In 2008–09, during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead invasion of Gaza that left 1,400 Palestinians dead and no good accomplished, the George W. Bush administration famously dithered and sat on the sidelines, all the while defending Israel’s right to “self-defense.” In 2012, will President Obama do the same?
It’s by no means certain that Israel will invade Gaza again. But so far, I haven’t seen any sign that the White House is calling for restraint on Israel’s part, aside from calls on Israel to avoid civilian casualties.
Here’s what Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, had to say:
We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately in order to allow the situation to de-escalate.
In…conversations [with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi], the president reiterated the United States’ support for Israel’s right to self-defense. President Obama also urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause. Attacking Israel on a near-daily basis does nothing to help the Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self-determination.
But, as the White House knows, rocket attacks by Hamas are pinpricks when compared to the near-infinite firepower that Israel has. Yes, hundreds of rockets have crashed into Israel thin year, but the vast majority do no damage whatsoever, exploding in empty fields. And most of the rocket attacks are launched during flare-ups, often in response to a clash with Israel or an Israeli attack on a position in Gaza. In addition, many of the attacks from Gaza are launched by radical Islamist factions trying to draw Hamas into more aggressive actions.
So, is Obama telling Netanyahu not to invade Gaza, just as the United States—both under Bush and Obama—has told Israel not to attack Iran? No evidence, yet.
Many analysts say Israel isn’t seeking a war, just trying to bolster Netanyahu’s tough-guy image in advance of the Israeli election in January. Perhaps. It’s true that a war in Gaza could result in another quagmire, with lots of bad publicity for Israel, creating room for Netanyahu’s critics to attack him from the left. But it’s usually a safe bet that wars and invasions by Israel are ultimately popular among Israel’s excitable population.
The crisis poses an ultimate test for Obama in regard to the recent transformation of the Middle East. The changes in Egypt, the ascension of a pro-Palestinian, Islamist government in Turkey, and the volatile situation throughout the region—including massive protests this week in Jordan, which has so far escaped the Arab Spring—mean that governments in the region are far more responsive to popular opinion (even if they are, still, imperfect democracies). The Arab “street” means something more than it did, say, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In Egypt, the government is in a fix. There are street protests organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, and leaders in Cairo have strongly condemned Israel’s attacks. Egypt’s prime minister visited Gaza, where blood from a dead child spattered onto his clothing as he toured a hospital. But Egypt can’t afford a conflict with Israel, politically, economically or militarily. Israel knows that Egypt won’t intervene, beyond words, if it invades Gaza again. But the bad blood and anger that is being raised in the region is highly dangerous, and unpredictable in its results.
It may be too much—okay, it is too much—to expect an American administration to condemn a war started by Israel. But the best bet for Obama, otherwise, is to work with Egypt and Turkey to use the crisis to establish a stable cease-fire, one that would allow normal commerce from Gaza to Egypt and vice versa, some sort of international monitoring of the Israel-Gaza conflict, and an agreement between Israel and Hamas to halt the tit-for-tat attacks. That might be a basis, then, for a second-term Obama effort to deal seriously with the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Right now, though, it’s not looking good.