IT is easy to start a war but very difficult to predict which way it will go. This is a lesson that goes back to the very origins of war. That’s a lesson Israel should learn if it can look back to how its campaign to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon came apart in 1982. After initial success in corralling the PLO in Beirut, it ended in the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israel’s Christian allies. The outrage aided the US in pushing the Israelis to back off from Beirut and letting the PLO members, about 14,000 of them, to go to Tunisia. These developments led to the formation of an unstable and weak Lebanese government that facilitated the rise of Hezbollah, one of Israel’s most formidable adversaries today.
The world’s attention is shifting from the ghastly Hamas terror attack of October 7 to the equally bloody retribution unleashed on Palestinians.
Israeli troops have encircled Gaza City and are conducting air and ground operations against targets in Gaza despite calls from allies, including US President Joe Biden for a ‘humanitarian pause’ in hostilities that could help free hostages held by Hamas and allow relief material to be provided to the hapless people there.
Biden has been walking a tightrope on the Israel-Hamas war from the beginning. Like it or not, he is on trial here. He has publicly embraced Israel, while somewhat weakly pushing for Israeli restraint. As of now, there are no indications that the Israelis are paying him any heed.
The American ability to influence Israel is questionable as long as Benjamin Netanyahu heads the government. The Israeli PM is most likely thinking only of himself rather than Biden or Israel. This is evident from the recent episode when he heaped blame for the October 7 carnage on his intelligence and military leadership without acknowledging the fact that the ultimate responsibility rested on his own head.
As days go by and the Israeli bombing intensifies, the attention of the world is shifting from the ghastly Hamas terror attack of October 7 to the equally bloody retribution that is being unleashed on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Divisions are also opening up in the US, a country where support for Israel among the Jewish and Christian communities is high. At the onset of the war, Israel had got unified support in the Congress, but for a few left-leaning Democrat members. But last Friday, nearly 60 House and Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging him to forcefully press the Israelis for a humanitarian pause to limit civilian casualties, crack down on the violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank and work for a long-term peace deal. Among the signatories to the letter were at least half-a-dozen Jewish members.
The Israel-Hamas issue has roiled campuses across the US and sparked massive demonstrations in the streets.
In the UK, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer has strongly backed Israel, but now political leaders like Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, the Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the UK Treasury, have attacked Israel for inflicting “collective punishment” on Palestinians. Dissent has also surfaced in the Conservative government, with a junior minister being sacked for calling for a ceasefire. Starmer is following Biden in seeking a ‘humanitarian pause’ in Gaza.
What’s unique is the criticism of Israel in some Latin American countries. Bolivia, Chile and Colombia have recalled their ambassadors from Israel. Brazilian President Lula da Silva has described the current events in Gaza as a ‘genocide’.
Nearer home, Bahrain is the first Abraham Accords country to recall its ambassador and cut off economic ties with Israel. Turkey has also withdrawn its envoy from Tel Aviv.
So far, the Israeli strategy has been to destroy large parts of Gaza and attack targets without bothering about collateral casualties. The Israelis have said little about the future of Gaza, except to declare that they plan to eliminate Hamas politically and militarily and establish a more secure buffer zone in Gaza.
There seems to be no plan for the ‘day after’ the war. Perhaps the Israelis hope to persuade Egypt to accept Gaza refugees, walk away and hunker down behind even more fortified borders. But Egypt is unlikely to accept refugees, and even in ruins, Gaza will have a large and more desperate population. It will require some kind of an administrative authority to maintain law and order. The UN would have been the obvious choice, but Israel’s relations with the global body are fraught, so the only option could be an Arab-led initiative, but it can be possible only if Israel is seen to be using discriminate rather than indiscriminate force and is ready to seriously work towards a political settlement.
In the long term, only a two-state solution can guarantee Israeli security — neither a non-state solution nor an assimilation of Palestinians into Israel is viable. But Netanyahu and his right-wing Israeli government have all through worked to make that impossible by their hardline policies in Gaza and the West Bank.
As of now, no one knows how the war will unfold. A restrained, well-managed operation followed by moves towards a political settlement could bring lasting peace to the region. Uncontrolled destruction and death, on the other hand, could destabilise it for decades. Israel and the Palestinians would, of course, pay a heavy price for all this, but so would the Americans, whose credibility would be severely damaged. Their schemes of reordering the region by getting the Arabs to normalise ties with Israel would simply not fly, and the net gainer could be China.
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