Western governments worked hard to secure last week’s ceasefire in Gaza, which, nonetheless, collapsed within hours on August 1. These efforts should not, however, distract attention from the West’s political aims in this war.
The West shares with Israel a core commitment to disarming and destroying Hamas – and while there may be tactical and even strategic disagreements with Jerusalem, these are disputes over means rather than ends. This approach to the situation in Gaza – and indeed the whole problem of Israel- Palestine – is inherently flawed.
It is based on a deep misconception of the conflict that is ubiquitous in international politics. If peace is ever to have a chance, the broken international framework for handling this conflict needs to be replaced entirely.
Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, Western governments have largely backed the Israeli onslaught against Hamas, in coded fashion.
The day after hostilities began the French president, François Hollande – one of Israel’s foremost Western backers – publicly gave Netanyahu’s government carte blanche: it was up to Israel, he pronounced, to “take all the necessary measures” to protect its population. In London the British prime minister, David Cameron, has been similarly forthright. On July 21, he insisted to the House of Commons: “I have been clear throughout this crisis that Israel has the right to defend itself.”
As the Palestinian death toll has mounted, Western leaders and diplomats have been quick to distance themselves from the inevitable lethal outcome of the campaign. The West called first for Israeli “restraint” or “proportionate action”, then – more recently – for a lasting “humanitarian” ceasefire.
But no leading Western government has argued that Israel should not have gone to war against Hamas in the first place. The public face of Western politics, and the travelling circus of peace diplomacy, hides a clear commitment to ridding Gaza of its Hamas government through whatever means are most viable.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the foreign affairs ministers of the European Union have all called for the demilitarisation of Gaza – in other words, the disarming of Hamas.
Specifically, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council demanded that: “All terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm”, which doesn’t require any decoding; the EU regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation. In line with this categorisation of Hamas as terrorists, the Council described the “indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel” as “criminal”.
In contrast, all EU states on the UN Human Rights Council, including the UK, France, Germany and Italy, abstained in the vote for a resolution on July 23 which condemned “the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations” since June 13, and demanded the end of the “illegal closure” of the Gaza Strip. It also decided to send a commission of inquiry to investigate “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory”, particularly Gaza.
The Western solution for Gaza is not just to disarm Hamas; it is, in the words of UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond, to: “address the underlying causes of the conflict, with a central role for the Palestinian Authority and a strong one for the international community.”
In the Western view of Israel-Palestine, the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is “moderate” – whereas Hamas is “extremist”. Western policy makers such as Hammond believe, therefore, that the way to solve the Gaza problem is for the “international community” to promote Palestine’s moderates.
Whether this makes sense, of course, depends on what is meant by “moderate” and “extremist” in the context of Israel-Palestine. As the US and EU see things, the moderate is an actor willing to accept Western interests and plans for the region, and the extremist is one who stands in opposition to them.
Western interests demand a stable solution to the conflict, which the international consensus has long judged to be the existence of two states – an inheritance from 1930s British colonial thought, as manifest in the so-called Peel Commission’s partition proposals of 1937.
As mapped out in the Oslo Accords, this plan will not include a truly independent Palestinian state; it will be a state without its own military or airspace. The Palestinian moderates are expected, therefore, to accept limited autonomy in only a part of historic Palestine; they should also be opposed to any form of Islamist government.
For the West’s vision to work, it also requires the compliance of Israel’s own moderates. The West’s definition of Israeli moderates includes those who accept the principle, and eventually the reality of, a quasi-independent Palestinian state; figures who are supposed to believe that moderate Palestinians can be Israel’s allies in the fight against Palestinian extremists. They are distinguished from those Israeli politicians who publicly oppose a two-state solution – Israel’s extremists.
This way of assessing the two sides has always been myopic. In the wake of the First World War, when this Western political framework took shape, the Palestinian moderates were figures such as Muhammed Amin al-Husseini; the Zionists’ moderate icon was Chaim Weizmann.
Al-Husseini ended up leading a Palestinian revolt against the British from 1936, and sided with Germany in World War II. Weizmann, for his part, resigned under Zionist pressure in 1931, as British policy appeared to favour the Palestinian Arabs after the riots of 1929. When he rose to prominence at the beginning of British rule, Weizmann did not even believe that a Palestinian nation existed.
Former pariahs in charge
The politics of moderation does not work. Before Oslo, Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah was a pariah in international politics; similarly, Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were judged to be part of the problem, which was to be solved by the late Yitzhak Rabin’s Labour party.
Today, the West views Netanyahu rather differently. In the company of publicly hawkish cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett, head of Bayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) and Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), Netanyahu is judged to be one of the moderates. But Abbas and Netanyahu are not fundamentally different people to their earlier extremist incarnations.
Netanyahu was never going to deliver sufficient concessions to Obama and Kerry in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority this year, and Abbas was not going to give up on Palestinian independence – hence his reconciliation talks with Hamas in the run-up to this war.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has not changed fundamentally. It is a war between two sides who, despite their different factions, wish to defeat the other, whether it be by force or other means. There are not moderates or extremists; there are merely different tactics and strategies to achieve the same, broadly defined goal of full national sovereignty in the land at the expense of the aims of the enemy.
The sooner the international community grasps this fact, the sooner it can approach the conflict for what it is. But that first means having to escape the strait-jacket of a mode of thinking that has held sway for almost 100 years.