A Pox on All Their Houses

Neither Israel nor Hamas can win in Gaza, but the biggest loser is the Palestinian Authority.

With Israel having launched a significant ground operation in Gaza following Hamas's refusal of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities is intensifying yet again. To what end and from what beginning, however, is unclear. While both Israel and Hamas have publicly stated and implicit objectives, neither side seems poised to achieve any significant strategic gains.

In the meanwhile, more than 260 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them civilians, including children, have been killed -- as well as at least two Israelis -- and the grim tally of death and destruction is only likely to increase as long as the seemingly pointless fighting drags on. 

Israel's stated goals to "restore deterrence" and degrade -- if not eliminate -- Hamas's rocket capabilities are straightforward, but unachievable unless the country were to fully reoccupy Gaza and reverse the "unilateral disengagement" enacted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for such a reoccupation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed these ideas as "background noise." There appears to be no real possibility that Israel's military will once again police the streets of Gaza as an army of direct occupation. Under such circumstances, even given the significant ground operations launched on Thursday, all Israel can really do is single out stores of rockets, secure or demolish launching sites, destroy tunnel infrastructure, and target the homes and offices of Hamas officials and members.

At first glance, such an imperative might seem rational, since Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza have been firing missiles at not only southern Israel but virtually the whole country and even parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. However, each time invasion has been the response to missile attacks from Gaza, Israel has failed to find a long-term -- or even a mid-term -- remedy. And each time, Hamas has emerged better equipped and more technically capable.

The implausibility of Israel's avowed goal of destroying Hamas's rocket capabilities (some officials even speak in terms of Gaza being "demilitarized") is all the greater given that most of the missiles Hamas is currently using are actually manufactured in the Gaza Strip rather than imported from Iran. Iranian expertise and spare parts are undoubtedly crucial, but since Hamas (and possibly other militant groups in Gaza) is manufacturing its own rockets -- even when Egypt has ensured that smuggling is more difficult than ever -- there's every reason to expect that more can be manufactured locally and in short order.

Israel's conundrum gets even more complicated when one considers that while it wants to degrade Hamas's capabilities and strike a blow at the organization, it does not wish Hamas to fall from power in Gaza. Israel fears the potential for anarchy or more extreme groups emerging in a power vacuum were Hamas to collapse. So, in addition to pursuing a strategy that has proven to be ineffective, Israel has goals in Gaza that are greatly circumscribed by its counterintuitive, but undeniable, preference for a weakened Hamas to remain in power.

Hamas, too, has a long list of goals, all of which also seem to be out of reach. A key demand is that Israel release "security prisoners" who had been part of the Gilad Shalit swap but were rearrested in a West Bank crackdown a few weeks ago. It's virtually impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to this.

Most of Hamas's other key demands are aimed at countries other than Israel. For Hamas, this conflict is about trying to break out of an impossible situation in which it has found itself in recent months. It is broke. It is isolated. And internal divisions and its growing unpopularity in Gaza bedevil the group. Hamas may have hoped that the "unity government" agreement with Fatah would strengthen its hand and give it a new foothold in the West Bank. But as it happened, Hamas gained nothing from the agreement.

But to understand the root of Hamas's current frustration, one must look not northeast from Gaza, but west. The epicenter of Hamas's growing desperation lies in the policies of the new Egyptian government. Following the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into Sinai and the border area with Gaza. They reportedly killed up to two dozen Hamas operatives in Sinai whom they believed were operating in cahoots with insurgent groups, and virtually shut down Hamas's smuggling tunnel network. In the ensuing weeks, as the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on its opponents, it treated Hamas as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist campaign in Egypt being conducted by the extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and, according to the government, the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Egyptian government sees itself as being at war with the Egypetian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Brotherhood group in Palestine. The relationship between Egypt and Hamas is therefore distinctly unfriendly, if not outright hostile.

In addition to seeking Egyptian and American support for the transfer of promised funding from Qatar to pay its employees, Hamas wants Egypt to permanently open the Rafah crossing and effectively end the blockade of Gaza, at least insofar as the movement of people is concerned. But for Egypt the crossing and the whole border area is a major national security issue and its level of trust in Hamas is nil.

However, the question of Rafah has major implications for Ramallah, which has brought the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) and the sidelined (and seemingly impotent and irrelevant) President Mahmoud Abbas to the fore. The only real prospect for reopening Rafah on a permanent basis is an old idea now suddenly revived: that PA security forces, along with international monitors, would control the Palestinian side of the crossing rather than Hamas.

Whether Egypt would be willing to agree to this is not clear, although Abbas has expressed interest. In light of Cairo's cold shoulder, Hamas has attempted to bring its current patrons, Turkey and Qatar, into the center of diplomatic activity to help secure a cease-fire, to little avail. The centrality of Egypt to a potential cease-fire is simply unavoidable. It is the only Arab state that borders Gaza, and therefore has a direct influence on what does and does not happen there.

But Egypt's priority is not, as some mistakenly think, to preserve its allegedly coveted role as the go-to mediator and broker of Israeli-Hamas truces. Instead, the Egyptian government is determined to ensure that Hamas is not able to coerce it into modifying what Sisi regards as key national security policies regarding Gaza. Hence its initial proposal, essentially of "calm for calm," offered Hamas no major gains. It was predictably, if not inevitably, rejected.

But now, Cairo has brought Abbas and the PA back into the talks, center stage. The Egyptians have grasped, even if Israel and some others have not, that the long-term political impact of the conflict probably depends more on restoring and enhancing the credibility of the PA than any other factor.

The PA has been badly damaged by the failure of the last round of peace negotiations and the lack of a viable ongoing diplomatic track towards Palestinian independence. Other strategies, such as U.N. recognition initiatives, have demonstrated limited impact and a prohibitive cost. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the improvements in governance, reforms, economic development, and public services achieved by the state- and institution-building program led by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been stagnant, at best. In many cases, the palpable, measurable successes of that program are fraying.

There is no question that Abbas and the PA were suffering a crisis of legitimacy in recent months, at the same time that Hamas was enduring an even greater crisis at virtually every register. But now, at least, Hamas has seized the initiative, albeit at a hideous cost. It alone appears to wave the Palestinian flag, however speciously. It alone claims to have a strategy for national liberation -- armed struggle and "resistance" -- no matter how implausible. 

The danger is that the bloody and reckless hostilities between Israel and Hamas at least constitute something, which a PA armed with nothing may find difficult to counter politically. With each successive flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group has taken more blame from both Palestinian and broader Arab public opinion for the deaths and destruction. Hamas's political "bounce" from nationalist sentiment against Israel has been more fleeting. But if the PA still appears ineffective, marginal, and irrelevant, even the heaping of public blame on Hamas might not stop it from gaining significant ground in the Palestinian political landscape.

If we are, as it appears, looking at a lose-lose scenario between Israel and Hamas, the biggest loser of all could be the PA. That loss of legitimacy will be good for no one -- not Egypt, not Israel, and certainly not for the cause of peace. Thus, even as Israeli tanks roll into Gaza, regional and international powers must move quickly to help the PA restore its diplomatic and political relevance. This means ensuring that Ramallah, not Gaza, remains the primary address for Palestinian issues, and that a clear and credible contrast in both governance and the consequences of their policies can be drawn by each and every Palestinian who compares the PA and Hamas. Otherwise it will be hard for Palestinians and others not to conclude that Hamas is right when it claims that armed struggle and violence yield dividends -- albeit at a high cost -- while negotiations, diplomacy, and security coordination are a pointless dead end.



The Missile That Will End the War

Why the downing of MH17 is the beginning of the end for Ukraine’s separatists and a nightmare for Vladimir Putin.

There is little room for doubt that a missile fired by separatist rebels brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing 298 innocent people. It seems that the rebels didn't realize they were targeting a civilian airliner. Indeed, intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commanders reflect their surprise and dismay: They presumably had thought it was a Ukrainian government military aircraft (that is certainly what rebel "minister of defense" Igor Strelkov claimed). But it is hardly relevant whether the downing of MH17 was a deliberate atrocity or a murderous mistake. Regardless, this disaster poses the greatest challenge yet for the Kremlin in its months-long covert war in Ukraine, one likely to bring the war to a close soon -- if not without more bloodshed.

While there are undoubtedly grounds for resentment in eastern Ukraine -- and while most of the rebel fighters are locals -- the rebellion is, for all intents and purposes, a Russian creation. Since the insurgency began, Russia has armed, encouraged, facilitated, and protected the rebels while maintaining an official air of detachment. Strelkov is a known Russian intelligence officer; weapons and volunteers have been moved across the border into Ukraine on a constant basis; and Moscow has threatened retaliation if the Ukrainian government takes tough measures against a rebellion within its own borders. Despite all that, the Kremlin claims that Ukraine's woes are simply an internal matter. Moscow cannot and will not continue to be able to pretend not to be involved, in the wake of MH17's deadly descent.

Of late, the Kremlin had been showing signs of impatience and uncertainty when it came to eastern Ukraine. Separatist leaders, including Strelkov, have been grumbling about a lack of support from Moscow. Kremlin mouthpieces duly smeared them back. Eduard Bagirov, one of Putin's main political managers, went further and publicly warned that Strelkov would be "squashed like a flea" if he didn't come to heel.

However, compelling evidence emerged at the same time that the Russians were upping the ante in Ukraine. After the fall of Slavyansk, until then the epicenter of the rebel military, Russian forces apparently launched short-range rocket strikes on Ukrainian positions, and the U.S. government stated that the rebels had started to receive more heavy equipment from across the border, including artillery and armored vehicles.

This may well have included the Buk surface-to-air (SAM) missile system that apparently brought down MH17. Although the rebels subsequently claimed not to have any such systems, they incautiously had tweeted a picture of at least one in their arsenal at the end of June. The Buk may have been stolen from Ukrainian government stocks, as they and Moscow claim. Or it may have come directly from Russia. It makes little difference. The fact is that without Russian protection (and perhaps technical assistance), the rebels would not have been in a position to launch the fateful missile.

And that one missile has redefined this six-month-old war.

So long as the conflict was Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians (even with Russian support), it would only generate "grave concern" in Europe and an expanding but manageable sanctions regime from the West. This was irksome for the Kremlin, to be sure, but nothing that it could not bear, especially given the unlikely conviction among many within President Vladimir Putin's inner circle that the West lacked the stamina and resolve to maintain its pressure long term. But the shooting down of MH17 provides both a powerful symbol of the wider risks of allowing this conflict to continue as well as ample ammunition for hawks eager to see a tougher Western line.

The Kremlin has a time-honored playbook for dealing with inconvenient truths and Putin quickly turned to it when MH17 came down. At first, there was simple denial (for the first few hours, the Russian media simply reported a mysterious crash, with no mention of a missile), while efforts were made to cover tracks (those social media posts by the rebels about having Buk SAMs and even having shot down a plane were hurriedly deleted). Then the Russians began introducing hints of conspiracy, such as the flimsy claim that two Ukrainian fighters had been shadowing MH17. That gave way to outright role-reversal, not least the bizarre claim that the Ukrainians shot it down, thinking it was Putin's personal jet.

In his first statement on the tragedy, Putin blamed Kiev, saying, "The state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy." His reasoning, apparently, is that the Ukrainian government is at fault for resisting an armed, foreign-backed rebellion within its own borders. "This tragedy would not have occurred if there were peace in this land, if the fighting had not renewed in the southeast of Ukraine," Putin said.

To a large extent this was the Russian propaganda machine on autopilot. Although the Crimean and Ukrainian operations have shown how effective even seemingly crude information warfare can be in distracting, bamboozling, and blunting Western concern, it is hard to see how Moscow can spin this one away.

The initial evidence indicates that MH17 was shot down on the initiative of one particular Cossack unit. For all of Strelkov's efforts to assert tight central control over the rebels, they remain a loose and often undisciplined collection of forces ranging from local thugs to deserters from the government security apparatus to Russian volunteers. It is unlikely that Strelkov and what passes as the rebel government would be able to arrest and discipline those who fired the missile, even if they were willing to. Indeed, according to the telephone intercepts, the Cossack commander's own response was uncompromisingly callous: If they flew over a rebel-held area, "That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn't be f--ing flying. There is a war going on."

Absent some decisive and conciliatory moves from the rebel leadership in Donetsk, political pressure will shift to Moscow as the political context of the war shifts in two crucial ways. Kiev's determination to crush the insurrection will be redoubled and this time will receive much more evident encouragement from the West. It will now be hard even for the most Kremlin-friendly figures in Europe to advocate concessions to the rebels and thus, by extension, Moscow. Already, government forces have been receiving limited nonlethal support, above all from the United States. But after seeing what the rebels are capable of, there is now a chance that Western countries will offer Kiev weapons, trainers, and even special forces to bring an end to the conflict. For Putin, the only thing more dangerous than backing away from a conflict in Ukraine would be losing one.

The pressure will grow to further expand sanctions to punish Russia for continuing to incite the insurrection. This week, the United States extended its sanctions on Russia. The European Union, which on the whole has been more cautious, is now likely to toughen its line as well. President Barack Obama's warning in his statement today that "time and again, Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to de-escalate the situation" was a clear statement of where he believes the blame lies. It also leaves the door open for further measures if Moscow does not quickly change its position.

Then what does Putin do? What has become clear is how limited the Kremlin's direct control is over many of the rebels. Even Strelkov -- a retired Russian intelligence officer who should still be under Moscow's thumb -- is showing signs of recalcitrant independence. Besides, even if Strelkov were to follow Kremlin orders, there is no guarantee he could force a toxic and unruly rebel coalition to accept peace, especially as it is unlikely that Kiev will now offer amnesties, something President Petro Poroshenko had floated before as a way to bring an end to the stalemate.

Putin could double down and try to help the rebels win quickly, before sluggish Western democracies can act to bolster Kiev. But turning the tide would require something much more dramatic than providing covert men and materiel, such as an air campaign or even an invasion by Russian troops. It is hard to see even today's more belligerent Putin being willing to pay the political and economic price for this. Russians rejoiced at their near-bloodless reunion with Crimea, but a bloody war in eastern Ukraine would be very different. Polls show that 73 percent of Russians oppose intervention.

Putin will almost certainly have to back away from the insurgency. And mere rhetoric will not be enough. He will actually need to take concrete steps to close the borders and stop the supply of weapons if he is to convince the West that he is serious about distancing himself from the men who brought down MH17. In these circumstances, re-energized government forces will probably be able to win the war militarily, and sooner than would otherwise be the case.

If the war ends sooner, however, it may also be bloodier. The rebels will have their backs to the wall, especially because most of them will probably have no option to retreat into Russia or receive asylum. Kiev may also feel more able to resort to the kind of artillery and airstrikes that won the battle for Slavyansk, regardless of the inevitable civilian casualties, when they move against the remaining strongholds of Lugansk and Donetsk.

Either way, it doesn't look good for Moscow. Putin has increasingly framed himself as the guardian of Russians around the world and the master of post-Soviet Eurasia. No matter how the state-controlled media spin it, a reversal in eastern Ukraine will undermine him both at home and in Russia's neighbors. The tragedy of Flight MH17 has reshaped the political context of the Ukrainian conflict. It also represents an unexpected and unwelcome challenge to Putin himself.