Saturday, December 02, 2023

Pot Committed

The Israel/Hamas war in Gaza has resumed. Hamas ended the pause with rocket fire into Israel slightly before the expiration of the ceasefire Friday morning (it also conducted a mass shooting in Jerusalem, though I suppose one could argue that was outside the "theater of operations" covered by the ceasefire).

There's no joy in seeing a period of relative calm -- hostages being returned to Israel, humanitarian aid reaching Gazans -- yield to the resumption of hostilities. But I'll admit I was cynical that this ceasefire would last. Indeed, despite the growing intense international pressure on Israel in particular to wrap up its military operation, I thought it was quite likely that they'd see through their campaign to the end (whatever "end" means in this context). A durable ceasefire, in the present moment, always felt out of reach.

Why? For starters, Israel has been quite public that the ceasefire was temporary and that it would resume operations at its conclusion. There was no hiding the ball on that. There's also the fact that most political observers think that Netanyahu is toast the second the war concludes, which obviously gives him a political incentive to drag the war out for as long as possible in the hopes that some deus ex machina will reverse his fortune. Of course, that's contingent on Bibi's willingness to put his own private political interests over the good of his country while indefinitely imperiling millions in the process. Which is to say, obviously Bibi will try to drag the war out for as long as possible.

But aside from all of that, I think the Israeli government may well think that this is their last, best chance to destroy Hamas. As I've written, I think even some relatively hard-bitten "pro-Israel" (and Israeli) observers were stunned at just how quickly the world's sympathy evaporated towards Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 attack (and these were people whom I suspect, if you talked to them on October 6, would have described themselves as hard to surprise on that front). Even though Hamas has promised it will try to conduct October 7-style attacks again and again in the future, it is unlikely that one of those future attacks would give Israel even the limited window for responsive actions it enjoyed this time around -- the turnabout will if anything occur even faster.

Given all that, Israel might calculate that it's now or never. It could conclude that it's already absorbed the brunt of international opprobrium overs its Gaza campaign -- things have already topped out; they won't get worse if the campaign drags on for another month or two (that's the problem with going to the "genocide" accusation too quickly -- you don't have anything to escalate to). The question of destroying Hamas, from Israel's vantage point, was always something like "is the benefit worth the cost in terms of the international reputational consequences that would inevitably flow from the campaign?" But for better or worse, now Israel's already eaten the costs. It's pot committed. So it might as well gain the benefit of destroying Hamas; take some sweet to go with the bitter. After all, it might argue, the only thing worse than wreaking all this devastation on Gaza in the course of destroying Hamas would be to wreak all this devastation on Gaza and not destroy Hamas.

That's the logic on the Israeli side. But it's worth noting (though far fewer do) that Hamas doesn't seem especially interested in an enduring ceasefire either. 

Again, we can start with their own revealed preferences: Hamas broke a ceasefire that existed on October 6, and it was the party that ended the ceasefire that was negotiated at the end of November. It is not acting like a party that feels significant pressure to wind down the conflict.

Beyond that, Hamas' entire mid-term strategy behind October 7, after all, was to bait Israel into an apocalyptic conflict whose inevitable destruction upon the Palestinian population would fixate the world's gaze -- and in that endeavor, October 7 can only be seen as a smashing success for Hamas. A durable ceasefire doesn't help that strategy, it thwarts it -- Hamas needs the scenes of death and devastation in Gaza to rivet international attention and keep the world's eyes on the Palestinian situation. Under normal circumstances, the countervailing pressure on Hamas would be a desire to limit Palestinian casualties, but it's beyond clear that Hamas simply does not care about Palestinian life. The dead are martyrs to the cause, and just as Israel has been clear about its intent to continue the fighting, so too has Hamas been clear about its willingness to sacrifice Palestine's civilian population to its military agenda. And once you take limiting Palestinian misery off the table, what exactly does Hamas gain from a ceasefire?

Moreover, any realistic proposal for getting a durable ceasefire will likely include terms that Hamas will have little interest in accepting. It's not going to return the male, military-age hostages without a lot more than Israel probably is willing to give (it got a 1:3 ratio this time around exchanging the elderly and toddlers for Palestinian security prisoners; it's obviously going to ask for more in the next round and it's equally obvious that Israel will want to give less). Disarmament (as several Arab nations have proposed)? Fat chance it agrees to that. And there's little chance Israel will make its own offerings that will sweeten the deal. I've said from the get-go that Israel cannot, under any circumstances, let "the moral of the story" for 10/7 be that massacring Israeli civilians is a winning Palestinian strategy, which means that Israel couldn't offer a "good deal" to Hamas even if it were hypothetically interested in doing so (which it won't be). Again, given the fact that Hamas doesn't seem especially motivated to pursue a durable ceasefire, these obstacles are likely fatal to the endeavor.

I give the above analysis without any normative endorsement of any party's behavior. There's no joy in a prediction of more weeks or months of violence and death. But I'm not optimistic. The structural dynamics here just aren't good.

1 comment:

Alex I. said...

I think (and hope, maybe wishfully) that there are other dynamics pushing toward a better equilibrium. For one thing, Israel has quite a bit to lose. They've lost a lot of goodwill. They never had leftists, but there's a spectrum of tolerance among diaspora liberal-leaning Jews for the behavior we'll tolerate before turning on Israel. At some point, they'll lose me, they'll lose you, and they'll lose more or less the entire spectrum of J Street-style Jews at the core of the US's pro-Israel coalition. Netanyahu may not care about that (as I don't think that he, at heart, cares about diaspora Jews who aren't right wingers), but your Benny Gantzes probably do, and I don't think they're interested in being handed an Israel whose international support and standing, including among diaspora Jews, Netanyahu and his ilk are doing their best to break.