the border with Egypt were left to fester. The new government’s ostensible supporters, especially the United States and Europe, could have pushed Egypt to ease border restrictions, thereby demonstrating to Gazans that Hamas rule had been the cause of their isolation and impoverishment. But they did not.

Instead, after Hamas transferred authority to a government of pro-Western technocrats, life in Gaza became worse.

Qatar had offered to pay Gaza’s 43,000 civil servants, and America and Europe could have helped facilitate that. But Washington warned that American law prohibited any entity delivering payment to even one of those employees — many thousands of whom are not members of Hamas but all of whom are considered by American law to have received material support from a terrorist organization.

When a United Nations envoy offered to resolve this crisis by delivering the salaries through the United Nations, so as to exclude all parties from legal liability, the Obama administration did not assist. Instead, it stood by as Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for the envoy’s expulsion on the grounds that he was “trying to funnel money” to Hamas.

Hamas is now seeking through violence what it couldn’t obtain through a peaceful handover of responsibilities. Israel is pursuing a return to the status quo ante, when Gaza had electricity for barely eight hours a day, water was undrinkable, sewage was dumped in the sea, fuel shortages caused sanitation plants to shut down and waste sometimes floated in the streets. Patients needing medical care couldn’t reach Egyptian hospitals, and Gazans paid $3,000 bribes for a chance to exit when Egypt chose to open the border crossing.

For many Gazans, and not just Hamas supporters, it’s worth risking more bombardment and now the ground incursion, for a chance to change that unacceptable status quo. A cease-fire that fails to resolve the salary crisis and open Gaza’s border with Egypt will not last. It is unsustainable for Gaza to remain cut off from the world and administered by employees working without pay. A more generous cease-fire, though politically difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would be more durable.

The current escalation in Gaza is a direct result of the choice by Israel and the West to obstruct the implementation of the April 2014 Palestinian reconciliation agreement. The road out of the crisis is a reversal of that policy.

Keep the Calm in Lebanon

Originally published in The American Prospect

The Israel-Lebanon border has been relatively quiet for the past 13 years. The latest tit-for-tat threatens the balance.

The Middle East has yet another flashpoint: On Sunday, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel traded fire over what had been a mostly quiet border since the 2006 war between them. The clashes came exactly a week after a drone attack in Beirut, which was widely attributed to Israel. The two incidents have brought the two sides closer to the brink of an open conflict. While neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear to want war right now, they may be only one miscalculation or technical error away from an escalatory spiral spinning out of control.

Two things are needed to prevent the inadvertent breakout of all-out war: a return to the type of mutual deterrence that has kept the Israel-Lebanon border relatively calm for the past 13 years, and a lessening of tensions in the standoff between the U.S. and Iran.

The attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel.

What exactly was attacked in the southern suburb of Beirut in the early hours of August 25 has yet to be officially established, but many reports identify the target as technical equipment related to Hezbollah's alleged precision-guided missile program, which Israel has vowed to abort. Yet the attack must also be seen in the context of recent attacks against Iran-aligned paramilitary groups in Iraq likewise attributed to Israel, the latest of which occurred on the same day as the Beirut blast, and Israel’s long-standing and increasingly open military campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria, where it attacked two days before. Immediately after the latest strike near Damascus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Iran has no immunity anywhere,” and that “our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”

Until the drone attack on August 25, Lebanon was a place where Tehran appeared to enjoy just such immunity, thanks to the deterrence created by the missile arsenal and military capabilities of its most potent regional ally, Hezbollah. For its part, the Shia movement had responded to the increasingly threatening Israeli rhetoric directed at its precision-guided missile program by vowing proportional retaliation to any Israeli attack. Indeed, hours after the drone attack, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in a speech that the movement's response “may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border.”

Hezbollah was in a bind: Retaliation in kind carries the risk of provoking an even more substantial Israeli response, which in turn could set off an uncontrollable escalation leading to war. This would be devastating for Lebanon, even if the consequences for Israel may also be grave. But refraining from retaliation would reveal Hezbollah's deterrence posture to be a hollow threat, inviting further and more substantial Israeli attacks that may eventually force Hezbollah to choose between submission or war.

Hezbollah's attack on Sunday afternoon, which targeted Israeli military vehicles right across the border, may have been exactly the “calculated strike” that statements attributed to sources inside the movement predicted as the most likely response—one that stays below a threshold that would compel Israel to hit back, while still being substantial enough to reestablish deterrence.

This time round, it looks like the formula has worked. After initial reports of Israeli casualties, official statements asserted that there were none. Israeli media reported that what appeared as the evacuation of a wounded soldier in videos circulating on social media was indeed a staged rescue operation meant to trick Hezbollah into believing they had scored big, and pulling back their launching squad. Either way, neither Hezbollah nor Israel appeared keen on taking the skirmish any further.

Yet the problem with such calculations is that tit-for-tats with missiles and drones are not an exact science. They are far closer to a game of chicken in which he who blinks first loses face, and both find themselves in a war they claim not to seek if neither blinks. And even the best-calibrated operation may go awry through technical error. For instance, if a missile aimed at destroying a military installation were to veer off course and hit a school instead, all bets would be off, and a massive Israeli counterstrike almost certain.

A tacit understanding [...] whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Ever since the 2006 war, Israel and Hezbollah have been watching each other closely and preparing for a next round they hope will never come, while carefully avoiding any move that could transform their limited altercations into outright armed conflict. That caution has now given way to brinkmanship, as both sides are engaging in dangerous acrobatics, framed as deterrence, which push them toward the precipice of war. Their respective external allies, the U.S. and Iran, need to step in to prevent a further escalation that would serve nobody. A tacit understanding, perhaps communicated by a third country with links to both sides (Russia comes to mind), whereby Hezbollah considers the case settled and Israel desists from further attacks, may allow both sides to return to the status quo, which has preserved the peace on the border for the past 13 years.

Yet while last weekend's skirmish may have been contained successfully, it is but the latest flare-up in the larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Rather than stoking fires in the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq and now Lebanon all at the same time, Washington and Tehran should return to the negotiating table to help calm an unstable region that is coming increasingly unstuck.