Gaza: What Should Israel Have Done?

If the Israeli government believes that it may have to use military force, it needs to do all the other things that show it is striving for peace and justice. Military force might be necessary (I am torn and unsure myself), but it is virtually never solely necessary.

Throughout the Gaza operation–and the criticism of the Gaza operation–Israel’s advocates (including myself) have retorted: what should Israel have done? Just sit there and take it? Surrender?

I’ve been thinking about this awhile, and while it is not a perfect answer, I think that the response to the questions are: have a comprehensive strategy in making a peace agreement and developing a stronger Israel. That may sound facetious, but it isn’t.

The overall point is that if the Israeli government believes that it may have to use military force, it needs to do all the other things that show it is striving for peace and justice. Military force might be necessary (I am torn and unsure myself), but it is virtually never solely necessary. A government needs to use all its potential tools: political, diplomatic, economic, social, and military. While I disagree with those who seem to think that miltiary force is useless, it’s hard to see the Israeli government thinking in any but military terms.

What does this mean? I think that Matt Yglesias has it quite right on this, when he observes that Israeli leaders say that they are concerned about the settlements, but don’t really act like it. (I have recently realized that I might be in the same position: I hate the settlements and the settlement enterprise, but I haven’t been loud or forceful enough about it. That’s going to change.).

Ha’aretz reported the other day that Ehud Barak and the Cabinet have been preparing for the operation for months. They are busy congratulating themselves for not committing the egregious errors of 2006. But if so:

Why weren’t they doing other things, like enacting a settlement freeze and making sure that every leader in Europe and among moderate Arab states (as well as the public) knew that they were doing it? Maybe they even could have announced it in talks with Mubarak, or Mahmoud Abbas. Perhaps they even could have started a serious dismantlement program.

Why weren’t they making genuine and clear efforts to improve conditions and civil rights among Palestinian Israeli citizens, rejecting the shameful discrimination against the Arab sector in budgetary allocations, and making sure that everyone knew it? (Note: for the first time in Israeli history there is an Arab Cabinet minister, which is good, but it is hardly enough.).

Why weren’t they pulling every lever to communicate through a backchannel with the Saudis on the Arab peace initiative, stating forcefully that they were prepared to make painful compromises on territory, settlements, and Jerusalem, but that nothing would succeed unless the Arab governments made the Palestinians do the same on refugees and security?

Why weren’t they trying to remedy the horrific conditions concerning water allocations in the West Bank, where Israelis take seven times as much water as Palestinians?

Note that none of these things would have harmed or endangered Israel’s security in the least.

After doing all of these things, if Israel then felt it had to take the kind of military action it did, then maybe it would have more credibility than it does now (although its diplomatic efforts have been remarkably successful). Perhaps it even would have led to a diplomatic breakthrough.

Maybe none of this would have mattered. Anti-Israel actors would still call it colonialist and racist and what have you, and the Europeans still might have blamed Israel for everything. But it wouldn’t have hurt.

And at the end of the day, it would have been, you know, the right thing to do.

People are now asking, what in the world will Barack Obama do if the war is still going on by Inauguration Day? I don’t know, but maybe he should say: 1) Israel has the right to attack Hamas in self-defense; but 2) he will not deliver economic aid to Israel unless there is an immediate settlement freeze. (He won’t do this of course, but I think that would be the best course of action to take.)

Yitzhak Rabin’s formula (cribbed from David Ben-Gurion) applies: we will pursue terror as if there is no peace process, and we will pursue the peace process as if there is no terror.

It’s still true.

Update: A reader suggests that maybe the Israeli government wasn’t going anything about the settlements because it had no intention of doing anything about the settlements. I agree, and didn’t mean to suggest that it really intended to and somehow never got around to it. That’s why the US has to pressure Jerusalem on the issue.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.