Gaza: No Lessons Learned

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

The escalating violence between Israel and Gaza should remind us of old lessons that still need to be learned and new realities to which attention must now be paid.

First and foremost among the old lessons is the fact that the successive waves of violence that have characterized the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have produced nothing but more death and destruction, more suffering and insecurity, and more anger all around. Every attack or assault that was intended to "teach a lesson" or "exact revenge" only laid the predicate for the next attack. And so it has gone for decades. The lesson that should have been learned, and apparently has not been learned, is that just as violence will not end the occupation, neither will violence put an end to the resistance to the occupation.

One can only wonder whether when the Israelis made the decision to assassinate Ahmad al Jabari they were foolish enough to assume that their attack would be the end of it. Having been down this same road before, where assassinations only led to escalation and then full-scale hostilities, one might have hoped that someone in the Israeli high command would have recalled 2008 or 2006 (and so many other tragic, bloody episodes in the past) and cautioned that "no good will come of this". When I heard an Israeli Ambassador tonight saying that "we must finish them off, so we can sit with moderates and talk peace", it became all too clear that no lesson had been learned.

More callous-minded Israeli journalists speculated that the Netanyahu government was itching for a skirmish as a pre-election display of muscle that would sideline the opposition parties just two months before voting. If the Israelis were making such a crass political calculation for short term gain, serious questions must be raised about their leadership. It might be noted, that when Israeli governments made similar calculations in the past they all too frequently lost significant electoral support. If, on the other hand, Netanyahu & Co. were simply trying to teach Hamas & Co. a lesson, then even more serious questions must be raised about their judgment.

The same goes for the Palestinian side. At what point do they learn that revenge is not a political strategy and that aimlessly firing a barrage of missiles into Israel is nothing more than a criminal and stupid act? Criminal, because it can result in the deaths of innocents, and stupid, because it gives the Israelis the pretext to respond with overwhelming and disproportionate force. Since this, too, has played out so many times in the past, one can only wonder why this lesson has never been learned.

There is plenty of speculation in the Arab media regarding Hamas' calculations and its competition with other groups in Gaza. Since they won in national elections more than a half decade ago, Hamas has had to face a choice whether to attempt to govern or to continue to operate as a "resistance" group. For a short while, it appeared that they might have been ready to behave as a responsible authority attempting to control cross border attacks and planning, with Qatari assistance, a massive Gaza reconstruction effort. But that phase was short-lived. After the assassination of al Jabari, Hamas took the Israeli bait and, risking their gains, began behaving as just another one of the groups. No lessons learned.

There is also a lesson in all of this for the rest of the world - namely, that it is unwise to write off Palestine. At least once every decade, pundits and politicos pronounce the Palestinian issue dead, suggesting that the region has moved on and is now focused on "bigger things". This, of course, is the Israelis most fervent wish. Netanyahu spent the better part of four years working to derail Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, seeking to have Iran placed the top of the U.S. agenda. With the help of pressure from a pliant U.S. Congress, he appeared to have been successful. Add to that the "Arab Spring's" upending of the old regional order and the bloody mess that has become of Syria, it seemed that the issue of Palestine had fallen off the table.

The Arab World does have a lot on its plate and the region is unsettled, but as is so often the case, in an instant, Palestine comes roaring back front and center. This too is an old lesson: never assume that what happens in Palestine, will stay in Palestine. For reasons of history and deep culture, when Palestinians are hurt, the Arabs bleed. Palestine, for Arabs, remains "a wound in the heart that has never healed".

It is an old lesson, but with a new twist. In the past, when Israel was having its way with the Palestinians (or with Lebanon, as was the case in 2006, and throughout the 1990's), despite widespread outrage, Arab leaders largely remained on the sidelines. But in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring", Arab public opinion matters. Governments, new and old, have their ears to the ground and are more responsive to their public's unrest. Should Israel seek a replay of 2008/2009 and undertake a massive ground assault into Gaza, the new Egyptian government would be hard-pressed to remain quiet, since its very legitimacy would be at risk. Jordan, facing growing public discontent, would also feel compromised.

Escalating violence would even place the Obama Administration in a bind. Still attempting to recover from the devastating blunders of the Bush years and the setback encountered by its own failed Israeli-Palestinian peace bid, the last thing the Administration needs is to be confronted with a bloodbath in Gaza that enflames the region.

To some extent, Washington had its short-term Middle East agenda set. It appeared ready to attempt renewed engagement with Iran in an effort to reach an agreement on that country's nuclear program. And having successfully worked with regional allies to restructure the Syrian opposition, creating a somewhat more representative body that could receive aid, the U.S. and its partners were prepared to try to hasten the end of that conflict. These plans would be derailed should the clashes in Gaza spin out of control, with the U.S. coming down squarely on Israel's side, alienating Arab public opinion.

Here, too, is an old lesson that needs to be recalled: an Administration is judged not by its success in implementing the agenda it has set for itself, but in how successful it is in dealing with the unexpected.

Since no one will win and everyone will lose, it might be assumed that sanity will prevail, and the current clashes will stop short of full-scale war. But given the record of the participants, that might be hoping for too much. With the Israelis threatening yet another "final" showdown; some Palestinian groups threatening "big surprises" yet to come; and the U.S. Congress giving its unconditional support to Israel, under-cutting the Administration's more cautious support of the right of self-defense while urging restraint on all sides - it appears we may be "off to the races" - with no lessons learned and new realities ignored. God save us from our folly.

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