Commentary Magazine


Washington’s Mixed Messages and Israeli Realities

The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

Writing from Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat descends on the city, I can report that while the country’s collective nerves are frayed by the constant rocket attacks, life is going on pretty much as normal. Crowds are out in the evenings in the cities (an outdoor showing of The Wizard of Oz at the capital’s old train station went on without incident) and there was the normal bustle at the Mahane Yehuda market prior to the Sabbath. There’s also little doubt that in spite of their endemic political divisions, most Israelis are behind their government’s decision to hit Hamas hard in pursuit of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goal of “sustainable quiet.” The launch of ground operations against Gaza was rendered inevitable after Hamas’s repeated rejections of cease-fire offers and its raising the ante with an infiltration attack. But this sequence of events validates the widespread recognition that so long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza, the violence will resume sooner or later even if the Islamists eventually agree to stop shooting.

It is in that context that the administration’s attempt to both back Israel’s right of self-defense while also maintaining a critical stance about the loss of civilian lives in Gaza must be regarded.

While Israelis deeply regret the loss of lives in Gaza, the notion that their army isn’t doing enough to prevent non-combatants from being killed doesn’t resonate here. No army is perfect, but few here doubt that the Israel Defense Forces’ highly restrictive rules of engagement are both limiting the army’s ability to strike at will against Hamas positions as well as keeping casualties to a minimum. Americans who are inclined to be judgmental about the IDF’s actions should think about the similar dilemmas often faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when fighting the Taliban and its allies or when drone attacks are launched at terrorist targets and ask themselves how they would feel about their troops being second-guessed by foreign leaders the way State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is speaking about Israeli efforts.

But leaving aside the administration’s hypocrisy, the bigger problem is Washington’s attempt to limit Israeli actions to, in Secretary of State Kerry’s words, “precise actions” against tunnel infiltrations that leave in place a terrorist infrastructure that will ensure that more attempts to inflict large-scale atrocities on Israelis–the goal of Thursday’s cross-border raid–will continue.

Back in April when the administration declined to oppose the Palestinian Authority’s decision to strike an agreement with Hamas rather than Israel, it pretended that the Islamist terror movement could be rendered irrelevant by the peace process. But now we see that so long as Hamas retains the power to plunge the country into a new war every time it wants to better its position, stability, let alone peace, is impossible. Nothing short of actions that will force Hamas’s disarmament will enable Kerry to realize his dream of brokering peace. Yet the U.S. continues to act as if limiting Israeli actions to superficial pinpricks against the terrorists’ strongholds and arsenal will enhance the cause of peace. Perhaps Kerry and President Obama believe their clinging to an equivocal stance about Gaza will enable the U.S. to be an “even-handed” broker in the future. But if there is anything that we have learned in the last month, it is that so long as Hamas’s power remains intact, America’s pretensions about peace are exposed as pipe dreams.

It’s not clear if the current operations will realize Netanyahu’s goal of quiet. But the contrast between Washington’s mixed messages about self-defense and the reality of Israel’s security dilemma illustrates how clueless the administration is about the situation. As much as Netanyahu has tried to avoid open fights with the U.S., there are no illusions here about the country’s need to ignore the State Department’s criticism if there’s a chance that the IDF can substantially reduce Hamas’s ability to terrorize Israelis.

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