Monday, November 19, 2012

Support Israel's Pivot To The Long-Term On Gaza

Negotiations over a cease-fire agreement continue between Israel and Hamas in Cairo and both sides show willingness - in principle - to accept a deal.  Many analysts on both sides of the conflict remain skeptical that an agreement is possible, but may be overlooking the importance of the timing of this conflict.  Leaders from Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia have been highly visible in supporting Palestinians but also have been working to mediate a deal between them and the Israelis.  Given that each of these countries has risen in prominence during the Arab Spring, it may be that these efforts are more likely to be successful than in years past.  This development is positive for the long-term future of the region despite some of the polarizing and downright offensive rhetoric their involvement has entailed.

For its part, Israel's government appears to be taking a longer-term focus as well.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Israel is mobilizing slowly to give the negotiation process time and is not eager to repeat the experience of Operation Cast Lead in 2008.  In other words, Israel's government has learned from past experience and is actively responding to earlier mistakes.  Importantly, it is shifting from a more short-term consideration of its interests to one which takes the medium-term and long-term into account as well (more on this subject here).  To the extent Prime Minister Netanyahu is responsible, he deserves credit for this policy choice.

The importance of a broadened consideration of interests on the part of Israel's government cannot be understated.  This expansion of the timeframe in which Israel considers its interests will make the difference between an Israel which is able to choose its future and an Israel which is forced to accept sub-optimal arrangements under great international and domestic pressure.

To that end, the global pro-Israel community should support, and support strongly, the efforts of the Israeli government to conclude a negotiated settlement to the current conflict in Gaza.  If the agreement falls through, the community will still gain credibility among the broader public by supporting non-violence over more intense violence and more civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip.  This support would not only mobilize the pro-Israel base, but also resonate with non-affiliated or moderate but concerned communities.  Some U.S. pro-Israel organizations have begun supporting this critical move by Israel's government.  More of them should do so.  

When Israel began airstrikes, pro-Israel groups worldwide mobilized and went full-court press in support of the decision.  Now, it is critical that they support Israel's demonstration of a fact true supporters of Israel have always known: Israel is strong in war-fighting, but stronger in peacemaking.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Proportionality In Gaza A Complex Issue For IDF

There have been a number of analysts and journalists raising the issue of proportionality in Gaza.  Israelis and their supporters argue that Israel's targeting of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas leaders and weapons storage facilities is a clearly proportionate response to Hamas' blatant targeting of the Israeli civilian population.  Palestinians and their supporters argue that those rockets have done little damage, while in contrast Israel has incurred numerous civilian casualties during Operation Amud Anan.

The doctrine of proportionality is codified in Article 51 of the Draft Articles of State Responsibility.  The text of the article reads:

"Countermeasures must be commensurate with the injury suffered, taking into account the gravity of the internationally wrongful act and the rights in question."

While international lawyers can much better explain what each of those key components mean, political analysts can explain the complexities of measuring a "commensurate" response.  The issue is far from simple and the standard is highly subjective.  Examining three potential metrics sheds light on just how complex an issue proportionality is.

First, we could define commensurate in body counts, as some Palestinians and their supporters have done.  In this regard there is no question that Palestinian deaths (53) outweigh the number of Israeli deaths (3).  However, this metric leaves out the fact that these casualties occur as part of a two-sided process.  One side is attacking but the other side is defending.  So, should analysts measure a commensurate response in terms of capabilities?  If so, should they consider capabilities of offense, defense, or some combination of both?  Is a country with better defensive capabilities less entitled to respond than a country without them given the same severity of attack?  

Further complicating the picture is the question of strategic intentions.  The impossible question of "who started it?" ultimately shapes the way analysts understand these intentions, but certain aspects of the conflict widely are understood.  Gaza-based groups targeted Tel Aviv specifically because it was a populated urban area.  The strategy of these groups is to target civilians with no connection to policymaking whatsoever.  On the other hand, Israel targeting Palestinian civilians on purpose is clearly outside the boundaries of proportionality.  Yet even the most carefully planned IDF response involves a risk of killing civilians because in 2012, the West's technological advancement is inferior to its moral advancement. Israel simply cannot strike the Gaza Strip without risking killing innocent people.  When the Government of Israel fails to use political measures effectively (threatening to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages, for example), the IDF is forced to choose between an imperfect response or to continue letting the Israeli population continue to live under fire.

Of course, strategic intentions mean very little when measured against outcomes.  Explaining to a Palestinian family in Beit Lahiya whose 3 and 5 year old children have been killed that "it was an accident" is not very persuasive.  One of the tenets of effective counterinsurgency is that actions speak louder than words.  All the hasbara in the world is not going to convince Palestinians, the Arab world, or the international community that the civilian deaths Israel has incurred are justified.  Additionally, many analysts confuse a justified response with an effective one.  Even if Israel is justified in striking urban-based objectives, doing so still may not be an effective strategy since a fatal outcome for civilians limits future decision-making.

As a bookend to the debate, it bears consideration that perfectly proportionate outcomes would not create peace but rather stalemates which can easily kill as many people as an all-out war.  States win wars when they can project more force or leverage more capabilities than their adversary, not proportional force.  Practically no one is satisfied with the ongoing stalemate between Israel and Gaza, and as long as it continues perfectly good people on both sides will continue to die.  Of course, at the same time, an Israeli show of overwhelming force would in reality kill many innocent people on both sides and would risk widening the conflict to a regional level.  

The real question which emerges from the debate is whether military superiority can be effective at all in an asymmetric conflict, and how a doctrine of proportionality applies to two entities that play by different rules.  What does a proportional response to a Hamas' armed wing look like in the real world?  The complexities of the issue are ones that scholars, military commanders, and policy decision-makers will continue to grapple with far after the end of Operation Amud Anan.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Israel's Mobilization: Credible Commitment?

As rumors swirl about the possibility of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, an important fact bears note: Israel has been ramping up its military operations for nearly a week.  Yet time is not on Israel's side.  Every day brings more international pressure and more animosity from the Arab world.  In 2008, Israel pursued airstrikes and ground strikes simultaneously.  With any operation in Gaza, Israel is racing against a diplomatic clock.  Yet its timeline of escalation has been extended for nearly a week.  What explains this puzzling behavior?

The answer is that Israel is reluctant to enter into a ground war in the Gaza Strip.  The Prime Minister knows that such an operation would be a risky move, and the IDF is likely apprehensive about repeating the ordeal of Operation Cast Lead.  Israel's slow mobilization indicates its genuine desire to avoid an invasion if possible.  Regardless of whether rumors of a cease fire are true, Israel has not rushed into war, as it did in 2006 when the discussion preceding the war lasted only a few hours.  

To the government's credit, it has explored alternatives to full out war.  The coming hours will tell if that hesitance is enough of a credible signal to Hamas that it is willing to abide by the terms of a negotiated agreement.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israel Ties Its Hands In Gaza

Israel's airstrike earlier today on Ahmed Jabari has effectively tied its hands and committed the Jewish State to a military campaign against Hamas.  Given the response from Hamas today - at least 55 rocket attacks on Southern Israel - it will be hard for Israel to prevent an escalation in the use of force.  It will be under increased pressure from the Israeli public and Jewish diaspora to reduce rocket fire, and has a very limited number of options left on the table.  Meanwhile, four Israelis have suffered shrapnel wounds from the rocket attacks.  In Gaza, two children have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, one 7 years old and one 11 months old.

In effect, Israel has selected the middle of three options with regards to the intensity of a response.  On the one hand, Israel can do nothing in response to the rocket fire which has affected hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the South.  However, this option is unrealistic given Israeli public opinion and the basic obligation of a state to defend its citizens.  On the other hand, it can go guns blazing into Gaza in what is sure to be a repeat of Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9.  As mentioned in yesterday's post, the execution of that operation remains controversial and the Israeli public is not anxious to repeat it.  The middle option, which Israel has selected, is targeted airstrikes.  With this option, Israel uses force to degrade Hamas' capabilities to target Israeli citizens but holds short of committing to the intrinsic risks of an armed invasion of Gaza.  The problem of course is that once Israel commits to some form of military action, the risk of escalation from that point remains high.  There is still a significant chance that Israel will either choose or be forced into a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.  If Hamas targets Tel Aviv, an invasion is almost certain.

This risk could not possibly have been overlooked by Israel's decision makers, and it makes the ultimate choice to pursue airstrikes puzzling.  Has Israel chosen the least bad among a number of terrible options, having learned the true costs of ground invasion from Operation Cast Lead?  Is Israel starting with a relatively low-intensity response with the intent of blaming Hamas for a highly possible escalation?  While Israel has invoked the doctrine of self-defense over its decision to strike, it has not yet defined what outcome it seeks in the Gaza Strip.  Its inability to articulate this specific outcome will limit not only the support it receives from the international community, but the IDF's ability to achieve the mission.

Exacerbating the situation, the Arab League has announced intentions to meet Saturday over the violence in Gaza.  While the meeting's outcome will be symbolic at best, it will formally place the Arab League's position at odds with that of the United States, which is likely to issue a more-or-less boilerplate statement.  This US-Arab League tension will harm U.S efforts elsewhere in the region, including its attempt to solidify new Syrian rebel leadership.  Israel has calculated that the chance of alienating the newly re-elected President is worth the benefit of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.  However, the long-term cost will be paid in U.S and Israeli soft power (what little it has) in the region.

In addition, any military action by Israel will only shorten the timeline in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will come to a head.  As it stands, analysts of all political shades concur that the status quo is unsustainable.  Israel has two choices: make small and calculated concessions now to cut its losses, or be forced to accept the terms of a suboptimal agreement under international pressure.  While military action may be all but assured at this point, the long-term consequences will not be in Israel's favor.  For the residents of Gaza and Southern Israelis, the consequences are assured to be nothing short of devastating.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Facing Facts On Gaza And Israel's Iron Dome

Yesterday, Israel's Iron Dome missile system intercepted several incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip.  Media reports indicate that the system intercepted at least 2 rockets in Ofakim, 2 in Netivot, 2 in Ashkelon, and 1 in Beer Sheva.  

Deployed in 2011, the political purpose of Iron Dome is to relieve public pressure on the Israeli government to take military action in the Gaza Strip.  The system was deployed in the wake of Israel's 2006 war in Lebanon in which Hezbullah launched thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel's north.  In 2008, rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip also preceded the start of Operation Cast Lead.  When such rockets fall in civilian areas, residents have a 15-second window to find shelter.  Post-traumatic stress disorder in areas which see frequent rocket attacks is well-documented, and the attacks create public pressure on the Israeli government to respond.

The question of how the government should react, however, is far more complicated.  The risks of armed invasion are clear from Israel's last invasion of Gaza in 2008, Operation Cast Lead.  The invasion drew legitimate criticism from the international community for Israel's tactics, including the use of white phosphorous - a weapon which caused severe burns and even death - in Palestinian civilian areas.  

Iron Dome was deployed in part to prevent the inherent risks of another Operation Cast Lead.  But even if Israel chooses not to invade Gaza - this time - there can be little doubt that deployment of the system was not enough to ensure a long-term cease-fire between the two sides.  It was never intended to do so.  The Iron Dome system is one small tool in a large array of military and political strategies.  Yet the Israeli Government has used it as a mainstay of its Gaza policy.  This move is a mistake.  It turns Iron Dome into a bandaid on a festering wound which other Israeli policies needlessly are exacerbating, damaging Iron Dome's efficacy.

Israel's blockade on Gaza includes prohibitions on materials and items with no clear national security purpose.  Five years after the blockade initially was imposed, there has been little observable security benefit from banning these non-military and non-dual-use items.  Internationally, Israel's Foreign Minister has pursued a condescending and disrespectful foreign policy while simultaneously decrying the lack of respect the international community shows his government, including on its policy towards Gaza.  Israel's Prime Minister invites Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table while simultaneously expanding settlement activity and alienating them.  

Supporters of these policies may point to the "rights" of the Israeli government to pursue them, and it may very well be the case that the steps are legitimate policy options.  However, they have done little to advance the security of the border communities in Israel's south, and even less to advance Israel's security overall.  If anything, they have made the situation worse.

Ultimately, Israel will be secure when it expands the short-term outlook of its foreign policy decision making process.  In Israel's early days, the short-term was the only one for which Israel could plan.  It faced the prospect of imminent destruction, attacks on multiple fronts, and wary great power allies.  However, Israel's leadership now has the opportunity to adjust its security posture to a longer or at least more medium-term framework.  Such a reframing doesn't mean Israel should neglect completely the short-term.  However, Israel's inability to broaden the time horizon upon which it makes decisions explains many of its ineffective policies.  On the Gaza border, these are shortcomings for which the Iron Dome system alone cannot be expected reasonably to compensate.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Will Bibi Go To War With Hamas In Gaza?

Over the past 72 hours, over 100 rockets have fallen in Israel, closing schools in the South and prompting the Israeli government to action.  The Knesset is meeting despite being in a state of recess, and this morning  Israel's diplomatic corps received a briefing on Israel's right to respond.  In addition, Israel has responded to being hit with a Syrian army shell in the Golan Heights.  This is the second Israeli response to a spillover in Syrian fighting in as many days.

It may be that such measures are designed to demonstrate a credible commitment to a military response.  In the wake of numerous operations and airstrikes in Gaza over the past decade, Israel needs to do more and more to show that this time it is in fact serious.  It is possible that the severity of Israel's preparations for war are designed as a signal to scare Hamas into reducing rocket fire as part of an Egypt-brokered agreement.  At the same time, they may be a signal based on Israel's actual intentions to invade the Gaza Strip.

At the center of the decision-making process in this latest flare-up in violence is Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  After calling for early elections, the Prime Minister is in a precarious position.  His Likud party's alliance with the Yisrael Beiteinu party is expected to do well, but not win by a landslide.  In addition, centrist and leftist parties in the Knesset are beginning to gain traction.  While the leaders of these parties support, in principle, some armed intervention into Gaza, they are a liability for the Prime Minister and could quickly balance against him politically by criticizing any mistakes the government makes during the execution of a potential war.  Netanyahu would know this effect well, given that he used it back in late 2008-early 2009 to degrade support for then-PM Tzipi Livni and the Kadima party.  In this regard, it may be the case that in late 2012, the tables will turn.

In addition, the Israeli public has been concerned with Netanyahu's apparent support for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Israelis, while not resounding supporters of the Obama administration's Israel policy, fear that Netanyahu is unnecessarily distancing himself and Israel from the United States.  Given that a Middle East war is not exactly line one of the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda, invading Gaza could be seen, in the medium-to-long term, as a policy which only exacerbates these differences.  As many analysts have pointed out (Here, here, and here, for example), Obama is unlikely to seek "revenge" against Netanyahu.  At the same time, Israelis may not want to take the risk of further alienating the administration.

At the same time, the severity of the situation in Israel's south may very well force a response by the Prime Minister.  He likely will conceptualize this response in the short term, consistent historically with Israeli foreign policy decision-making.  While the wisdom of an armed invasion of Gaza is very much in question given the nature of Hamas, the state of the Arab World, international public opinion, and an uncertain U.S. response, there can be little doubt that the situation requires a response.  While the Iron Dome missile system has intercepted some rockets it has failed to hold back political pressure.  At the same time, Israel would be well within its rights as a sovereign state to act in its self defense with a kinetic response to rockets.  

In addition, PM Netanyahu might calculate that the Obama administration is also seeking to repair ties with Israel.  Or more likely, he might calculate that the need to defend Israel's short term interests outweighs any cost it will have to pay in terms of a hit to its political capital with the United States.

In the Knesset, Netanyahu may suffer in the long term, but may be thinking in the short term.  The long-term risk of political opposition may be worth it to the Prime Minister for the short-term rally-around-the-flag effect.

Ultimately, the rapid escalation of the situation is shortening the time-horizon in which the Prime Minister and his advisors are making decisions.  The shorter the timeframe one considers, the more efficient armed intervention appears as an option.  However, while Israel would be within its rights to respond militarily, its leaders should take a moment to plan for the medium and long term consequences of such an intervention.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Middle East Memo For President-Elect Obama Or Romney

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

     Congratulations on your election/re-election.  Your term beginning in 2013 will bring with it a number of challenges both domestic and foreign.  The Middle East is likely to remain a critical area of focus for United States foreign policy during your term.  In particular, there are three major trends which will require your attention.

First, the Arab Spring will continue to test American moral authority.  The Arab Spring is ongoing and will likely continue for the duration of your presidency.  Protests demanding reform continue to spread throughout the region, including a major protest yesterday in Kuwait. As conflicts unfold, the U.S. will need to continue to play a careful supporting role in the region.  It must support peaceful reforms without interfering in countries' internal affairs.  In Syria, American moral authority is being tested and it is failing that test.  I urge you to put resolution of the Syrian conflict, which has claimed 36,000 lives so far, at the top of your Middle East agenda.

Second, Iran will continue to destabilize the region and threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East.  Sanctions are taking their toll on Iran's government and its people.  In the early days of your term, it will be important to strike a policy with the right balance of carrots and sticks to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.  Military intervention must remain an option, but economic and diplomatic pressure are the best tools for inducing Iran to cease weaponizing Uranium.  You must work closely with Israel and strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship to ensure the success of any actions taken against Iran's government.  You must also work closely with the GCC and Gulf States, important allies in a geopolitically strategic position.

Finally, the United States must re-posture its outreach in the region.  Arab publics have never been more important to U.S. foreign policy decisions as they are in the wake of the Arab Spring.  The Arab public, like the U.S. public, hold a multitude of opinions and are often impatient with U.S. policymaking.  However, making inroads to individuals via social media and face-to-face engagement are critical steps to mitigating animosity and building trust between the Arab public and the U.S. government.  Investing in infrastructure and advising political transitions are two ways to show that the U.S. commitment to the region is not superficial, but rather part of a long-term partnership.

Mr. President-Elect, you are inheriting a Middle East in transition.  Managing these transitions to advance U.S. interests is a tricky and tedious process.  The policies explained above will preserve the United States' position as an important influencer in the Middle East.  This self-interest need not be mutually exclusive with the needs of citizens of the Middle East.  Ultimately, finding overlap between the two is the best way to ensure the long-term vitality of America's position in the region.