How to Isolate Allies and Reward Enemies

By cutting Israel off from the world for 36 hours, the FAA and the White House gave Hamas exactly what it wanted.

Of the Gaza war's many dreadful features, the one that may have the most significant and long-lasting effect is the 36-hour ban U.S. authorities imposed this week on U.S. flights to and from Israel's main airport. How were U.S. interests served by isolating Israel just as terrorists are waging war in hopes of isolating it?

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials justified the ban as a safety measure because a Hamas rocket penetrated Israel's Iron Dome defenses on Tuesday, July 22, and hit a building in a town near Ben Gurion Airport. FAA officials hardly needed to cut the Tel Aviv connection to assure themselves that Israel takes the security of Ben Gurion Airport seriously.

All things considered, it's not credible that FAA officials acted on their own, without regard to the potential foreign, defense, economic, and other effects. But if they did, it's malfeasance. The more reasonable assumption is that U.S. President Barack Obama and his top advisors authorized the ban because they thought it would aid their diplomacy with Israel and Hamas. That's a different type of malfeasance.

Imposed as Secretary of State John Kerry was arriving in Jerusalem to exhort a cease-fire, the ban loomed before Israelis as a threat of worse to come. That was desirable if one saw the war as Israel's fault, but Obama professes to believe that it's not and that Israel has the right to defend itself.

Kerry says his goal is to stop the fighting in Gaza, but that won't necessarily serve U.S. interests, which are to reduce Hamas's capabilities and its support from Palestinians and others. America also has an interest in deterring Hamas, after any cease-fire, from resuming its attacks (by rocket or otherwise) on Israel. And it's important that U.S. policy deter other groups in the world from resorting to terrorism.

A serious deterrence strategy would communicate that terrorism will cause its perpetrators to lose ground politically, not gain it. And that's what was wrong with this FAA ban. It helped Hamas, at home and abroad. Hamas's leaders started the war to isolate Israel, and here's the United States imposing one of the most isolating measures imaginable.

The message is that Hamas rocket attacks are valuable and will become even more so as Hamas improves its ability to target Israel's airports. It makes isolating Israel look not only possible, but easy. It emboldens Israel's Middle Eastern enemies and their comrades abroad in the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which strives to cut Israel's ties to the world. It paves the way for flight bans by others (the European Union promptly imposed a similar ban). It allows Hamas to help justify this rocket war. That is, the FAA ban rewarded the very activity that U.S. officials should be penalizing.

The ban will encourage not only future attacks on Ben Gurion Airport, but also on airports in Cairo, Amman, Istanbul, Jakarta, and Manila. Terrorists go to school on one another's operations. If one group can shut an airport down by shooting a rocket in its direction and hitting within a mile or two, then that's a big payoff for small effort.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in hopes of a cease-fire, Kerry wants Israel's help in "assur[ing] Hamas that Gaza's economic interests would be addressed if the Islamist group stops rocket attacks." Under consideration is "[o]ffering Hamas incentives such as economic aid and freer movement of goods into Gaza and eased restrictions on movement." Kerry is treating Hamas as a respected authority deserving of sympathy, though his own State Department has long designated it as a terrorist organization.

Kerry seems unaware of the character of Hamas. It came into being in 1988 with the issuance of its Covenant, which identifies the group as "one of the links in the chain of the struggle against the Zionist invaders" since before Israel's birth. Affirming faith in the Prophet Mohammed, the Covenant quotes him as saying that the Day of Judgment will not come "until the Muslims fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them." Hamas members are committed to "raising the banner of Allah on every inch of Palestine" and declare in the Covenant, "There is no solution to the Palestinian Problem except by Jihad."

U.S. professional diplomats often belittle ideology, presuming that the principle-free pragmatism common among them is more or less a universal trait. But that's a mistake, especially regarding Hamas's leaders, who show sincere attachment to their Covenant. They conduct jihad to discredit, isolate, and eliminate Israel. They are devoted to Allah, to Islam, and to the reconquest of Palestine. Where they are insincere, as the rocket war makes plain, is in their professions of humanitarian concern for ordinary Palestinians.

Like U.S. soldiers, Israeli forces exert themselves to avoid harm to civilians. But Hamas commanders store and operate military equipment in civilian locations, such as the Wafa Hospital in Gaza's Shajaia district and in U.N.-run schools, as U.N. officials have admitted. They do this so Israel cannot defend itself without harming civilians. Hamas's leaders know what they're doing. Sacrificing their own civilians to destroy Israel and promote worldwide jihad is, in their view, moral, indeed noble. Propagandists exploit the heart-rending images and reports of the Arab casualties to stoke sympathy around the world for the anti-Zionist cause.

Hamas has long used suicide bombers. Is its war strategy a type of collective suicide bombing? No, it's worse than that. If a terrorist voluntarily kills himself to hurt his enemy, what he does is evil, but also idealistic (in a perverted way). What's happening now in Gaza is evil without even that perverted idealism. Having built expensive, elaborate underground structures to protect themselves, Hamas's leaders are turning Gaza's civilian population into involuntary victims. There's nothing idealistic about that. Hamas's leaders have interests in conflict with Israel and are serving those interests by causing their people to suffer and die. That's not idealism -- that's oppression.

The Palestinians live in appalling grief because their leaders for nearly a century have been undemocratic, corrupt, violent, and inhumane. The key to bettering their lives and making peace possible is not something that Israel can provide. Rather, it is decent Palestinians rising to oust the scoundrels in power. Weaker communities have overthrown more entrenched regimes.

U.S. officials should be devising incentives for a humane revolution in Palestinian politics. That's a worthy exertion. Shutting down Ben Gurion Airport isn't.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Cambodia's Long March Toward Democracy

Cambodia has just taken a crucial step toward more participatory politics. But further progress toward democracy is likely to be slow and evolutionary rather than sudden and dramatic.

On July 22, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen finally announced a deal to end a ten-month standoff between the government and the opposition, which has been boycotting parliament as part of its protest against disputed elections last year. Rainsy has now agreed to let his party take up seats in the National Assembly in exchange for an overhaul of the election commission, the release of eight opposition leaders arrested in recent clashes with government security forces, and a grab-bag of other reforms. Though still controversial, the deal may yet herald a new turn in Cambodian politics.

Since 1993, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen has dominated Cambodian politics in semi-authoritarian fashion. The CPP held regular elections, but the opposition never had a chance of winning due to widespread fraud, intimidation, and lack of capital. In 2013, however, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) shattered this paradigm. The new opposition coalition came within a whisker of beating the CPP on a platform saying that they'd had "enough" and promising "change," which appealed to a youthful, tech-savvy, and urban-centric demographic excluded from the spoils of political power, tired of rampant corruption and the oligarchic management of the economy, and unhappy at the prospect of dynastic succession among nouveau-rich families and clans.

Though the change and fallout of the Arab Spring reverberated globally, Cambodia's "almost democratic breakthrough" in 2013 and this week's deal are best understood as part of a slow evolution rather than a "revolutionary" change or upheaval as in the Middle East. The CNRP's near victory was possible because of elite miscalculation and infighting within the CPP, the opposition's newfound organization, and tacit support from Cambodia's neighbors. (Both Vietnam and China are equally weary of Hun Sen's reign.)

Hun Sen has long recognized that the CPP, which initially came to power on the coattails of the Vietnamese in 1979, needs legitimacy from the ballot box to cement its claim to rule. Periodic elections, however flawed, offered a fig leaf for continued authoritarian rule, allowing Cambodia's leaders to assert their superiority to Vietnam and China. They also set the stage for the genuinely contested parliamentary election last year.

Dissent within the party has been simmering for years. Over time, Hun Sen has become an institution that eclipses all others, including the CPP, the military, and the police. The party and its leader habitually renew their vows, but for at least the past five years Hun Sen has ruled by fiat, ignoring the CPP's Standing and Central Committees, and in no small way contributing to the CPP's malaise. In fact, Hun Sen has been running the country through his public speeches much like Cambodia's ex-King Sihanouk did in the 1950s and 1960s. The discord came to a head in the wake of the 2012 local elections, when -- despite another landslide victory for the ruling party -- the opposition made clear inroads in the CPP heartland provinces of Prey Veng and Kampong Cham. The loss of influence clearly reflected party dissent. According to the Economist, of the 5.7 million CPP members, roughly half failed to vote for the CPP. At an internal party meeting in August 2012, just 11 months before the 2013 elections, Hun Sen berated individuals by name for sloth, corruption, and ostentatious displays of wealth, and ordered CPP parliamentarians to spend their weekends in the provinces with their constituencies.

After their surprising gains in 2012, the Cambodian opposition approached the 2013 elections with gusto, knocking on provincial doors well in advance of the campaign period. Two of the parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, joined together to form the CNRP and developed a national platform to increase monthly salaries and the minimum wage and improve access to health care.

After winning 55 of 123 parliamentary seats in 2013, the CNRP cried foul, citing widespread vote tampering to buttress its claim that it deserved a much greater share of the seats than awarded to it. Opposition leaders then decided to boycott parliament unless the government granted concessions. Under this week's compromise, the CNRP will take its seats in return for reform of the National Election Commission and an enhanced role in the National Assembly, including the chairmanship of several legislative committees. The opposition also won a marginal concession from Hun Sen to bring forward the next national elections by five months to February 2018, in which they hope to fare even better. Finally, the prime minister allowed the release on bail of eight opposition leaders who are currently in jail on charges of abetting insurrection; they will acquire parliamentary immunity upon taking their seats. (The photo above shows parliamentarian-elect Ho Vann greeting supporters after his release from prison on July 22.)  Though both Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy are lauding the compromise that ends nearly a year of political deadlock, critics see it as temporary fix, kicking the can down the road for future institutional reforms.

But those critics may be missing one crucial facet of the bargain: It emerges at a moment when the country's main partners, China and Vietnam, are equally frustrated with the CPP. In 2005, the Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai publicly denounced corruption in Cambodia, and in 2007 a Vietnamese delegation delivered blunt messages to the CPP. Vietnam might not be a democracy, they argued, but it does allow for change within the leadership; Cambodia should follow its lead. Similarly, they said, Vietnam debated policy in its national assembly; so should the Cambodians.

China, meanwhile, has quietly given the Cambodian leadership similar messages, pointing out to CPP chiefs that the Chinese Communist Party has now set a retirement age of 68 for top leaders, and 65 for senior officials. At 61, Hun Sen still has another seven years left -- but there many old-guard CPP members who are long past their due date. The problem for the CPP is that internal differences of opinion have made it virtually impossible to agree on deadlines for retirement and generational renewal of the party's senior leadership bodies, the Standing Committee and the Central Committee. The CPP is struggling to reinvent itself -- and, in the meantime, it is giving the opposition a clear opening.

If China and Vietnam think that the CPP is giving one-party states a bad name, they are also hesitant to accept Cambodia's evolution into a genuine multiparty democracy. China, however, might be willing to tolerate greater freedoms in Cambodia if the opposition backs China's territorial claims in the South China Sea over Vietnam's.

The combination of CPP inertia, newfound energy within the opposition, and a division between Cambodia's traditional hegemons might yet produce a genuine multiparty democracy. Such an outcome is most likely only as the result of many more years of patient political development, but the Hun Sen-Sam Rainsy deal has now created a crucial precondition for this evolution by putting the opposition firmly in the game. And this is undoubtedly where the Cambodian population wants it to be.

Omar Havana/Getty Images