Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian

freedlandThis piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from The Guardian.

All those involved, and most of those following the bloodshed in Gaza from afar, are sure who is in the right and who is in the wrong. They know who the innocent victims are and who are the wicked perpetrators. These certainties are held equally firmly by those who will be demonstrating in solidarity with the Palestinians in London today and those who plan to stage similar shows of support for Israel later this month.

Both sides see the conflict in moral terms. For supporters of the Palestinians, it could not be clearer. Israel is committing a war crime, killing people in their hundreds, hammering a besieged population from the sky (and soon perhaps on the ground too), claiming to aim only at Hamas but inevitably striking those civilians who get in the way.

Israel’s cheerleaders are just as clear. Israel is the victim, hitting out now only belatedly and in self-defence. Its southern citizens have sat terrorised in bomb shelters, fearing the random rockets of Hamas, since 2005, longer than any society could tolerate without fighting back.

Both sides say they would have maintained the six-month ceasefire that had held – albeit imperfectly – until December 19 had the other side not broken it first. And who did break the deal first, Hamas with its rockets or Israel with its blockade? Both sides point at the other with equal vehemence, a Newtonian chain of claimed action and reaction that can stretch back to infinity.

So perhaps a more useful exercise – especially for those who long for an eventual peace with both sides living side by side – is not to ask whether the current action is legitimate, but whether it is wise.

Israel, say its spokesmen, seeks not to trigger an Iraq-style “regime change” in Gaza but simply to alter Hamas’ calculus, so it concludes that hurling rockets is against its own interests. Israel hopes thereby to reassert its long-cherished deterrence, so damaged in Lebanon in 2006. Hamas will be taught a lesson, abide by an enduring ceasefire and leave Israel’s southern border quiet. Israel can then get on with pursuing a pact with the Fatah-led Palestinians of the West Bank.

That sounds coherent, but does it make sense? After this first phase of the conflict, Israeli officials say yes. They boast that Hamas’ command and control systems have been shattered, and that its leaders are in hiding 4m under ground.

But there are immediate questions, eerily similar to the ones that surfaced in Lebanon two years ago. How exactly does this end? If Israeli tanks go into Gaza, won’t they get bogged down in the mud and narrow streets of the refugee camps, terrain known intimately by Hamas?

And these are only the most obvious, current concerns. The grounds for questioning the wisdom of Operation Cast Lead, even from Israel’s own point of view, go much deeper.

First, even if Israel gets the quiet it wants there is every reason to believe it could have got that without resorting to war. The longtime Palestinian analyst and negotiator Hussein Agha says it would have been “straightforward: if they had lifted the blockade, the rockets would have stopped”.

Some diplomatic sources dispute this, arguing that Hamas actually saw an advantage in the sanctions regime: “opening up would have loosened Hamas’ grip,” says one. Hence the cases of Hamas firing on border crossings as they were opened. But most Palestinians insist that a relaxation of the blockade would have granted Hamas its key objective – a chance to prove it can govern effectively – and it would not have jeopardised that with rocket fire. It would have had too much to lose.

Put that to Israelis, and they admit that prospect was unpalatable too: they can’t allow Hamas, a movement whose charter drips with antisemitism and calls for Israel’s eradication, to gain the appearance of legitimacy. But if, as Israel insists, its chief objective is quiet in the south, then there was at least another, non-military path it could have taken – one that those who know Hamas best insist would have stopped the Qassams. Besides, any ceasefire will involve easing the blockade, so Israel will end up making those concessions anyway.

Second, if Israel hoped to break Hamas’ hold on Gaza it has gone precisely the wrong way about it. Its leaders have done this many times before, repeatedly misreading the way Arab societies work. They believe that if they hit Gaza (or Lebanon) hard enough, the local population will blame Hamas (or Hezbollah) for bringing tragedy upon them. But it doesn’t work like that. Instead, Gazans blame Israel – and close ranks with Hamas. “Anything which doesn’t kill Hamas makes them stronger,” says Agha, noting the way the organisation has been lionised in recent days across the Arab world, hailed as a defiant party of resistance, turning it into a “regional phenomenon”.

Third, Israel’s best hopes lie with the so-called moderate Arab leaders. But they have been badly undermined by this exercise, and none more so than the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose peace talks with Israel now look like consorting with a brutal enemy.

And this is without mentioning the fresh supply of hatred Israel has stored up against itself, creating a new generation of Gazans bent on revenge. Every child who witnessed this week’s bombing is another recruit for the violence of the future.

So, yes, there may be short-term advantage for Israel’s politicians, eyeing the election calendar, in hitting Hamas hard. But the senior European official who told me that this is “tactics, not strategy by the Israelis, who are expert in dealing with symptoms, not causes” is surely right. This is the act of a nation that has plenty of tactics for war – but no strategy for peace.

If it did, it would realise that Israel cannot pick the Palestinians’ leaders for them, that Hamas – however repulsive its charter – is part of the Palestinian reality and will eventually have to be accommodated. Such a peace strategy would see a decision to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and end settlement expansion, thereby making Abbas – and the peace process – credible in the eyes of his own people.

But there is no such peace strategy, only an Israeli leadership so dazzled by its own military might that it has come to believe that force is almost always the answer – and the way to avoid the toughest questions.

This piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from The Guardian.

17 Responses to “Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian”

  1. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    Freedland pretends to know, that Israel could have had peace with Hamas which is in my modest opinion a fallacy. If Hamas wanted to have peace, it would not have spent the money it received for the population on arms.

    Freedland’s attitude reminds me of those British intellectuals, who pretended to stay above things, who condemned 1939-1941 the war as an imperialist one, those, whom George Orwell so well described.

  2. Gil Says:

    JF is now behind the curve by claiming that Israel has stored a fresh supply of hatred against it. Judging from readers’ letters and comments in the Guardian, CIF and the Independent, the mere fact of Israel’s continuing existence is a fresh supply of hatred…

    He claims that Hamas will have to be accommodated and in the same paragraph says that Abbas i.e. Fatah needs to be strengthened. A bit of an inconsistency there.
    He is (partially) right when he says this: ‘Besides, any ceasefire will involve easing the blockade, so Israel will end up making those concessions anyway.’ Yes, Jonathan, you clever clogs. After the danger to Southern Israel is minimised from Hamas rockets the negotiations can begin.

  3. James Mendelsohn Says:

    And this para made me raise my eyebrows:

    “First, even if Israel gets the quiet it wants there is every reason to believe it could have got that without resorting to war. The longtime Palestinian analyst and negotiator Hussein Agha says it would have been “straightforward: if they had lifted the blockade, the rockets would have stopped”.”

    Please somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t the first Kassams launched just hours after the withdrawal, when there was no blockade in place?

  4. PetraMB Says:

    I find this piece of Freedland entirely unfair, particularly since I have to assume from some of his other writings that he knows how unfair he is. His closing paragraph is pure drivel:
    “But there is no such peace strategy, only an Israeli leadership so dazzled by its own military might that it has come to believe that force is almost always the answer – and the way to avoid the toughest questions.”
    Just a few months ago, the current Israeli government has proposed to the Palestinians to withdraw from 93 percent of the Westbank, compensate with a 1:1 landswap for 5.5 percent of the remaining territory, plus compensate for the other 1.5 percent with a guaranteed passage connecting Gaza and the Westbank.
    The Palestinian chief negotiator Queira responded with some outburst about the one-state solution and a full right of return for refugees — who has no strategy for peace?

  5. john strawson Says:

    Johnathan Freedland is essentially correct that the Israeli military action in Gaza complicates efforts to arrive at a solution to the conflict. Hamas undoubtedly provoked the Israelis no doubt hoping to take another leaf out of the Hezbollah book – Hamas did this on disengagement claiming that disengagement was retreat under fire, just like the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. This time the lesson no doubt is meant to be 2006. However, Gaza is not Lebanon and Hamas does not have a sympathetic neighbour – Egypt is no Syria. Egypt is intensely opposed to Hamas as it comes form the same political stable as its own political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. In these circumstances the IDF could well be able in the short term to inflict a defeat on Hamas – although at a tremendous cost to the people of Gaza. But Israel must surely have learnt that crushing military victories – even that in 1967 – are not automatically translated into a real political change or even a medium term strategic shift. As Shlomo Ben Ami says in 1967 Israel was so drunk with military triumph it had no sober assessment of the true political situation. My fear is that any military success in Gaza could be the same. Whatever the situation in Gaza Israel must launch a new initiative to address the key issues. Elements of this should be (1) formally accepting the Arab peace plan (2) dismantling all the “outposts” in the West Bank, (3) releasing immediately half of the 10,000 Palestinian Prisoners, including Marwan Baghrouti and (4) accepting the principle of internationalizing the solution – international forces should be deployed in Gaza and eventually in the West Bank. Israel needs to be as bold in peace as it claims to be in war; if it is not Israel will condemn Palestinians and Israelis to worse to come. The horrific scenes in Gaza will just become more common on both sides of the border. This is not 1939 – think peace not war.

  6. Ben Cohen Says:

    The military option is “tactics, not strategy.” So what does an approach based on the musings of Hussein Agha amount to?

    The problem with Freedland’s piece is that he is overeager to show that among all these options there is a positive outcome. The bitter truth is otherwise.

  7. Joshua Says:

    As is so often the case, Karl Pfeifer has it exactly right. Change “Hamas…will eventually have to be accommodated” to “Hitler…will eventually have to be accommodated” and the point is made perfectly.

  8. Noga Says:

    I could not bring myself to read beyond the third paragraph, at which point it became clear that the piece would be more of the same old Guardianista flavour:

    Palestinians have “supporters”. Israel has “cheerleaders”.

    A supporter is one who deliberates; a cheerleader is one who expresses or promotes thoughtless praise.

  9. Jonathan Romer Says:

    A piece by Jonathan Freedland to file with the collection under “moral equivalence”.

    It is too soon to be know the outcome of this campaign, and without that it is silly to speculate on the ramifications — who will be strengthened, who weakened. I’m predisposed to the Israeli side, but even if I weren’t I would see no reason to think that Israel hadn’t made it’s own calculations of risks and benefits, just as I’m sure Hamas has. This doesn’t seem to have occurred to Freedland.

    He starts his piece by ruling out any possibility of apportioning blame. It’s all too difficult, and both sides are equally adamant. How can a mere journalist decide between a terrorist group that rules its own people with an iron fist and no regard for their welfare, that targets civilians and hides behind civilians, and whose foundational charter is frankly antisemitic, violent and closed to compromise on the one hand, and a democratic government that has declared its interest in independence for and peace with its enemies on the other?

    But by the end of the piece, with the question of moral distinction dealt with and out of the way, he’s back on familiar ground. It turns out that the problem is Israel after all, with its belief that “force is almost always the answer” and its eye on the election calendar. There is not even a pretence at considering the “wisdom” of Hamas’s choices and what effect they have had or will have on the region. As an object of scrutiny, Hamas doesn’t figure in Freedland’s thoughts at all.

    The best you can say for this piece is that, with his efforts to remove moral justification and attribution of blame from the equation, he is acknowledging that by both measures Hamas doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

  10. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Not yours alone, Karl. While Israel can’t pick the Palestinians leaders for them, it is under no obligation to negotiate with those who would negotiate, if at all, in bad faith. We all know that Hamas’s final position is an Islamist state “from the river to the sea”. How can a movement/government with such an ideology expect to be treated seriously by those it sees as its implacable enemies, and, according to its chief ideologists, as less than humnan?

    Not for the first time, Freedland appears to get it wrong. How can one negotiate with those who want to you, at best, expelled, at worst, dead?

  11. Inna Says:

    “internationalizing the solution – international forces should be deployed in Gaza and eventually in the West Bank. ”

    And who will make up these international forces? Chaps who learn about the Middle East conflict from UCU members or the folks who read Greek newspapers or will it be even worse?



  12. James Mendelsohn Says:

    John Strawson encourages Israel to adopt the Saudi peace plan. I was under the impression that this peace plan incldes the right of return to pre-67 borders. Is this correct?

  13. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    John Strawson expects Israel to give a lot. But not one word on Gilad Shalit. Hamas did not let the International Red Cross to visit him.
    As it is Israel agreed to a cease fire without achieving anything for the liberation of Gilad Shalit. So Israel made a lot of concessions and received not much.

  14. JG Campbell Says:

    I think there are real problems with John Strawson’s suggestions (1) and (4).

    Regarding (1), as I understand it, the Arab peace plan includes the requirement that millions of Palestinians who would not be called refugees in any other conflict (because they’re really the children and grandchildren of refugees) should be allowed to ‘return’ to Israel. Israel will never be able to accept that, because it would bring about the end of the country as a Jewish democratic state. And though I’m happy to be corrected, there is as yet no Palestinian, Arab or Muslim leader who’s willing to say these so-called refugees should ‘return’ to a Palestinian state next to Israel, not Israel itself, so that we can have ‘two states for two peoples’.

    As for (4), the problem is the example of Lebanon. Israel agreed to a ceasefire in 2006 after it was promised that an international force with teeth would be sent to Lebanon to prevent Hizbollah from re-arming and re-embedding itself on Israel’s border. The UNIFIL forces that were sent have almost completely failed to do what they promised, so that Hizbollah is now apparently ever better armed and embedded within the civilian population of south Lebanon than before. (In fact, there’s a report in today’s JPost that UNIFIL are worried that Hizbollah is preparing to strike Israel in the north to show solidarity with Hamas). Israel would be foolish to accept something similar in either Gaza or the WBank.

  15. Jonathan Romer Says:

    James Mendelsohn,

    You are right that the Saudi Initiative was more than just a land-for-peace deal, which is how it’s presented by the disingenuous. The initiative does indeed address Palestinian ‘right of return’, but it does it in a totally ambiguous way. The actual wording is “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194.” The hard-line Arab states and the Palestinians would interpret that to mean a right of return. Perhaps the more moderate Arabs would be open to a genuine compromise, but they might not: According to a Wikipedia article (yes, I know, but the info is provided there in quite specific form), in 2004 it was hinted that the Saudis were about to suggest that 2 million Palestinians would be rehomed in other Arab states, not Palestine or Israel. Both the PA and Fatah vehemently rejected that idea as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. The only thing the plan says explicitly (at Lebanon’s request) was that it “Assures the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries.” What a surprise. (Funnily enough, no Arab state suggested that Resolution 194’s provision for return or compensation of refugees should apply to Jews expelled from the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza in 1948, nor did they express an interest in resurrecting the other provision of Resolution 194: the placement of Jerusalem and neighbouring holy sites under UN jurisdiction with free access for all.)

    Hamas’s approach has been what you’d expect. When the plan resurfaced in 2007 it said (in an interview with Ha’aretz) it is quite willing to accept the Saudi plan — the bits of it, that is, calling for setting up a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and what they construe as a Palestinian right of return. The only bits they wouldn’t sign on to were the ones about recognition, peace and normalisation with Israel. Well, you can’t have everything, can you?

    The other objection to the Saudi Initiative is that it has been delivered as an ultimatum to Israel, not an opening position to be negotiated over. That makes it less of a genuine move toward Middle East peace and more of a stick to beat Israel with (like another one was needed).


    The Saudi Initiative:
    Resolution 194:
    Responses, 2007:

  16. Bill Says:

    I’m still recovering from swallowing the line that the Palestinians have “supporters.” Enablers, yes. Cynics and exploiters who use them as a means to their own personal and larger agendas, yes. Supporters? I don’t see all that many. Otherwise we’d be seeing more PA/Hamas/Fatah leaders with their feet put to the fire over why they have failed to sow, or even make a serious effort to sow a civil society — the one major prerequisite to peace in the region.

  17. James Mendelsohn Says:

    Jonathan – thanks – that is very helpful.

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