Netanyahu’s Bloody Calculations

As the Israeli killing of Palestinians spreads from Gaza to the West Bank, Prime Minister Netanyahu weighs his pursuit of military objectives against growing world outrage. But his trump card remains the fear of U.S. politicians to voice any criticism of Israel, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Anyone who reads about the carnage in the Gaza Strip and has at least an ounce of humanity is hoping that a ceasefire will come soon. Jodi Rudoren’s coverage in the New York Times suggests that current calculations of the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu involve weighing the crippling of the physical ability of Hamas to attack Israel against international condemnation of Israel that is likely to mount as long as the Israeli operation continues.

Those considerations are no doubt part of the Israeli government’s thinking, but only a part and a rather tactical part at that. In anticipating when Netanyahu and his cabinet will call a halt to the operation, a more strategic view is required — or at least what Netanyahu would consider strategic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a security meeting with senior Israeli Defense Forces commanders near Gaza on July 21, 2014. (Israel government photo)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a security meeting with senior Israeli Defense Forces commanders near Gaza on July 21, 2014. (Israel government photo)

So far Israel has sustained less condemnation than one might think, given that its explanation for the hugely disproportionate civilian casualties its operation has inflicted — that they are a result of Hamas’s unprincipled hiding of its military assets among the civilians — patently lacks credibility.

The infliction of death and destruction on the civilian population of the Gaza Strip is, as with so many other Israeli military offensives and as with the blockade and economic strangulation of Gaza itself, intended to reduce popular support for whatever group or government Israel happens to be opposing.

The paucity of appropriate condemnation is due first and foremost, as always, to the political pusillanimity of American politicians of both parties who are more concerned about not jeopardizing their reelection chances by crossing a powerful lobby than about advancing the long-term interests of the Israel they claim to support, let alone the United States they are supposed to serve.

Little counterweight to this perpetual tendency is coming from European leaders, who are disinclined to sanction Israel at a moment when they are preoccupied with the latest turn in the Ukraine crisis and have economic reasons to be disinclined to do much about sanctioning Russia.

There will be a ceasefire after this round of fighting, as there has been after previous Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. Maybe a ceasefire is a week or so away, which would make Operation Protective Edge about as long as Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, in which some 1,400 Palestinians died. Netanyahu does not want to keep mauling Gaza indefinitely, not only because of direct human costs to Israel (which so far consist — quite unlike the far greater Palestinian casualties — almost entirely of soldiers engaged in offensive operations) but also because he does not want to destroy Hamas.

Netanyahu needs Hamas. Netanyahu may be blind to how his policies endanger Israel’s long-term interests, but he is staunchly committed to the medium-term objective of retaining the West Bank. Having Hamas around as a hated, continually invoked reason never to get serious about negotiating a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians serves that objective.

As the sequence of events preceding the current round of violence makes clear, Netanyahu saw as the biggest threat to that strategy the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority. If the agreement held, excuses for not being serious about negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement and establishing a Palestinian state to replace the occupation would become too flimsy to maintain.

So Netanyahu did everything he could to destroy the reconciliation, including the mass round-ups of Hamas members and other applications of force that led almost inevitably to the onslaught that followed. Netanyahu was aided and abetted in that strategy by the U.S.-led West, which accordingly shares responsibility for the bloodshed that has ensued.

Now Netanyahu’s government can continue to make all the familiar claims about how Israel doesn’t have a negotiating partner, how half of the Palestinians are ruled by a terrorist group supposedly dedicated to the destruction of Israel, how rockets coming from Gaza show how Israel can never risk ending occupation of the West Bank, etc. etc.

He also can say that Hamas is resisting a ceasefire. Hamas deserves strong criticism for fighting on even when it knows this means the possibility of casualties among innocent Israeli civilians as well as the certainty that significantly more Palestinian civilians will die from Israeli bombs and gunfire. Sometimes it appears that the group forgets there are more important things than its objective of having political power over all Palestinians. But the response by Hamas certainly is not surprising.

The Israeli government has succeeded in structuring the situation such that Hamas figures it has nothing to lose by continuing to fight, because it has nothing to gain from not fighting. It tried the peaceful route, by observing a ceasefire in the year and half since the previous ceasefire despite Israeli violations, and by surrendering much of its political power through the reconciliation pact, in which it agreed to support a Palestinian government with no Hamas members and with a commitment to negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Netanyahu made sure Hamas got no payoff whatsoever for following the peaceful route, and instead paid a price for it.

All that Hamas can now see as in its immediate interests is to try to bolster its popular support and credibility by, as a first choice, holding out for some relief to Gazans from their status as inmates in what amounts to an open-air detention camp. Haunting that pursuit, however, will be the knowledge that after the deal Hamas struck with Israel in November 2012, the ceasefire that was called for did take hold, but the easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza that also was supposed to occur largely did not — another example of an Israeli disincentive to Hamas to negotiate peacefully.

Beyond that is an interest in getting Israel to observe the prisoner exchange deal that it violated by re-arresting hundreds of former prisoners. And if all that fails, there at least is whatever catharsis comes from futile whacks at Israel with a few more rockets or some fighters sneaking through tunnels. The more death and destruction that Israel inflicts on the Gaza Strip, the stronger will be the popular desire for catharsis and revenge.

Unless the underlying issues are addressed, the next ceasefire will not stop this tragic cycle. The stage will be set for another round, when Israel will mow the lawn again. Absent regime change in Israel, the cycle will continue until and unless political leaders in the U.S.-led West summon political courage they have not displayed and acknowledge that the objectives the current Israeli government is pursuing are not in their own country’s interests, or even in Israel’s.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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14 comments on “Netanyahu’s Bloody Calculations

  1. Joseph on said:

    US politicians are not only pusillanimous, they are directly bribed by the right wing among the Jewish population, a fanatical minority with disproportionate power over the mass media and elections.

    Even if the US could adopt and enforce constitutional amendments to keep money out of elections and mass media, restricting their support to limited registered individual contributions (which is impossible without a free press and fair elections anyway), it is doubtful that it could function as a democracy with such fanatics.

    The right wing of every group is the problem, the curse of civilization from the outset. Having been rescued from the right wing of Germany in the Depression, it is sad that the Jews have not been able to rescue themselves from their own right wing. But then neither has the US in general.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      Joseph you are a good person to mention the average citizen and their government leaders.
      The following maybe a good read to what you are referring to Joseph;

      Jewish History, Jewish Religion:

      The Weight of Three Thousand Years

      by Professor Israel Shahak
      http://www.biblebelievers.org.au/jewhis1.htm#Foreword

      • Aristotles on said:

        Ancient history has no bearing on present conflict. Israel tries to posit a false claim of priority to the land, and attempts to enlist Evangelicals to defend that claim.

        But Christianity came from the Greeks, not the Hebrews! The early market demographic, growth share, and philosophical/theological basis of Christianity was Greek, not Jewish. The guts of the thing were worked out by Greek-speaking monks and hermits within the first 100 years A.D. or so; the Jews continued on their own way. The New Testament – written in Greek, not Hebrew – supplanted the old as core scripture, the beginning of John’s gospel (Hellenic metaphysics unapproachable via Jewish mysticism) became the single most read passage of writing on the planet, and the entire ritual and law and praxis remembered of Judaism faded overnight.

        As Christians are not beholden to them in religion, neither should they be beholden to them in politics.

    • Sten on said:

      Curse of the right-wing? Perhaps so, yet isn’t it really about the schemes people pursue, rather than the hats they wear. Many believe that the middle east is all about the Israels and Palestinians. Myself, I tend to think of it as nothing more than a murderous, attention diverting false-flag, that has long benefitted the only state in the region that, for some strange reason, never enters into serious conflict or war; Saudi Arabia. You know, that other holy nation, the one where the 911 terrorists originated from and where Bin ladin grew up to believe in its sacred mission. Most notably however, it is also the place where America fills up; another sacred mission?. Believe what you all want, but my mind has been convinced that it has always been about the oil.

  2. Hillary on said:

    Why does nobody in the MSM ever call Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Israeli supporters out ?
    Even Hillary Clinton blames Hamas for the siege of Gaza and the murder of its civilians.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMd_js_oQAk

    • Aristotles on said:

      No one in the MSM calls out Israel because of the numbers of Evangelicals in the US.

      Evangelicalism is Christianity infiltrated by Judaism. But it’s harder for a conservative Evangelical to believe that his religion has been compromised than to believe the Jews are running even that.

      Radical Islam, Zionism, and Evangelicalism, all share the attribute-value that who you are is more important than what you do. The “who you are” is always an archetypical image which grants power or supremacy over others, and varies by cultural context. “I am a [militant] slave of God”, or “I am an [entitled] victim of G-d”, or “I am an [empowered] heir of God” are the corresponding images. Radical Feminism, with its “I am [superior] woman!”, likewise.

      Under guise of these artificial self-images, one can justify just about any action. This commonality, called structuralism, also explains why (in its absence) one can have something like mainstream Christianity, which on the surface resembles Evangelicalism, but doesn’t give way to terroristic behavior.

  3. John E. Landgraf on said:

    A small group of wealthy Jewish U.S. Zionists (AIPAC, the American Israeli Political Action Committee) have for many years had complete control of especially US Middle Eastern foreign policy of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and the Executive branch of our government. This control extends today to even our elected state officials from Governor on down and includes even most municipal elections. Can there be any hope for the Palestinians of Gaza where the yearly family income is somewhat under $500 per year compared to the average Jewish Israeli family yearly income of $35,000 while c. $3,000 is the is the yearly West Bank family income. Almost never in the US press is there anything negative said about Israel. Can there be any peace without economic justice and equality? Can there be any peace while Palestinian West Bank land is constantly be taken over by Israeli Jewish settlers.?

  4. W johns on said:

    When the dust settles and peace talks start Israel will have to deal with a unity government the USA and EU will again accept this Israel will also have to.

  5. Lorraine B. on said:

    Regime change in Israel – now, THAT is some regime change I could get behind! Thanks, Mr. Pillar, for your brave comments.

  6. rosemerry on said:

    “weighing the crippling of the physical ability of Hamas to attack Israel”
    Paul, you must know this is nonsense. The “Hamas attacks” are pinpricks, and you realise that the former truces, concessions by Hamas, agreements to take a low profile are never enough for Israel, which insists on its hatred and demonisation of the resistance but, as you say, Istrael needs Hamas.
    I am very disappointed you keep criticising Hamas. The “ceasefires” never get to the real issue, the occupation, and the reasonable demands of Hamas now MUST be addressed or there is no hope for the desperate people in Gaza. Only Hamas is resisting; I read that many in the WB just accept the checkpoints etc. That is not a life, and violence is not the way. Hamas is unfairly blamed for resisting. Its weapons cannot be placed apart from the population, and are hardly dangerous in comparison with Israel’s armoury.

  7. Think you have left out Netanyahu’s bloodiest operations – killing all Palestinians in the tunnel networks being destroyed after they had taken refuge there after the Israelis had threatened them to leave their homes for their own safety.

    Isreali claims that they only learned of them, once the assault began in earnest, has to be one of the biggest lies ever, given the manpower, equipment, materiel, removal, etc., required.

    Big improvement over what the Germans had to contend with in eradicating the Warsaw Ghetto.

  8. AndroTysh on said:

    Any action against terrorists can not be excessive.

  9. bill alibaba on said:

    Is Gaza the new Masada?