Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?
Though the United States has expressed its support for Israel’s right of self-defense against a ceaseless rain of rockets aimed at its civilian population, the Obama administration remains resolute in refusing to draw any conclusions from these events.
As I noted earlier this week, the administration began the week by issuing a scathing denunciation of Israel’s government delivered by a top White House staffer in person at an Israeli forum. Even as the Islamist group’s rockets were landing all over the Jewish state, Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East praised Hamas’s Fatah partners in the Palestinian unity government and blasted Israel’s leaders for the lack of peace. He urged Israel to give up the West Bank as part of a two-state solution that would end the conflict.
As it happens, most Israelis agree that this would be the best option. But the reason why there isn’t much support for Washington’s suggestions is directly related to this week’s events. As Netanyahu stated, Israel’s current no-win situation vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza is the result of a decision to take America’s advice about the value of territorial withdrawal. In 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled every last Israeli soldier, civilian, and settlement out of the strip in a vain effort to make progress toward peace. While few Israelis have any desire to retake Gaza, they understand that Hamas is creating what is, for all intents and purposes, an independent Palestinian state in all but name.
In Gaza, Hamas has not only created a terrorist fortress where they can hide behind a large civilian population. It has dug itself innumerable tunnels where it stores armaments such as the missiles it shoots at Israeli cities as well as more than 1,200 more crisscrossing the border with Egypt.
As Hamas has proved this week, Israel’s attempts to limit the damage that the group can cause are complicated by their ability to increase the range of their rockets while also depending on the Jewish state’s reluctance to engage in an all-out war with its attendant suffering to root out the terrorist threat. But most Israelis assume that sooner or later, Hamas will stop shooting and they can get back to their normal lives.
But unless a sea change in Palestinian opinion happens that would make it possible for their leaders to accept an end to the conflict and a recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s difficult to imagine how any Israeli government could possibly agree to the American request that it replicate the Gaza experiment in the far larger and more strategically located West Bank.
Speaking for President Obama, Gordon said that Israel is wrong to deny Palestinians sovereignty over the West Bank as well as security and dignity. But the problem here is not Israeli reluctance to give up territory. They have done it before and, if given any reasonable assurance that it will not come back to haunt them, may do it again. Yet somehow no one in the administration thinks that what happened in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal should inform their opinion of what would follow if they were to give up control of security in the West Bank. As Netanyahu rightly said, there is every possibility that, despite the administration’s faith in Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s dedication to peace, all such a withdrawal would mean is the creation of 20 more Gazas.
Israel’s critics see Netanyahu’s repeat of his pledge that he would not give up security control of the territory west of the Jordan River as intransigence. But it is a position that has majority support in Israel because, whether they like Netanyahu or support the settlements, they have seen what happens when Israel gives up territory to Palestinian groups that are still pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state or entrust their security to others.
More than any settlement or any statement by Netanyahu or even the clear reluctance of Abbas to sign a peace deal despite the blandishments of Obama, the rockets from Gaza are killing hopes of achieving a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. Gaza is not just a daunting military problem for Israelis or a challenge to those who wish to see the Palestinians live in peace without being pushed into destructive wars by Islamist leaders who are bent on fomenting more violence and opposing any progress toward reconciliation. It is a preview of what an independent Palestinian state would be. The rockets and the refusal to devote Palestinian resources to any effort but perpetuating the conflict is a guarantee that peace isn’t possible in the near or perhaps even the long term.
Though most Israelis long for peace and would pay dearly for it, the next time Obama chooses to reiterate his demand for an Israeli withdrawal, he should think about what happened this week. The citizens of the Jewish state will never allow the creation of another Gaza, let alone 20 more.