The Endgame in Gaza

Can Netanyahu really demilitarize the Strip without making Hamas a partner?

Until I heard CNN's weekend interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and watched Bloody Sunday unfold with scores of Palestinian civilian deaths and 13 Israeli soldiers killed, I thought I had the Gaza thing pretty much figured out. It would end -- more or less -- the way the two previous movies had concluded.

In both 2008-2009 and 2012, Israel degraded Hamas's high-trajectory weapons; but Hamas survived and restocked its arsenal with weapons of greater range, precision, and lethality. Hamas maintained control over Gaza and even derived a few political benefits in the process. Meanwhile, the people of Gaza continued to suffer -- from both Israel's unrelenting economic blockade and Hamas's catastrophic mismanagement and fixation with its armed struggle against Israel. With the advent of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government in Cairo, intensified Egyptian pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood also pinched Gazans.

But Netanyahu has now laid out a different vision for an acceptable endgame -- the "demilitarization" of Gaza. And the precedent he cited was the U.S.-Russian agreement on removing Syria's chemical weapons, an accord he has praised several times in the past.

This is a big statement for a risk-averse Israeli prime minister who rarely lays out big visions when it comes to matters of war and peace. Is he serious? Is a demilitarized Gaza really possible? And would such a solution actually provide for more than just a temporary respite between confrontations?

Let's be clear: "Demilitarization," as Netanyahu means it, is on the far end of the outcome spectrum. This would mean a cessation of hostilities far different than in previous rounds of fighting. It would require a fundamental change in Gaza's political situation brought about either by military or diplomatic means. Given the loss of 13 Israeli soldiers on Sunday, July 20, in a single incident, it's hard to imagine that Netanyahu is prepared to do this through force of arms -- an undertaking that would require the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip for a prolonged period and the extirpation of Hamas's military and political wings. Indeed, the number of casualties on the Israeli and Palestinian sides would likely make the costs unacceptable.

It would also require someone to assume real responsibility for Gaza. A transformed and defanged Hamas is hard to imagine. But if Israel forcibly tried to dismantle Hamas as an organization, there would likely be massive casualties on both sides. And in these circumstances neither Egypt, let alone the Palestinian Authority, could ride into Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks amid the carnage.

Demilitarization is impossible without a diplomatic solution by which Hamas agrees to give up its weapons in exchange for a fundamental change in the economic and political conditions in Gaza, perhaps a kind of mini Marshall Plan. Several Israelis, including former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, have presented variations of this concept. The model, coincidentally, is the U.S.-Russian deal to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's store of chemical weapons. In its most robust form, such a deal would see Egypt, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority -- backed up by the international community -- broker a deal between Hamas and Israel. Mofaz proposes a $50 billion fund to support economic development in Gaza.

Meanwhile back on Planet Earth.…

Of course, none of this seems even remotely possible. Hamas would have to abandon its 35-year reason for being, give up armed struggle, accept Palestinian Authority rule, and become a political party without achieving the end of Israel's occupation, let alone statehood. Someone would also have to supervise the area close to the Israel-Gaza border inside the Strip in order to ensure that Hamas didn't continue to tunnel. An acceptable international force would have to be organized to identify, collect, and destroy Hamas's weapons. All other smaller resistance groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, would need to be defanged. Israel (at least temporarily) would need to accept the reality of Palestinian unity government during the transition, and the international community -- in an uncharacteristic display of focus and commitment -- would need to step up with tons of money and technical assistance. In other words, forget it.

In the 1990s, when there actually was a real peace process rather than the Kabuki theater that passes for one today, I'm not sure even this kind of resolve was possible. I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-intentioned soul approached me with some new Marshall Plan for Gaza or the Middle East.

Perhaps the best we can hope for would be a clean cease-fire deal brokered by the Egyptians that, once accepted, might begin to provide some economic benefits for Gaza: perhaps with Qatar paying the salaries of 43,000 Hamas employees, Cairo doing more to regularize the crossing at Rafah, and the Israelis allowing more imports in and exports out of Gaza. The International Crisis Group laid out something very close to this in its most recent report.

Hamas, however, has more-ambitious demands for a fundamental change in Gaza's economic situation that it wants to take credit for delivering, including a Gaza port and airport. Long-suffering Gazans deserve this, and more. But the cruel realities of Middle Eastern politics will likely conspire to ensure they don't get it. Egypt isn't going to help facilitate a miracle on the Mediterranean when 40 percent of its own people live on less than $2 a day.

Some Israelis like the idea of two Palestinian statelets rather than one because it would preclude a negotiated two-state solution. But no Israeli government can reward and strengthen Hamas with these goodies when Hamas continues to call for Israel's destruction and arm itself for the next round. And Hamas's own willingness to preserve itself and its resistance ideology at the expense of Gaza's economic development, as well as its endless calls to fight the Israelis to the last Gazan civilian, doesn't exactly create a reality where it's a partner for good governance and development.

When it comes to Gaza, don't dream about demilitarization or economic miracles. In fact, forget the endgame. Right now, summoning the urgency, the right mediator, and a deal to stop the killing will be hard enough.

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images


The Perils of an Itchy Twitter Finger

Trying to cram a nuanced view on the tragedy in Ukraine into 140 characters was a mistake. Taking a closer look at the West's role is not.

I had a valuable learning experience last week, prompted by a hasty tweet I sent out on the subject of Ukraine.

When I heard the news about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, my first thought was that this was another case where our failure to understand the risks of the situation and to move swiftly to resolve a simmering crisis had contributed to a tragic outcome. The people who shot down the plane were responsible for what happened, of course, but the tragedy might never have occurred had the EU and the United States been less eager to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit and less reluctant to cut a deal with Moscow that would have guaranteed Ukrainian neutrality. So I took to my Twitter feed and tried to make this point, writing, "Airliner tragedy in #Ukraine shows US & EU erred by not pushing to keep Ukr. as neutral buffer state, not potential EU/NATO member."

It provoked a firestorm of outraged comments, some of them quite vehement, even by the fiery standards of the Internet. A number of critics suggested Harvard ought to fire me, and one commenter suggested it was unfortunate that I was not one of the passengers on the plane.

I've been criticized before -- it comes with the territory if you write about controversial topics -- but the level of venom in this case was especially impressive. I asked myself: What explains the (many) angry responses, and was I wrong to have said what I did?

With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear my original tweet was insensitive, which I regret. Mea culpa. My point was not to excuse the act itself or to defend the responsible parties (e.g., the Ukrainian separatists and possibly the Russian government). Rather, my aim was to remind people that the United States and the European Union had helped cause the broader crisis in the first place, mostly by failing to recognize that their policies toward Ukraine were threatening Russia's vital interests and that a harsh Russian response was to be expected. Furthermore, because the West had done little to resolve the increasingly volatile crisis, an event like the downing of the plane was more and more likely.

But even if this point was correct, it was surely not the most important thing to highlight right after we received the shocking news. Thus, I don't blame readers for reacting as harshly as they did. My error reminded me that Twitter and other forms of social media are not good platforms for trying to make a subtle, nuanced, and contrarian point, especially when emotions are running high. These platforms are terrific for sharing links, offering wry or witty comments on events, and even posting the occasional bit of acerbic snark. But unless you can link to a larger exposition of your position, it's not a good place to try to present a layered view of any subject, and certainly not a controversial one.

Second, this experience also reminded me how hard it is to keep a cool head when tragic mistakes or evil acts occur. When innocent people die pointless deaths, our natural instinct is to seek out the perpetrators and hold them accountable. I suspect the people who brought down the plane did not realize they were targeting a civilian airliner -- because killing innocent civilians could only harm their cause -- but we still want to punish whoever pulled the trigger and maybe whoever gave them the weapons.

That's appropriate, I think, provided that we don't stop there, and provided that we are willing to ask ourselves what might have been done earlier to avoid this tragic event.

We need to ask such questions because the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved, and we cannot rule out additional calamities until a settlement is reached.

And here I still find most commentary on Ukraine to be unsophisticated and wrong-headed. Instead of trying to understand Russia's actions over the past five months, Western officials and numerous pundits have from the start blamed the entire mess on Russian "aggression" and accused Putin of wanting to recreate the old Soviet empire. In particular, we seem unable to recognize that Putin might be reacting to what he sees as a genuine threat to Russia's vital interests, and that he might be willing to play hardball to defend his position.

Trying to understand what Russia or its separatist allies in Ukraine are doing does not require us to agree with their views or approve of their conduct, especially not now. But unless we make some effort to understand how Russia's leaders see the situation, and what their real motivations are, we are unlikely to formulate an effective policy to address the present crisis.

Moreover, understanding Russia's motives should not be so difficult. No great power is indifferent to potential threats in its immediate neighborhood, and all the more so when it has valid historical reasons to be concerned about particular areas. Furthermore, great powers are usually willing to do pretty nasty things when vital interests are at stake. Consider what the United States has done to prevent rivals from gaining a significant foothold in the Western hemisphere. Among other things, Washington imposed a 50-year embargo on Cuba, which still stands, and tried to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro more than once. It supported brutal dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, turned a blind eye to right-wing death squads in several other countries, and backed the contras in the Nicaraguan civil war, at a cost of more than 30,000 dead.

Were these actions -- undertaken by both Republicans and Democrats -- all that different from what Putin is doing today?

Which brings us back to the complex issue of culpability. In all likelihood it was Ukrainian separatists who brought down the plane -- possibly with Russian assistance -- and blame rests first and foremost with them. But the United States and the EU are not blameless. Not because they deliberately sought to foment instability in Ukraine, but because they have pursued idealistic goals in a naïve and unrealistic manner. U.S. policy may have been inspired by a sincere desire to help pro-Western Ukrainians achieve greater prosperity and more effective government, but noble aims count for little when pursuing them does more harm than good.

U.S. officials should keep another lesson in mind as well. They can be cavalier about trying to spread democratic values because the negative fallout from these efforts tends to happen to other people far, far away. The United States did lose 4,500 soldiers and several trillion dollars in Iraq, but Iraqis suffered hundreds of thousands killed and wounded and face an increasingly bleak future today. If the crisis in Ukraine continues to drag on -- or, God forbid, gets worse -- it is Ukrainians who will suffer the most, along with innocent victims like the passengers on MH17.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to absolve those who fired the missile of responsibility for the 298 lost lives. Nor am I attempting to absolve Russia for providing them the weaponry, if that proves to be the case. The blood of the victims is on their hands. But the harsh reality is this: States play hardball when perceived vital interests are at stake, and the United States is no exception in this regard. Any country that threatens a great power's core strategic interests should not be surprised when it reacts in ways that run counter to the Marquis of Queensbury rules. We don't have to like such behavior -- indeed, there are good reasons to condemn it -- but there's no excuse for failing to anticipate it.

If Americans want to minimize such risks in the future, we should try to do more to prevent conflicts before they start, and to shut them down quickly when they do occur. And we should not forget that when our diplomats dally or miscalculate, others are likely to suffer, and sometimes greatly. As for those of us who write about such matters, thinking first and tweeting later is a good idea, too.