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The Gordian knot of Middle East relations got even more complex this weekend with the occurrence of two events.
First, the Israelis decided to postpone or cancel their telegraphed invasion of the Gaza Strip. Second, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution, sponsored by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state now or at any time in the future. The two events, taken together, point to the difficult position Israel is in.
Israeli forces last month attacked the West Bank in order to shatter the infrastructure that supported recent suicide bombings. As Stratfor argued, the decision to invade was the result of the failure of Israeli intelligence and the success of Palestinian militant security. The Israelis were unable to sufficiently penetrate the Palestinian organizations to predict and prevent the attacks.
They were therefore forced into a broader operation that replaced an ineffective stiletto with a sledgehammer. The goal was to end the suicide bombing campaign. The result was a substantial reduction in, but not a termination of, Palestinian operations.
The Israelis do not seem to have a clear idea of where the suicide bombers are originating at this point. The West Bank appears to be locked down, which leaves the Gaza Strip. The Israelis conspicuously declined combat in Gaza during the West Bank invasion.
This was not because of lack of forces. The Israel Defense Forces had ample capacity for two simultaneous operations of this sort. The real reason had to do with geography and demographics. A broad intrusion throughout Gaza could not be undertaken without substantial casualties on the Israeli as well as Palestinian side. Thus, in spite of the fact that Gaza is a stronghold of militant group Hamas, the Israelis did not invade.
Following a suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion that killed 16 people, and a grenade attack in the Israeli town of Beersheba May 10, it appeared that the Israelis had changed their mind and would attack. However, after intense debate by the Israeli general staff, the operation was postponed.
For one thing, the Israelis were uncertain as to whether a Gaza incursion would be effective. If the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign continued even after an invasion of both the West Bank and Gaza, there would have been a crisis of confidence within Israel about the IDF’s strategy. Conversely, the self-confidence of the Palestinians would have risen if their offensive capabilities survived after both a West Bank and Gaza operation. And because the intelligence approach had already failed, putting a halt to the broader operations would have left the Israelis with few options except to endure the bombings.
The second issue was diplomatic. The most important foreign relationship Israel has is with the United States. Washington views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a diversion from its fundamental interest in combating al-Qaida in the Islamic world. Therefore, the United States has an interest in containing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israelis would certainly disregard U.S. sentiment if it meant effectively shutting down suicide operations. But to carry out an attack that is ineffective and still incurs American displeasure would have been senseless. Thus, the operation in Gaza was postponed, at least until better, more precise intelligence about the Hamas network in the territory can be generated and an effective operational plan devised.
Sharon understands that, in the end, a political settlement with the Palestinians is in Israel’s interest. There is a nightmare scenario that haunts Sharon and other military leaders, a scene set a generation or two from now: Egypt abrogates its treaty with Israel and recreates its old coalition with Syria and perhaps extends it to Jordan and Lebanon. Arab military capabilities evolve dramatically until they are symmetrical with Israel’s.
At that point, Israel would face war along its entire periphery, while 3 million or more hostile Palestinians would threaten Israel’s internal lines of supply and communications. This is a war Israel could not win.
The country is far from that kind of doomsday scenario. Nevertheless, from a purely military standpoint, Sharon realizes that some stable understanding with the Palestinians is essential to national security. He also understands that Israel has plenty of time to make this deal.
Yet at the same time, he knows that Israel must negotiate from a position of maximum strength, which is what Sharon has tried to create. Sharon wants to render the Palestinians incapable of taking offensive military action against Israel through suicide bombings or any other means. Once that is achieved, he has clearly indicated the intention of attempting to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.
Sharon’s problem is three-fold. First, it is clear that his military actions have diminished the Palestinian militant capability for now but has not eradicated it. Logic dictates that that capability will grow over time. Second, it does not appear that he has, at the moment at least, a satisfactory follow-on military strategy to eliminate the Palestinian threat. Finally, his own Likud Party has just voted against agreeing to any Palestinian state.
Much of reasoning behind the vote has to do with Likud’s internal politics and tensions between Netanyahu and Sharon. But it also has to do with a different military analysis and a primordial fear. The argument for a Palestinian state is that it would eliminate an internal threat to Israel in the event of a war along its periphery. But the majority of Likud argues that the assumption that a Palestinian state would effectively be an Israeli protectorate or ally is false.
To the contrary, their argument is that any Palestinian state would resist the constricting terms of statehood and constantly try to increase its room to maneuver. Should a time arise when Egypt repudiates its treaty with Israel, and if the Arabs close the military gap with Israel, that would be the precise moment when Israel would not be able to assert residual control over a Palestinian state. Under this scenario, Israel would not have secured better internal lines of communication, but in fact would face a situation wherein its enemies, with the Palestinians aiding them, would have access to a long, convoluted border, with many avenues to attack the Jewish state.
Likud has expressed Israel’s primordial fear and belief: Regardless of what the Palestinians may say or promise, they remain committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and the reclamation of all of Israel to Islam. Likud does not believe that the Palestinians see statehood as anything other than a step on the road to Tel Aviv.
Likud’s view of the Palestinians is not an unreasonable one. The Palestinians have been ambiguous at best about the idea of a state representing their final claim, and several powerful groups reject any solution short of the destruction of Israel. More important, regardless of what is felt now, the Palestinian state envisioned on the West Bank and Gaza is inherently insufficient economically, politically and militarily. That state cannot sustain an autonomous Palestine.
The problem with Likud’s position is that it does not conceive of any ultimate solution to the problem. If the Palestinians cannot be crushed by military action of the sort seen over the past month, then Likud is posing only two solutions. One is an even more brutal assault on the Palestinians, which might succeed in subduing them but might also be only partially and temporarily effective.
The second is the forced expulsion of the Palestinians and their deportation to Jordan. However, the deportation of nearly 3 million people not only would be difficult to achieve but also would create a moral crisis within Israel and in Israel’s relations to the rest of the world that might itself have profound national security implications.
Short of more intense military operations or deportation, Likud’s analysis may be entirely correct, but it leaves Israel and Sharon with no room for maneuver. If statehood for the Palestinians is not on the table, then there is no basis for negotiation. The Palestinians have endured substantial hardship for a definition of statehood they would barely tolerate. The idea that they would capitulate if promised some weak form of autonomy under Israeli rule is absurd. The Palestinians have demonstrated nothing if not their willingness to endure and lash out at Israel.
This leaves Sharon with an incredible problem. He has not created militarily the conditions he was hoping for. His follow-on military plans may emerge, but for the moment they are unclear and on hold. His entire end game has been to move from a position of strength toward a Palestinian state. Now, his own party has voted overwhelmingly against his end game. That leaves Sharon’s strategy entirely up in the air. It isn’t clear what he is supposed to do next.
The United States, which has endorsed a Palestinian state, will shortly be asking Sharon for clarification of his own position. If he stands with his party, his relations with Washington will become tenuous at best. He could break with Likud and try to form a coalition without most of the party’s members, but the numbers really don’t add up. He could call for a new election, but he would probably lose. More important, the deep split that has paralyzed Israel for years is still there and unlikely to go away.
What little hope there was for a solution in the region just took a major hit. The one thing that could have come out of the West Bank invasion – the end of suicide bombings – obviously hasn’t happened. Now Likud has taken Palestinian statehood off the table. Sometimes, there really aren’t any solutions.