Yes, Israelis and Palestinians have entered yet another violent round in their seemingly interminable conflict. How did they get into this mess? And, more important, how are they going to get out of it? As we watch the fighting escalate, here are five myths that need correcting.
1. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed peace process led to the crisis.
There are many downsides to spending nine months trying to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement when one was never possible. But the notion, as some maintain, that the secretary of state’s bid for an agreement made America the "arsonist of the Middle East" isn’t one of them. The horrific murders of three Israeli teens by Palestinian extremists, and the torture and murder of a young Palestinian by Israeli Jewish extremists, had nothing to do with Kerry or the ups and downs of the peace process.
Kerry failed in April because Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas couldn’t or wouldn’t find common ground on the big sticking points, such as how to divide Jerusalem and how to handle Palestinian refugees. The kidnappings of the Israeli teens occurred in June, and if undertaken by a Hamas cell — independent or tied to Gaza — had a logic unrelated to Kerry’s effort. As did the revenge killing of the Palestinian teen by Israeli Jews. Even if Kerry had succeeded, extremists might have sought to derail the deal. In the spring of 1996, for example, Hamas conducted four suicide attacks in nine days, killing about 60 Israelis, in an effort to ensure that the Oslo peace process would not continue after an Israeli extremist assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
2. The Gaza crisis has a military solution.
Several of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition partners think the Israeli army should reoccupy Gaza and destroy Hamas. But most Israelis and Palestinians know that isn’t the answer; they’ve lived through two tragic prequels to this movie. For three weeks in 2008-2009 and one week in 2012, Israel and Hamas confronted each other. And each time, the aftermath was predictable: No Israel-Hamas problem can be solved through force of arms — only managed. In the first case, Israeli declared a unilateral ceasefire; in the second, the Egyptians brokered one. Israel achieved a measure of deterrence that lasted until the next round; Hamas, beaten up badly, survived politically and restocked its arsenal of long-range weapons.
Israel isn’t prepared to pay the political, economic or psychological price that would come with occupying Gaza or launching a massive military intervention to destroy Hamas as an organization. Indeed, there are no solutions, only another outcome that may buy Israel a temporary quiet but won’t eliminate Hamas’s rockets.
3. We’re on the verge of a third intifada.
The violence in the West Bank and Gaza clearly could escalate, particularly if civilian deaths in Gaza rise dramatically. And the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been preternaturally quiet during the past several years makes the current violence seem more severe. But that doesn’t necessarily suggest, as some commentators have, that we’re facing another intifada. Or that it would be similar to the first, from 1987 to 1991, which was a broad popular uprising organized at the grassroots level; or to the second, from 2000 to 2004, a suicide terror campaign led by Hamas, Fatah-affiliated groups and others that culminated in a sustained military confrontation with the Israel Defence Forces.
The Palestinian public suffered immensely from the latter, which produced nothing but political and economic disaster, and it doesn’t want to go there again. Polls in early June indicated that Palestinians were far more focused on economic concerns than on launching a massive uprising. And unlike Yasser Arafat, who never really gave up the gun and died during the second intifada, President Abbas is neither willing nor able to direct a war against Israel. A sustained confrontation would also require serious cooperation between Hamas and Fatah, and neither side — despite their so-called unity agreement — seems interested in that.
4. The hawkish Netanyahu is eager to pound Gaza.
Some believe that the Israeli prime minister’s antagonism toward Palestinians provoked the current crisis. Having dealt with Bibi during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s, I am convinced that he has no intention of being the father of a Palestinian state. Nevertheless, he remains the only Likud prime minister to cede territory in the West Bank. He has struck hard at Hamas previously, but his record is one of restraint when compared with predecessors such as Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon.
Today, Netanyahu is a man stuck in the middle: His advisers on the right want a more expansive military approach. His critics on the left believe he will always opt for military strength. But, from what I hear, Netanyahu does not want an escalation, even though he wants to deal Hamas a severe blow. So far, as terrible as the Israeli strikes on Hamas have been for Gazan civilians, this remains a limited operation, not the type of large-scale military sweep seen in Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon or 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. Long-range Hamas missiles directed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem might still trigger a much broader conflict, but not because Netanyahu wants one.
5. Washington can and should end this crisis.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has criticized the Obama administration for not leaping into the middle of the Gaza crisis. But right now, Washington lacks the key ingredients for successful mediation. The last thing the U.S. needs is to strengthen Hamas, and thereby weaken Abbas, by engaging directly with the Islamist organization. As long as the Egyptians or the Turks aren’t prepared to try to get Hamas to stand down, and Hamas isn’t ready to do so, neither the president nor the secretary of state will have much leverage with the Israelis. And right now Hamas, and perhaps even Israel, does not seem all that desperate to end this. American phones may be ringing soon enough.
If that moment comes, there may be a useful role for the Obama administration to play. But America does not need to get in the middle of a fight that neither side is prepared to end just yet.
Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, has served as a Middle East adviser for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He is the author of the forthcoming book The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.
— Special to The Washington Post