During the last week of 2008, Israel launched an intense military operation against Hamas in the Gaza strip. The purpose was twofold: to dispel rocket attacks that had been terrorizing Southern Israel for months, and to send a powerful message that Israel was more than willing to use overwhelming force to get its zero-tolerance message across. After killing scores of Hamas fighters and civilians in air and ground raids, drawing scorn from much of the world for its actions, Israel abruptly withdrew its forces on January 18. The incursion had lasted 22 days, resulting in hundreds of deaths — another violent chapter in the long history of Middle Eastern hostility.
Israel’s pullback neatly coincided with the final days in office of George W. Bush, a president who had always been reluctant to criticize the country’s terror-fighting tactics. But, international gamesmanship and the war’s actual repercussions aside, Israel still had its own political future to grapple with. On February 9, in a tighter-than-expected election to replace the unpopular Ehud Olmert as prime minister, hawkish conservative Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu — head of the Likud party, and himself a former prime minister — squeaked by rival Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister and torch-bearer of the more moderate Kadima party. Lurking in a surprisingly strong third place was Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra right-wing provocateur who doesn’t hide his antipathy for the peace process. The percentages mattered because, in Israel, as in much of Europe, parties must form coalitions to govern with authority — no one party has held a solid majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, since 1969. Netanyahu and Livni made a token effort to work together, but talks between the two foundered after they predictably disagreed on the Palestinian issue, with Livni favoring a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza and Netanyahu refusing to endorse a Palestinian authority that controls its own army. Netanyahu has had to look further rightward to form his coalition.
What does it all mean? Israel’s political shift is perhaps the inevitable result of another election: Gaza’s early 2006 contest that brought Hamas to legitimate power in the West Bank. The decision by Palestinians to entrust the Israel-despising group to manage their affairs was a damaging blow to the Bush-promoted idea that democracy would inevitably solve the Middle East’s problems. The United States doesn’t recognize Hamas as a legitimate government, so it rendered diplomacy all but impossible. It also relegated Mahmoud Abbas, the pro-two-state Palestinian leader whose Fatah still controls the West Bank (and whose shoddy leadership led to Hamas’ rise), to the sidelines. This all came on the heels of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s lapse into a vegetative coma two days before the Hamas election. Then, in the summer of 2006, Israel fought a badly mismanaged war against Hezbollah in Lebanon that only emboldened its enemies, and upped the enmity on all sides. Now, despite the global condemnations over civilian deaths and treatment of Palestinians, many Israelis simply feel mistrustful of Palestinians, and are in favor of a hard-edged approach, not a conciliatory one. With the election of Netanyahu, and the rising popularity of Lieberman, much of the country seems resigned to the current, intractable state of push and pull.
The wild card in the equation is the Obama administration. On the campaign trail, and in his first month in office, Obama has expressed a willingness to communicate with regimes that the Bush administration chose to ignore. While it has not shown signs of formally engaging with Hamas — yesterday, the administration endorsed Fatah as the only real Palestinian leadership — the approach in the region will likely be more nuanced than the Bush tactic of unquestioning Israel support. In an early sign of the administration’s way of thinking, Hillary Clinton announced two envoys would be traveling to Syria, an Israel foe and not exactly a diplomatic hotspot.
In the meantime, the prospect of rebuilding Gaza promises a new web of political problems. Crossings into the territory are still heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers, and only a small portion of goods — those that can’t conceivably be used to make weapons — are allowed in, making the reconstruction of buildings more than daunting. Millions of dollars in European and American aid is on the table, but how to get it around Hamas to Gazans will prove a difficult task. And whether all the death and destruction was worth it from Israel’s point of view is a question that remains unanswered.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as the key to the Middle East, a crucible that stands in for all the region’s swirling problems (Iran and Pakistan, to name a couple). Solve this problem, the wisdom goes, and others could follow. A changing of the political winds, however, will require an Obama administration willing to take risks, and Israeli leaders willing to play along. Add it all up, and both sides are in for rough sledding on the ever-illusory path to peace.
Image: Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu, Credit: Reuters/Jim Hollander