x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The shadow of Lebanon hangs over Gaza and Israel

While Israel's war on Gaza may have been more carefully planned than its recent war on Lebanon, the outcome may again be the opposite of the one intended: a stronger not weakened adversary. Fearing the consequences of an open-ended conflict, the US is pressing Israel to settle on a timetable and an exit strategy, sources say. Meanwhile, Barack Obama faces criticism for maintaining silence on the war.

"It's very important to define how and when you'll end [the war], because the more time goes by, the greater the potential for complications." With these words, Ehud Barak offered a solemn warning to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the beginning of Israel's ill-fated war on Lebanon in 2006. Mr Barak was not charged with running that war but the war on Gaza is his and his words then are just as applicable now. Although Israeli forces are in position, ready to invade Gaza, Mr Barak's declaration on Monday that Israel is now engaged in "an all-out war with Hamas" may not be the precursor of a ground operation. While Israel has so far refused to openly discuss a cease-fire, according to Haaretz "in practice it is conducting an indirect and hesitant dialogue with Hamas. As of yet, however, there is no official mediator. "Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas' political bureau, has been calling for a cease-fire for two days now. However, communications with the organisation's leadership in Gaza are hampered because all its leaders have gone underground for fear of Israeli assassination attempts, while Israel's air strikes have disrupted the Strip's communications networks. Paradoxically, the same measures that have hampered Hamas' military response are also impeding efforts to end the fighting. "Israel will insist that any truce include a complete, long-term halt to the rocket fire from Gaza. In exchange, it will apparently agree to reopen the border crossings at some point, though no final decisions have been made. Some ministers want to continue the military operation, but Defence Minister Ehud Barak and the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, are more cautious." The Los Angeles Times said: "While publicly declaring strong support for Israel, the Bush administration has become increasingly nervous about the four-day-old campaign in Gaza and is urging Israeli allies to settle on a timetable and exit strategy, say foreign diplomats and Middle East experts close to the discussions. "US officials are concerned that a campaign left open-ended could drag on without destroying Hamas, and might even strengthen support for the militant group, just as the 2006 Israeli campaign in Lebanon strengthened Hizbollah, they say. " 'You're not hearing that same confidence you did in 2006 that the Israeli military can impose a new strategic reality and should go full force,' said one Arab diplomat in Washington. 'There's a real contrast between their words then and now.' "US officials were talking intensively Tuesday with Arab and European powers about the possibility of a two- or three-day temporary cease-fire, according to diplomats."

"A small group of placard-waving pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered near US President-elect Barack Obama's vacation retreat in Hawaii on Tuesday to protest against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza," Reuters reported. "Obama has made no public comment on the strikes, which Israel launched on Saturday. Aides have repeatedly said he is monitoring the situation and continues to receive intelligence briefings but that there is only one US president at a time. "But with outgoing Republican President George W Bush already viewed as a lame-duck, many people, particularly in the Middle East, are looking past him to Obama, who is due to be sworn in on Jan 20, for leadership. "Obama did speak out after the attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai in November in which gunmen killed nearly 180 people, condemning them as acts of terrorism. "He has also spoken on the economic problems facing the United States. " 'He is talking about how many jobs he is going to create but he is refusing to speak about this,' said one of the protesters, Carolyn Hadfield, 66. In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall wrote: "Barack Obama's aides, in explaining the US president-elect's silence, are meanwhile sticking to their mantra that the US only has one president at a time. But as the carnage and the outrage mount, this hands-off stance begins to look less like tact and more like a sign of a man who, confronted by a raw conflict that has defeated many more experienced statesmen before him, lacks new ideas. "Obama and his replacement for Rice, Hillary Clinton, have closely followed the Bush line on the ostracism of Hamas as an illegitimate terrorist organisation. He condemned Hamas rocket attacks in emotive, personalised terms during a visit to Sderot in southern Israel earlier this year. " 'If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing,' Obama said. Arab critics suggested at the time that a balancing line or two about the impact of the Israeli army on Palestinian family life in besieged Gaza would have been welcome." Politico reported: "Israel's continuing attacks on Gaza serve as a reminder that President-elect Barack Obama and his nominee to be secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will not get to choose the world they inherit Jan 20. "The incoming administration had planned to focus on the economic crisis and recalibrating US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan in its early months - but the Israeli assault on Hamas may have instantly changed that calculus. " 'For all the talk of putting the [Middle East] conflict on the back burner, it's going force itself onto the front burner,' said Daniel Levy, a fellow at the New America Foundation. Levy said that if the conflict in Gaza is still ongoing when Obama takes office, he will face regional and international pressure to broker a settlement. " 'It could involve the administration very early,' Levy said. "Obama's views on the Israeli action remain opaque. Even as the attack continued into its third day Monday, with a Palestinian death toll topping 300 and Israel threatening a ground invasion, Obama had yet to say a word about the crisis, on the grounds that President George W Bush (who has also been silent) must take the lead." The Financial Times said: "experts warn that while the crisis has pushed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict towards the top of the incoming administration's foreign policy agenda, the outlook for the peace process is rapidly darkening. " 'It has made an already complex situation that much more complex and difficult,' says Aaron David Miller, a veteran US peace negotiator. 'Obama will inherit a crisis that injects more urgency without the levers to pull that would allow quick or easy progress.' "Israel's assault on Gaza has set back diplomatic progress, with Syria announcing on Sunday that it was suspending indirect talks with the Jewish state. As anger rises on streets across the Middle East, analysts say it would be political suicide for any Arab state or faction to support a peace process with Israel. " 'The peace process is dead,' says Abdullah Alshayji, professor of international relations at Kuwait University. 'The Israelis are destroying all confidence and burning all bridges.' " Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Sandy Tolan said: "When the smoke finally drifts from Gaza, and the human rights investigations begin - into the death of schoolchildren in midday rocket attacks or the demolition of a women's dormitory - sober voices will ask why Israel has still not learned a fundamental lesson: By trying to crush your enemy, you only make him stronger. "Two years ago, despite killing hundreds of Lebanese fighters and civilians, and driving some 800,000 from their homes, Israel could not defeat the radical Shiite militant group Hizbollah, which emerged stronger than ever. For Israel, again, the lesson was lost - ironically, on a nation whose tragic motto is 'never again'. "The difference now is that from the ashes of this war, new lands can be seeded - if President-elect Obama is bold enough to do what his predecessors would not. Like the financial meltdown in the US, Israel's grave and massive blunder in Gaza provides Mr Obama with an opportunity for sweeping changes unimaginable on Election Day. "Obama could begin by making clear that the days of Israel's impunity are over."

pwoodward@thenational.ae