Posted by: sean | January 27, 2009

Post-Gaza winners: hardliners

The Times reports today that one of Livni’s and Barak’s principle aims was not accomplished during the most recent war in Gaza.  Of course it’s never said so directly, but ostensibly, one of the main aims of the war in Gaza was to bolster the support of Livni and Barak before next month’s elections. However, according to the Times, the biggest winners so far are Netanyahu and Lieberman:

Recent polls indicate that Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing opposition party, has retained and even increased its lead. The other party that appears to have gained the most ground is the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman.

Of course I have no special access to the Israeli strategic mind, but if I had to guess, I’d say the main objectives of this war were as follows (in no particular order):

  1. destroy Hamas’s capacity to launch rockets against Israel
  2. cripple (or hopefully destroy) Hamas by killing so many members of its cadre that it can no longer function (hopefully leaving a vacuum for Fatah to come back to Gaza)
  3. disproportionately punish the people of Gaza so that they will turn against Hamas
  4. regain “face” lost in the 2006 Lebanon war (thus making Israeli people feel better) and rebuild deterrent against Hezbollah
  5. make Livni and Barak seem more hawkish in hopes of helping their prospects in next month’s elections

Points 1 and 2 were obviously not possible. Although Hamas’s rocket launching capabilities were diminished, they were still sending them across the border until the last day of the war. Point 3 has been proven to be counterproductive time and time again, most recently in Lebanon. Some might argue that point 4 was accomplished, because Hezbollah didn’t open a second front in support of Hamas. I think this is short-sighted though, because Hezbollah is unlikely to be dragged into a conflict that it believes is poorly timed. Hezbollah’s restraint during the war in Gaza probably has more to do with upcoming elections in Lebanon than it does with Israeli deterrence. I will concede, however, that given the nationalist furor the Israeli media and public were in during the war, the part about making Israelis feel better might have been successful to an extent.

However, realistically (or cynically), making Israelis feel better could be seen as part of point 5, because making the people feel better is presumably supposed to help the government during an electoral campaign. And while Barak has seen a boost in the polls, Netanyahu and Lieberman have seen even bigger ones. So all in all, even if in military terms, Hamas and the people of Gaza have been dealt a major blow, it’s hard to see what Israel has actually gained.

Furthermore, the big losers of this war have been Cairo and Ramallah, where throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, even in their own capitals, Mubarak and Abbas have been scorned by pretty much everyone. And the same goes, of course, for Riyadh and Washington, the latter of which, under the severe senioritis of Bush, pretty much just sat back and watched Gaza burn.

Meanwhile, Syria and Iran could just cynically watch Israel pummel the public opinion of their Arab rivals, because in order for them to come out on top, Hamas need only survive. To my mind, this is but a strengthening of the situation that came about as a result of the 2006 war in Lebanon, so all the talk of Israel exorcising her Lebanese demons seems not only premature, but completely wrong too. The problem is that Israel is too busy patting herself on the back for brutalizing Gaza to realize the longer-term strategic implications of her actions. Mubarak has been further delegitimized (if that’s even possible), while the last nail has finally been hammered into Abu Mazen’s coffin.

If I’m correct, the next three rounds of elections in the region will illustrate my point. I expect to see Netanyahu win in February, Hezbollah and its allies win in Lebanon this summer, and Hamas to win not just legislative, but perhaps also presidential, elections in the event of Palestinian elections.

On the Israeli side, by mimicking Likud belligerence, Livni and Barak have failed to learn a lesson that pre-Obama Democrats kept ignoring in the US: faced with the choice between Coke and Seven Up, both beverages have a shot, but given the choice between Coke and Diet Coke, the people will take sugar over aspartame every day of the week.



  1. The recent Israeli incursion into Gaza wasn’t about rockets.. It was more about derailing Obama’s Middle East plan.

  2. the goals uve stated are wrong..

    they said the goals were to change the equation ie of lip biting for rocket throwing – noone said they would be able to destroy or remove hamas..


    the we’re not fussed about face

    sean i dont think u understand israel at all my friend.. no matter how many years uve planted urself in the region..

    u describe a different conflict – u need to stop thinking like an american if u want to understand us

  3. An Israeli friend of mine Shalom has sent me the following reply, which I’m posting with his permission:

    First, after Hamas started a massive attack in the minute the seize fire expired, no Israeli government could avoid a military response, an I also think such a response had to happen, though, not like this. So, it did not happen because of the elections. It is strange to me how day before the war everybody thought that Israel will not strike before the elections, and day after the strike is “obviously” because of the elections.

    It is true that everybody tries to gain votes from this war, but although I think our leaders are evil enough to wage a war to get some votes, I don’t think they have the guts for it. They are not the type that take risks of any kind. I don’t rule out this explanation, but I wouldn’t be so sure or automatic about it and I’m sure that the same thing would have happened in any other tine.

    The clear electoral interest here is of Olmert, who’s not running, but planning his comeback. And if you wonder how a fuck-up like that thinks to come back, look at Barak and Netanyahu. If they can, anybody can.

    Second, I think all the talk about “objectives” are bullshit. The only objective was to say “you can fuck with us only this much”. The rest is only rationalisation. We’ve talked about it. It is hard for outsiders to understand that Israel don’t know what it wants. The Israeli behaviour is not about goals and means, it’s about fears and reactions. You can’t understand what’s going on without understanding how decisions are made here. Unfortunately, Israel managed to convince everybody around that she knows what she’s doing.

  4. Sean…
    I agree with your analysis and especially about the new elections in the region. As for Shalom, I also think that it is interesting to analyse the Israelis emotional responses. This conflict in particular is very emotional and has been living a continuous crisis since the 48. The Israeli identity and since the establishement of the state has developed in a hostile environment and in crisis mode. Israelis live in continuous susbicion, fear and un-certainty and for me I might compare them to the Lebanese fighting sects and communities. Through the past 60 years, the only mode of communication with the Arabs was through the use of violence. The communication itself is set in a violent context. Ironically, Israeli politicians traditionaly accused arabs of only understanding the langauge of force and we can still hear this till today, while never questioning what kind of language they themselves understand?! The bombing of Gaza did not take much thinking, I believe and might have been less planned than we expect. The internal logic of zionism which is the ideology of the state influences both the actions of politicians and people towards more land seizure, violence and land grips.
    Furthermore, living in a hostile environment in a crisis mode blurs your vision from seeing reality as it is. The response is not a calm calculated response but rather an emotional one responding to matters regarding history, past, vengance and also psychological release. The Lebanese exhibit similar tendencies. When there is a political deadlock and is followed by a violent incident, people emotionally release their frustration and the violence fed to them by the fragmented political structure.
    Furthermore, it would be interesting to see how much the palestinian internal politics influences Israelis internal politics. I think with the years, these two dynamics have been intertwined with favors asked from both sides and an unconcious coordination and game playing happens all the time.
    The solution to the palestinian Israeli conflict, seems to be locked like lebanon due to the inability of executing a real seperation (divide into states) and also cannot work itself out in a healthy political structure. The solution, I would say is one state solution in Palestine-Israel. While this seems the logical conclusion -since Israel lost the chance of a 2 state solution- but both communities live in denail. It is the ‘no exit’ play for sartre. Everyone hates everyone, but condemned to live together for ever.

  5. by sartre…sorry sean ;)

  6. Hay Nizar.

    An American official (don’t remember who) said ones that “Israel doesn’t have a foreighn policy, only internal policy”, and it is true. It is true also for the palestinians and not only them.

    Anybody really thinks that Hizbulla’s provocation in 2006 was really for the sake of the liberation of Shab’a farm and not for boosting it’s political power by dragging israel to attack?

    It’s an old trick. Step1: start some shit with Israel.
    Step2: Israel over-reacts big time,
    Step3: millitanta grow stronger.

    Israel does the same, of cause.

  7. I like Sharon’s take on this because it brings an ignored element into the equation. Analysts (esp. here in the US) are always analyzing Israel’s moves from a rational and logical point of view. It completely underestimates the psychological element in it, what Sharon calls “fears and reactions”. And if I understand correctly, he means that both as fears and reactions to be brought up with the Palestinian population as well as feeding on and reinforcing those of the Israeli population.

    But I think some degree of calculation comes in at some point. Perhaps in a disheveled, “strike and see what happens” kind of way. I was not convinced by the electoral bid argument, but I wonder why there is silence about the timing of this in relation to Syrian demands for direct negotiations on the Golan. If some degree of calculation is to be brought back into this, does this not figure somewhere?

  8. I meant “Shalom’s take on this…”

  9. About timing.

    Here’s an Israeli joke:

    A Franch man, an American and an Israeli are saved from a ship reck and find themselves on an island inhabited by canibals.

    The canibals grabbing them and bringing them to the chief.
    “Before we cook you and eat you”, sais the chief, “you may ask a last wish, anything at all.”

    The franch sais: “well, I want a bottle of champeighn, some frogs and two beutiful ladies to spend the night with.”

    The American sais: “I want a double cheeseburger, a king size fries and to wach the superball.”

    The canibals make the arreagemants and then ask the Israeli what he wants.
    “I want a kick in the ass”, the Israeli sais.
    “You want what?!”
    “A kick in the ass please.”

    So, the chief kicks him in the ass, and then the Israeli pulls an Uzi, shoots the chief, and then goes on and shoots all the canibals.

    “What the fuck was that?!”, ask the Franch and the American, “what was all that kicking in the ass thing?”.

    “well”, sais the Israeli, “I needed the exuse.”

  10. There’s a lot here to digest, a lot of interesting points of view. I didn’t mean to overlook the emotional response, but I do think that it’s possible to overestimate how much that can move the slow and heavy cogs of a bureaucratic machine like a national government.

    This is partly what I meant by “making Israelis feel better.” I meant feel better in two senses, one by trying to erase the Lebanon war and two by releasing a cathartic response to the obnoxious rockets — sending a signal that the execrable Marty Peretz has aptly summed up as “don’t fuck with the Jews.”

    Timing is another important point. I think, however, that it has less to do with the Syrian negotiations and more to do with the changing f the guard in Washington and upcoming Israeli elections. This sort of an attack would not have been seen by Washington as kosher at the beginning of an Obama administration, so rather than put Obama in a tight spot and risk pissing him off, I think they decided to use the rest of the Bush term. It’s no coincidence that the war ended a day or two before Obama’s inauguration. Finally, politicians look at domestic electoral politics all the time. Os an Africa expert on the NSC, our new darling at the UN, Susan Rice, apparently warned against using the word “genocide” during the genocide in Rwanda, because it might make them look bad for doing nothing in the upcoming elections the following November.

    Finally, about the needing an excuse, unfortunately with knuckleheads like Hamas, there’s pretty much a ready-made excuse for Israelis to attack whenever they want. I had hoped that their attack of the Egyptian border had signaled a new, smarter, direction for their resistance, but that wasn’t the case. (I have long maintained that if Hamas cadres had have a brain, instead of shooting rockets at Sderot, they’d aim them at the border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides, drawing more attention to the blockade and looking a little less like assholes in general.)

  11. Amazing.

    Apparently, the only thing that had NOTHING to do with the timing of the attack is the Hamas decision to “celebrate” the ending seize fire with a big bang.

    The elections and the end of Bush administration are factors, not causes; it’s not that Israel initiated the attack for its own reasons. Yes, Israel wanted to “wipe out the disgrace” of 2006 etc. but Israel never initiates anything. Never did. That is our problem in a nut shell. All Israel ever does is to respond (and usually the wrong way).

    If, for instance, the seize fire was ending that way after the beginning of Obama’s administration and\or after the elections, maybe things were different. Israel probably would have strike any way, but the attack would be smaller.

    Again, it is hard to understand, but Israel actually does not have a policy towards Gaza (or anything else for that matter). Israel wants to forget about Gaza and not to deal with it at all, so all it does is to respond to what Hamas does.

  12. I think you’re selling Israel short, Shalom, although I don’t want to fall into the trap of attributing god-like omnipotence to the Israelis.

    There is always a low-level tit-for-tat between Israel and Gaza, and like you said, a rocket is an excuse, not a cause. The cease-fire was actually broken much earlier by Israel, on 4 November when tunnels were bombed killing several members of Hamas. Israel knew that there would be a response from Hamas, so blaming the incursion on that seems cynical at best.

    Due to the back and forth across Israel’s borders, it’s difficult to talk about who “initiates” anything at all. Like in 1982, the according to Israel, the invasion was initiated by the assassination attempt against an Israeli diplomat in London. Likewise, there was a rocket attack today, but Israel hasn’t re-occupied Gaza. Over the last couple of weeks, there were a few rockets sent from southern Lebanon, too, but again, we haven’t seen an invasion of Lebanon. Israel reserves the right to “defend itself,” which in practice means the right to invade its neighbors, because it can always count on some belligerent behavior on almost all of its borders, with the exception of the Egyptian and Syrian borders. Hell, even the Jordanian border saw an attack a couple of weeks ago, but Israel didn’t bomb Amman.

    So to go back to your joke, there are plenty of kicks in the ass, but to pretend that the kicks really determine the timing of the uzi attack is absurd.

    Furthermore, I think that attributing too much to an emotional response is a studied image that Israel intentionally projects. While we might look at the mentality of “baal habayit hishtageya” (the boss has lost it) and think that Israel is crazy, but the truth is that if Israel is crazy, she’s crazy like a fox.

  13. ummm….
    I think that part of the problem that politicians face is their search of legitimacy. For example, if a government decides now in Lebanon to make peace with Israel, most probably we’ll have a civil war due to the high emotions and the inability of the people to see beyond their anger. Politicians in Lebanon might not be able to broker a peace deal with Israel although it might be for the best interest of Lebanon. In this sense, the decision making has to take into consideration the people’s opinion. Politicians consciously and unconsciously play on these emotions and use them. In this sense, in a certain conflict, players are bound by the dynamics of their own societies and their search for legitimacy. Now, lets try to think of Israel, the political class was built on military accomplishments and has invested for so long in the image of the strong Israel. They benefit from the conflict. their existence depends on the conflict. Politicians can do rational choices, its their job to calculate and play the chess board, but they are bound with emotional limits of their own societies. I agree with sean in the sense, that its dangerous to see Israeli decisions as just emotional responses. I don’t think its enough to explain reality.
    As for the joke. Shalom, you told me this before, and i didn’t comment. It’s very interesting for me that these three westerners were caught by a bunch of canibals. We can make a complete analysis of all the symbols (maybe it’s not the time) also the persistance of Israelis to claim the moral highgrounds, while they don’t have it. Israel has been shooting non stop since it began regardless of the need for execuses. I think the early zionists knew exactly what needed to be done and that is the cleansing of historical palestine. They did not need an execuse. I think it’s very interesting to hear the story of the canibals in this joke. I bet they have ten thousand execuses to eat them alive. The joke for me seems like a white man celebrating his unlimited power and show of force, where execuses or not, the big ozi exists and the canibals lost 3 quarters of their lands and in danger of extinction.

  14. To Sean and Nizar:


    Both sides have the tendency to think that the other side attacks him not as a response to what he does but because he just wants to. If you accept this idea, I can understand how you can see 1 rocket and 100 rockets as the same thing, nothing more then an excuse to violence. The thing is this very idea is the ultimate excuse to violence, Why should I try to make peace if the other side does things regardless of what I do or avoid doing? This is what most people think about the Hamas here, and we see the result. I think Nizar got it right; it is about legitimation defined by the people’s emotions. That’s why the solution is not about what’s reasonable or just but about what the people from all sides can support.


    I totally agree with your analysis of that joke.
    About Zionism, again this is a symptom of giving up too much credit. It is true that the internal logic of Zionism leaded to getting rid of the Palestinians, but the Zionist, especially the early ones, did not understand this. Actually, they kind of overlooked this point because they more or less ignored the existence of Palestinians as a group with national aspirations. There is a tendency to judge the first 50 years of Zionism based on the last 50, where there was a strong state of Israel. But until 48, Zionist saw themselves, and actually was, more or less, a powerless minority.
    One of our biggest problems is that we still have the mentality of a minority and at the same time too much strength, and it’s an explosive combination.

    Your analysis of Zionism is Just a way to rationalize “the other side just wants too shoot”. NOBODY stopped shooting here from the 1920’s on, at least. We’re deep in the conflict dynamics, which turns often to inescapable dynamics for a while.

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