Gaza: A Kadima-Made Quagmire

The political mudslinging between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni over the failure of Israel’s siege of Gaza would be amusing if it were not so disturbing.

The exchange basically comes down to Bibi saying that he inherited the Gaza siege from the previous government and Livni responding that under their version of the siege, the world wasn’t condemning Israel for it.

We’ll get back to Bibi in a moment, but let’s look at the depths of Livni’s disingenuousness.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni

Livni is not just the current head of Kadima; she was Foreign Minister when the siege was enacted and when Israel wreaked havoc in Operation Cast Lead. Unlike Avigdor Lieberman, the FM in the current government, Livni was at the very heart of policymaking under Olmert. She cannot duck responsibility for Gaza.

Under the watch that Livni was a central part of, Israel enacted a policy that was needlessly cruel and ultimately self-defeating. For three years, the civilians in Gaza have been devastated. They, not Hamas, bore the brunt of Israel’s policies. They, not Hamas, were impacted by Israel barring all sorts of household items, cleansers, foodstuffs, coffee, cigarettes, and other consumer products.

These effects were far from unexpected; they were the sole intent of the policies. This was the very definition of collective punishment.

The excuse that “the people of Gaza elected Hamas so they must live with the consequences of that choice” would be farcical even if it was a real reading of events. In fact, the people of Gaza and the West Bank voted Hamas into leadership of a unity government that still had Mahmoud Abbas dealing with all matters having to do with Israel. Hamas’ pre-emptive strike against a US and Israel-sponsored coup attempting to oust them left them in sole control of Gaza, albeit not in the body of the elected government.

Livni, along with the two Ehuds, Barak and Olmert, decided to respond to these events by depriving the people of Gaza of all that they could without actually causing mass starvation. It was this same troika which would not ease the siege, as Hamas had expected would happen if it held its cease-fire (and though Hamas was unable to stop absolutely all rocket fire from other groups, it did completely halt its own and slow others’ operations to a very small trickle).

That same group escalated the conflict again when they killed six Hamas fighters allegedly attempting to construct a tunnel to kidnap more Israeli soldiers. And that same group took advantage of the last days of the Bush regime to unleash hellish destruction on the Strip, killing many hundreds of civilians who, thanks to the same siege, had nowhere to flee to.

And Bibi? All he’s actually done is to continue the siege policy until now.

I’m reminded of an aphorism that was very popular in the 1990s: “Likud promises twenty settlements and builds one, while Labor promises one settlement and builds twenty.”

The problem the Netanyahu government confronts is its own hubris and obnoxiousness. Olmert, like Ariel Sharon before him and Ehud Barak before him, also built settlements in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. But this government is so right-wing it needs to trumpet its activities as loudly as it can and refuses to delay things by a day or two to avoid friction with the US and Europe.

And that’s really the big difference. On the ground, for the Palestinians, things don’t look that different. Indeed, Netanyahu has done more than Olmert to remove checkpoints and ease conditions on the West Bank, and has really done very little else that is worse than his predecessor. That’s not praise for Bibi; it’s a comment on how little things change for the Palestinians with different Israeli leaders.

It has long been a canard among some analysts that right-wing Israeli governments are in some sense preferable because they garner less tolerance for similar policies due to their brash public statements which annoy leaders in the US and Europe. That’s something of an oversimplification, but it’s also got a strong element of truth to it.

The other side of that equation is the reason I was rooting for Netanyahu, and not Livni, to win the last election: the Americans and Europeans find it much easier to pressure a right-wing government that is widely perceived as refusing peace than a so-called centrist coalition (and it is a stark picture of how far Israel has shifted that Kadima can be labeled “centrist”) that repeatedly and loudly embraces the two-state solution, in word if not in deed.

Kadima in Government?

The extreme right-wing nature of the current Israeli government has brought a diplomatic isolation to Israel that is unprecedented in its history. The flotilla fiasco, as tragic as it was, brought a level of international rebuke that seems well out of proportion to what has been the norm when Israel uses overwhelming military force against civilians. This would seem to be due to a general loss of patience with Israel in the face of its open defiance on settlements, Jerusalem and a negotiated peace in general.

And that would be a sensible explanation if policies in those areas were really different under the Likud-led government than they had been under Kadima. But on the ground, they’re not very different. It’s only in the realm of diplomacy that there has been a change, which is part of the reason so many Israelis are convinced their current problems are due to bad public relations and not bad policies. After all, the same sort of policies hadn’t brought this kind of response in the past.

These are now important considerations because of the possibility that Kadima might, in the near future, join with Likud to form a unity government.

Some see this as the way to save the two-state solution. And it might well be, but there is also a distinct danger in that unification.

The advantages in Kadima joining the government are obvious. It will allow Israel to make serious concessions and appease foreign pressure in sensitive areas like settlements and Jerusalem without causing the government to fall. It would allow Israel to take positions and, more importantly, actions that would open a door for real negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. And it would certainly help mend fences between Israel and the Obama Administration.

The danger, though, is that Kadima’s joining would also allow the EU and especially the US to ease the pressure on Israel, which they might do to such a degree that peace becomes impossible and the only thing that changes is the perception of whose fault that is.

Tzipi Livni, and much of Kadima, are quite skilled in knowing what to say to appeal to mainstream Israelis who continue to support an end to occupation; to Americans who are generally inclined to seeing Israel as the good guys; and, especially, to diplomats who need Israel to be perceived as working towards peace.

She is also quite capable, under the right circumstances, of taking real steps toward peace. So were Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and even Ariel Sharon. Indeed, so would Netanyahu be, given the right political dynamics.

But all of those steps require risks. Maybe a settler attacks a Palestinian and sets off more than he bargained for, or maybe he decides to exact a “price” from his Arab neighbors for Israeli peace gestures. Maybe a Palestinian recognizes that any peace process is a fragile thing and a single act of violence might derail it. Whatever the cause, real movement toward ending an occupation which has now moved into its 44th year carries political risks and is vulnerable to the acts of extremists.

Only with consistent pressure, applied judiciously and strategically, from Western powers, especially the US, can any Israeli government stay on a course toward an eventual resolution. Kadima can help protect the government as it makes moves that the far right in Israel will vehemently oppose.

But to avoid letting Kadima be a fig leaf, covering a tightening occupation with nice words and empty gestures, as was Olmert’s legacy, the West must push for an attitude change in Israel. They must insist that Israel encourage and aid Salam Fayyad’s state-building efforts; find a way to accommodate a Palestinian unity government and reconnect, through safe passages, the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and, most of all, cut out the nonsense that the government is powerless to halt settlement expansion.

Of course, these are big shifts and cannot be accomplished overnight, but these must be the goals and ideals of Western pressure. They may not come true, but if they are held strongly, they can keep the needed pressures on both Israel and the Palestinians to finally resolve this conflict. And then Kadima cannot be a fig leaf, but rather a shield protecting needed changes.

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