Monday, March 3, 2008

As Death Toll Mounts in Gaza and Southern Israel, Most Israelis Want Direct Talks with Hamas, Gidon D. Remba

As Hamas and other terrorists escalated their lethal rocket attacks this week on Sderot, Ashkelon and other parts of southern Israel, leading Israel to ratchet up its air and ground counter-attacks on parts of Gaza, the question on most minds was whether Israel will carry out its threats to launch a massive invasion and re-occupation of Gaza. The goal would be to stop the rockets once and for all, or at least exact a far greater price on Hamas.

In his remarks to a group of American Jewish leaders in Cleveland last week, Barack Obama highlighted how much more open debate is in Israel itself than in the American Jewish community about Israeli-Palestinian issues. A case in point, I would add, is how Israelis and American Jews approach the question of negotiating with Hamas. The Israeli government’s official position, along with that of the Bush Administration, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, is that Israel will not negotiate with Hamas until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist, commits to previous agreements signed by the PLO, and abandons terrorism.

No presidential candidate in this country will dare deviate from this line, including Barack Obama, who has just issued a statement reemphasizing that his willingness to meet with foes "does not include Hamas. You can't negotiate with somebody who does not recognize the right of a country to exist so I understand why Israel doesn't meet with Hamas." But reports from Israel have consistently shown that the "establishment view" goes against what a considerable majority of Israeli Jews actually believe.

This is once more illustrated by the latest Ha’aretz-Dialogue poll (as reported in “Most Israelis back direct talks with Hamas”) which found that “Sixty-four percent of Israelis say the government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza toward a cease-fire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Less than one-third (28 percent) still opposes such talks.” The poll indicates that even among voters for the right-wing Likud, no less than 48% supported direct negotiations with Hamas over a cease-fire and the release of Gilad Shalit (within the context of a prisoner exchange).

A new Ha’aretz news report indicates that “various Israeli figures, including retired generals, have been holding indirect talks with Hamas, largely through European mediation.” And now we learn that Cabinet Minister Ami Ayalon, a leading figure in Israel’s Labor party, an admiral and former chief of the Shin Bet General Security Service, “is planning to propose that Israel initiate indirect negotiations with Hamas, with Egyptian mediation, to bring about a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.”

The Ha’aretz article which reported on the poll notes that “An increasing number of public figures, including senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces' reserves, have expressed similar positions on talks with Hamas. It now appears that this opinion is gaining traction in the wider public, which until recently vehemently rejected such negotiations.” Key Israeli security figures who have endorsed something like this view include former national security advisor (to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) Giora Eiland, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, former Shin Bet Cheif Ya'akov Perry, and former defense minister and IDF Chief of Staff Lt-Gen (res.) Shaul Mofaz, now Israel's Minister of Transportation.

Why this discrepancy between the official position of the Israeli government and the organized American Jewish community, on the one hand, and Israeli public opinion on the other? Israelis are nothing if not pragmatic. They understand that there is no military solution to ending Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot, Ashkelon and southern Israel. According to IDF estimates, a full-scale invasion of Gaza would lead to hundreds of Israeli military casualties, and over one thousand Palestinian civilian casualties, provoking widespread international condemnation of Israel, not unlike during the Lebanon War. Israel would be forced to re-occupy the Gaza Strip with its 1.5 million Palestinians, and re-institute a military government, a thankless task Israeli leaders dearly wish to avoid.

Moreover, the Qassams would not stop, as they did not when Israel occupied the territory before. The invasion might also provoke Hezbollah to restart the missile war against Israel, against which Israel still has little or no defense, as we saw in the Lebanon war of summer 2006. (Michael Oren, writing in the Washington Post recently, suggested the possibility of an even more devastating scenario, in which a Qassam strike which happens to cause mass Israeli civilian casualties provokes a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza, which sparks a regional war involving Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian missile strikes against all of Israel.)

No matter which scenario one envisions, a full scale invasion of Gaza appears singularly unappealing to most Israelis and to the Israeli government itself. Many have concluded that the least bad option for Israel’s security is to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas and end the Qassam rockets via a limited agreement, rather than by escalating the war. This isn’t a peace agreement by any stretch; it’s not even a long-term truce. But it’s better, say most Israelis, than the escalating war raging in Gaza and southern Israel. At the same time, the government will continue to gradually escalate the IDF's counter-attacks, so as to exact a greater price on Hamas, and put pressure on it to agree to a cease-fire on better terms for Israel.

American Jewish organizations (with a few exceptions like Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and Israel Policy Forum) continue to take their cue from the Israeli government line, ignoring the shift in Israeli public opinion. Nor is there much sign that most Jewish organizations are particularly interested in what American or Israeli Jews actually think about this issue. They make no effort to educate the American Jewish community about it, and continue to expect American Jews to slavishly follow the Israeli government’s official line.

This definition of what it means to be a good Zionist, however, is doing more harm to Zionism and support for Israel than the anti-Zionists could ever inflict. Expecting unthinking, uncritical support for whatever the government says—as un-American an idea as any—fuels the growing alienation of young American Jews from Israel. Yet this is the reality in which presidential candidates must operate if they expect to gain the lion’s share of the American Jewish vote. They must win over American Jews, biases and all.

In time, governments may respond to shifts in public opinion, particularly when they are rooted in sound analysis of Israel’s strategic situation. And then other American Jewish organizations will—maybe—follow the Israeli government’s lead, and the political environment will shift as well. But don’t hold your breath.

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