The Israelis call it “cutting the grass.” Every so often, the level of rocket fire coming from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into Israel rises from the level of nuisance to that of provocation, just as the weeds in your garden grow naturally to an unsightly height. At that point, it’s time to take out the mower — in the Israeli case, a punitive missile strike — and clip things back. The weeds will return, and so will the rockets. But if you’ve done a thorough job, you’ve bought yourself some downtime.
Hamas — and whichever jihadist groups use Gaza for cover — had fired upward of 800 rockets into Israel in 2012. The rate of attack was escalating. The tipping point was reached in mid-November, and the Israelis fired back. The result was a weeklong miniwar that left five Israelis and 162 Palestinians dead. After a flurry of diplomatic activity, a cease-fire was arranged. Both sides claimed “victory.” Some political sparring followed. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought and obtained “observer status” from the U.N. General Assembly for an as-yet nonexistent Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by authorizing new housing settlements in East Jerusalem.
Has anything changed with all this?
Hamas provoked its confrontation with Israel because its position has been steadily deteriorating. Its popularity has declined as living conditions in Gaza have grown increasingly desperate. Corruption and repression — the chief complaints against the previous regime in Gaza, Abbas’ Al-Fatah Party — remain rampant. At the same time, the Palestinians in general have lost international relevance in the wake of the Arab Spring. Syria and Egypt have other things to think about. Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with unrest on the Arabian Peninsula and the weaponization of Iran. Accustomed to disproportionate attention like all groups that have successfully described themselves as victims, the Palestinians have been chagrined to find that they are no longer the center of the Muslim universe.
This situation affects Hamas most of all because Hamas has held itself to a higher standard of revolutionary purity. Unlike the accomodationist Abbas, its leadership is uncompromising in its rejection of Israel. Having defined itself in terms of struggle, it cannot afford to rest idle for any length of time. Having accepted the largesse of Iranian rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it could not fail to use them. Having either welcomed or been infiltrated by foreign jihadists armed with their own rockets — perhaps both — it could not allow others to take the initiative in striking Israel from Gaza.
Hence the dust-up in late 2012.
Hamas got what it wanted from its week of war. It burnished its credentials and acquired new “martyrs.” It showed off the range of its weapons and its willingness to use them. It brought the Palestinian issue to center stage again.
The losers were Netanyahu and Abbas. Netanyahu’s response was measured; he mobilized but did not use Israeli troops, refraining from the radical option of reoccupying Gaza. On the eve of an election, this cost him politically in southern Israel, which took the brunt of the rocket fire. He cut the grass, but what his more hardcore constituents wanted him to do was raze the yard. Nor were residents of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem overly comforted by the success of the Iron Dome missile shield in stopping most incoming fire. For them, the ante has been permanently upped.
Abbas also suffered, as Hamas further marginalized him as a do-nothing leader unable to deliver either peace or war. He lost politically most of all simply in being left out of the action, unable to support or condemn Hamas by either word or deed.
Abbas did the only thing he could, which was to go on the diplomatic offensive in seeking observer status at the U.N. for the Palestinian Authority. Cashing in on the coffins in Gaza, he received an overwhelming vote in which the United States, having failed to dissuade him from his bid, was unable to keep even its European allies in line. Apart from a handful of small client states, the U.S. was supported only by Canada and the Czech Republic. Thus, President Obama became a loser as well.
In this unhappy ballet, the last move remained to Netanyahu. Having been baited twice, he could not fail to respond in his turn. He did so by approving a raft of new settlements in the so-called E-1 corridor, which, if built, will cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank. This was interpreted as taking the idea of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state off the table and thus, in effect, scotching hopes for a revival of the peace process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately declared this move to be “unhelpful.”
In responding to the rockets, Netanyahu decided to do less rather than more. In responding to Abbas, he decided to do more rather than less. A less confrontational and symbolically chilling response was certainly possible. One assumes that Netanyahu was swayed, in part, by domestic political considerations. But he unquestionably made, and intended to make, a larger political statement.
That statement is that the peace process is dead.
This fact is news only to anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the history of the past dozen years. The peace process introduced by the Oslo Accords died with the failure of Bill Clinton to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at Camp David in 2000 and the violence that followed. The incoming Bush administration put the question on the back burner until, responding to pressure, it offered its so-called road map for peace. This, a simple restatement of previous positions, was a nonstarter. With the division of the Palestinian Authority by the accession of Hamas to power in Gaza in 2007, there was no longer any basis for talks because there was no Palestinian leader who could bind his side to an agreement. As no movement had occurred in the previous seven years, no movement has been possible in the past five. Instead, both sides have quietly walked back from the idea of the two-state solution that was the basis of Oslo as well as of every international diplomatic initiative since 1947.
Peace is dead. Cut the grass.
It is pointless to bewail this fact. Both sides have already adjusted to it. Hamas has its political machine in Gaza, and Abbas, for the moment, has his own on the West Bank. Both are determined to protect their turf, and the sources of subsidy that enable them to survive. In Israel, most on the left are resigned to an indefinite prolongation of the status quo. Those on the right see an opportunity to push the boundaries of a Greater Israel, whether for ideological or defensive purposes.
Netanyahu’s settlement expansion has simply clarified the existing situation. Israel has been in a 65-year state of siege. The first stage of this siege came to an end with the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The second stage was the long stalemate that prevailed down to the acceptance of the Oslo Accords. The third stage was inaugurated by Oslo. Its concrete achievement, of benefit to both sides, was the Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and then from Gaza. The Palestinians assumed a government, if not a state of their own. The Israelis shed the burden of caring for 2 million hostile refugees.
We are now well into the fourth stage, one of resumed stalemate. It will last — short of catastrophe — until a decisive popular majority on both sides supports a peaceful solution and seeks to implement it. There is no telling when or if this will ever happen. All that can be said is that there is no realistic possibility of it at present and that the trust of each side in the good faith of the other will be exceedingly hard to develop and sustain.
The conventional wisdom has always been that the Palestinians have time on their side. This may be the case, but there is no reason why the present situation cannot continue for a good while. It is said that Israel will be forced into the position of an apartheid state, ruling an Arab majority undemocratically. This is conceivable in the long run but of no immediate concern. The Israelis have no wish to reassert political authority over the Palestinians or, apart from some on the far right, to incorporate the West Bank and Gaza into a Greater Israel. The so-called single state outcome is, therefore, a chimera. Israel may continue a piecemeal settler expansion into the West Bank, but it will not annex any territories not contiguous to its own borders or containing any substantial Palestinian population. This would be directly contrary to its own interests.
There will, of course, be ritual talk of peace. Diplomacy is committed to this — what other function does it have? The U.S. is obliged to maintain a posture of seeking peace, and Israel must humor the ally with which its prospect for long-term survival is entwined. But, for the foreseeable future, the Israelis know they will be cutting the grass.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org