Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Netanyahu wins a Pyrrhic victory

By M K Bhadrakumar

On the face of it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored a perfect hit by launching the assault on Gaza. The score sheet for the weeklong operation codenamed "Operation Pillar of Defense" may seem to stand at 10 out of 10.

The only drawback is that it is a Pyrrhic victory. One may recall the illusion created by the witches in William Shakespeare's play: "The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth." But then, the reality isn't far away: "Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinaine Hill / Shall come against him."

The illusion is that the Israeli offensive destroyed the headquarters of Hamas and blew apart Ahmed Jabari, the commander of the movement, in a targeted killing, which apparently buries the resistance movement. But the stunning reality is that Israel's "impregnable" Iron Dome is ending up as a myth; it missed more than two-thirds of the Hamas' rockets. Where does it leave Israel but a ground offensive?

But that option may also turn out to be an illusion, as it turned out during the Israeli operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, when the elusive militants were also neighborhood groups. The plain reality could be, as the United States President Barack Obama forewarned, "If Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."

Indeed, it is becoming clear that the political reality may turn out to be quite daunting. At the end of the day, Israel has done something it has never done before in its history: it has come to the negotiating table suing for peace within three days of launching a military offensive.

10 out of 10
The paradox is that Netanyahu may also be deemed to have hit the bull's eye. He shrewdly pandered to the calls for Greater Israel in the domestic public opinion by launching the attack on Hamas and may well have improved the prospects of his Likud party, which is in alliance with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitnu party of Avigdor Lieberman in the upcoming January elections.

Likud's popularity had been declining, and the party was threatened by the opposition alliance of Kadima Shaul Mofaz, led by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, and Yair Labed, led by former foreign minister Shaul Mofaz. Netanyahu judged correctly that Israeli society has turned right wing and militaristic and a show of force under his leadership would be the appropriate grandstanding that can take the political wind out of the sails of the Israeli opposition.

Netanyahu can now boast that under his leadership, Israel "degraded" the Hamas' war machine and weakened its threat to Israel. He may go further to claim that Hamas was getting too big for its boots lately and he showed the movement where to get off.

There is some merit in Netanyahu's judgment that the disruption to the Hamas's links with Damascus (and Tehran) in the past year should be seized as just the right moment to strike. Hamas' new patrons - Qatar, Turkey, etc - are known to be capable of only barking and not biting, unlike Syria and Iran. Equally, the rift over the civil war in Syria has created certain distance between Hamas and Hezbollah, which works to Israel's advantage.

Obviously, the Iranian and Syrian regimes have been reduced to the role of bystanders, while they could have been the two players that made all the difference to Hamas' military capability. Thus, with Iraq reduced to the Stone Age and Syria drawn into a protracted civil war, Israel really had only Egypt to tackle and had a relatively free hand at the regional level.

The biggest single plus for Israel from the present conflict has been that it could constructively engage the Egyptian government led by Mohamed Morsi, who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The dispatch of two senior Israeli negotiators to Cairo underscores the alacrity with which Tel Aviv engaged Morsi's government. Certainly, it was more than a symbolic victory for Tel Aviv that for the first time Morsi was compelled to articulate the word "Israel" in a public statement in Cairo at a press conference on Saturday.

Without doubt, Morsi has been thrust into a "mediating" role - by the US, by the Arab League and by Israel - to broker a ceasefire. From Tel Aviv's viewpoint, the underpinnings of any ceasefire worked out today (even under the UN auspices) would carry the implicit sanction of Morsi, and this would be the sort of opening that Israel has been desperately keen to develop, which it can now hope to work on (with US help) at a ground level and at the agency-level in the operational terms in the coming period. Of course, no one visualizes a return to the Hosni Mubarak era, but something is definitely better than nothing.

Clearly, Israeli President Shimon Peres lost no time in grabbing the window of opportunity when he openly appreciated Morsi's efforts to end the hostilities saying, "Egypt is a significant player in the Middle East." The Israeli ploy will be to try to weaken the Brothers' bonding with Hamas, which has been incrementally turning into Morsi's policies on Gaza.

Similarly, the Gaza conflict also forced the Egyptian public to face the moment of truth - that they are caught in a sort of no-man's-land. Their sympathy lies with the Palestinians, but they don't want an escalation that could drag their country into a conflict with Israel. The Egyptians feel cultural affinities with the Gazans but they are also nervous that the Palestinian enclave has a fair crop of militants who may embroil Egypt in a new war with Israel.

When it comes to Turkey, the other big regional player, Israel has forced Islamist Prime Minister Recep Erdogan also in an indirect way to see the writing on the wall, namely, it is Cairo that has become the centre of diplomacy over the Gaza conflict, not Ankara. Senior Turkish editor Murat Yetkin wrote in the establishment daily Hurriyet that Ankara is displeased with its "secondary role" and with the painful reckoning that Egypt's regional power is exceeding Turkey's. He wrote about the heartburn in Ankara:
"Egypt's role in the region is back following the Tahrir Revolution, and its government is stronger than before... [The] Syrian opposition, which started in refugee camps in Turkey, has said it considers Cairo to be its headquarters. The Arab Spring has worked for Egypt, and the country is rising from ashes once again, providing a realistic model to Arab countries. And if Morsi manages to save Gaza from the wrath of Israel, he can be a second Gamal Abdel Nasser, plus being an elected one for the Arab world."
The Israeli attack on Gaza has shifted the compass of Middle East politics. This is bound to force a reappraisal of Turkish policies. Israel would hope that there is greater realism on Erdogan's part about Turkey's ties with Israel. Israel has been harping that the fractured ties with it have only hurt Turkey's vital national interests insofar as intelligence-sharing is at a standstill and Ankara has lost its capacity to mediate the Middle Eastern conflicts.

But the jury is still out on that score. Erdogan is also a demagogue. His strident rhetoric outclasses Morsi's when he called Israel a "terrorist" state and then went on to allege that Tel Aviv is indulging on "ethnic cleansing". Erdogan's appears to prefer riding the wave of Arab popular opinion instead of a "reset" of Turkish-Israeli relationship.

On the whole, viewed from the foreign-policy angle, Netanyahu has scored a string of apparent successes. To be sure, his biggest "kill" has involved Obama. Netanyahu has forced the US president to take a stance of solidarity with Israel on the Middle Eastern theatre despite the glaring differences between the two men in the past year on many accounts and notwithstanding the Israeli leader's ill-conceived dalliance with Mitt Romney in the critical stages of the recent US presidential election, which annoyed Obama.

Perceptions indeed matter in the Middle East's politics, and once again Israel has shown its seamless capacity to lead the US administration by the nose.

Netanyahu is a keen observer of US politics, and he estimated that he would force Obama's hand, given Israel's clout on the US Congress and the media and think tanks, no matter the disquieting signs appearing from time to time that the US president's mind has begun working on a major course correction in America's failing Middle East strategy.

Netanyahu's estimation proved right. By the way, Operation Pillar of Defence has something in common with the bloody Operation Cast Lead (December 2008) - both have followed Obama's election victories.

It is no mean achievement, either, that except the Arab countries, no one really condemned Israel's "right to defend". The influential players like Russia, China and the European countries took a neutral stance while calling for "restraint" on both sides in the conflict. Both Russia and China are expecting big business opportunities in the Israeli market. (Moscow also counts on Lieberman's affinities as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.)

No doubt, the mammoth Leviathan oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean have catapulted Israel onto the status of a coveted energy partner. The Europeans, Russians, Chinese - Leviathan becomes a heartache for all of them. Put differently, Israel is no more a basket case with a struggling economy.

Counting the trees
Finally, the Gaza conflict may have smothered the threatening move by the Palestinian Authority to force a vote at the United Nations General Assembly on November 29 for recognition for a Palestine state, which Israel opposes tooth and nail. The growing signs were that Ramallah would be able to mobilize the requisite support in the world body, but conceivably, in the rapidly changing regional security milieu, there is going to be enormous pressure on Mahmoud Abbas not to precipitate added tensions.

However, Israel's "gains" - political, diplomatic and military - will ultimately need to be weighed against the "losses" that it may have incurred by unleashing such mindless, "disproportionate" violence on the hapless civilians of Gaza. Israel's image in the world community has taken a beating. A good case can already be made that the losses may ultimately by far outweigh the gains and history is probably repeating - Israel lashing out in fury and desperation while coming face-to-face emergent realities, which solves nothing and may even complicate the future.

True, Israel may have degraded Hamas's capacity in military terms. But this cannot be more than a temporary setback, if at all, for Hamas, considering that it is just a matter of time before it replenishes its weapon stockpiles.

The ground reality is that Hamas's rockets continue to rain on Israel, and the latter lacks the intelligence to know from where they have originated. It is Israel, which is today suing for peace, and not Hamas. More important, the most lethal rockets are of Iranian design. Hamas would realize that Iran's continued support is worth its weight in gold, as it aspires to reach the level of Hezbollah so as to force a strategic stalemate on Israel. In short, Israel may be sending Hamas back into the Iranian embrace, which is something it should find to be dreadful.

In political and diplomatic terms too, Hamas has hugely gained. The Israel blockade of Gaza is no longer sustainable. The string of foreign ministers from the region visiting Gaza on Tuesday tells a story by itself. Hamas has decisively breached Israel's "containment" strategy. Ironically, Israel too may well have begun "dealing" with Hamas without realizing it, as the pattern of diplomacy to end the current conflict unfolds in the coming days.

Israel should know that the region's political landscape has changed phenomenally in Hamas's favor from the very fact that Khaled Meshal held a live press conference out of Cairo even as Israeli jets were pounding Gaza. In sum, the Arab Spring has brought a bitter harvest for Israel, and the ascendancy of Islamism in the region under the banner of the Brothers works to the advantage of Hamas.

Israel may have in the process tilted the balance within the Palestinian camp in favor of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (against Fatah) as the genuine voices of resistance. Iran's stance appears vindicated, even as Israel's secret allies such as Jordan or the Persian Gulf oligarchies have been forced onto the back foot.

The struggle to force a "regime change" in Syria becomes even more complicated as the agenda of resistance surges. The abrupt moves by Britain and the European Union this week amid the maelstrom in the region to accord diplomatic recognition to the Syrian opposition betray the nervousness on this score.

The point is, so long as the Palestinian issue remains at the center table the West will be hard-pressed to rationalize its lop-sided priority for "regime change" in Syria - while the West does nothing, on the other hand, on the core issue of Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel may have done a great disservice to the US, Britain and France and their regional allies by bringing the focus of attention back on the unresolved Palestinian problem.

Equally, while Egypt may broker a ceasefire to the current conflict, it cannot be expected to help enforce Israel's blockade of Gaza by constricting the Rafah crossing or by reviving the intelligence cooperation of the Mubarak era. That is to say, Morsi may have simply tried to cope with the competing pressures on him for the present while his strategic orientations vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue and on Egypt's relations with Israel will continue. He has already shown himself to be a master tactician, and he can be expected to keep Israel guessing as regards his intentions.

The litmus test is going to be Sinai, which is a powder keg. There are no easy solutions to bring the lawless Sinai under control and the militants are regrouping whereas Egypt's security services genuinely lack control. The choices facing Israel are stark, and the assault on Gaza may have complicated matters further.

The fundamental flaw in Netanyahu's strategy is that the Middle East is an altogether different region today. As CNN's Nic Robertson analyzed,
Hamas is in a whole new place now. Still trapped in the crowded confines of Gaza's close-packed neighborhoods where they were elected six years ago, only now with more friends outside. What has changed came in the wake of the Arab Spring that swept away some of Israel's old regional allies replacing them with leaders more sympathetic to Hamas... Egypt is far from alone in the regional revolution that begins to isolate Israel... So where does this leave Israel? Simply put, while Israel is stronger militarily, it is in a weaker political position than it was in 2009. Today's Egyptian rhetoric, while falling short of abrogating the peace treaty with Israel, has very much taken a pro-Hamas line. The long universal of the Arab world is a dislike of the Israeli state's treatment of Palestinians. In the past most Arab leaders were dictators, able to take a path far different from the views of the Arab street. Not any more. The region's new post-Arab Spring democratically elected leaders are only too aware of the radical hardliners waiting for an opportunity."
Obama seems to comprehend the problem staring him in the face and sees an imperative need to address the fundamental restructuring of the US discourse with the Muslim world. His first press conference after election victory last Wednesday strongly hinted at which way his mind is working in crafting the US policies on problems such as Syria and Iran.

Suffice to say, Obama may be keeping his thoughts to himself when Netanyahu hustled him over the precipitate crisis over Gaza, but that doesn't mean his thoughts are going to wither away. On the contrary, Obama will come under compulsion sooner than Netanyahu imagines to break the logjam that seriously damages the US's own long-term interests in the Middle East.

The heart of the matter is that a profound crisis faces the US's Middle East strategy, and unless and until the deep-rooted contradictions are resolved the US can't get away or husband its resources to "rebalance" them in Asia, where a historic challenge is shaping up to the US's larger destiny as a superpower.

There are times when in the headiness of winning a battle, it may escape attention that the war has been lost. This could well be one such moment. Netanyahu may have won the battle to force Obama to support him, but the time is not far off when he will realize that this was not after all a victory.


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.